From Ghana to the Bronx, Meet the Teen Bitcoiners Building the Future
Jemima Joseph, 18, is working a summer job as a social media manager for a crypto startup after graduating from high school in the Bronx. And she learned how to make her first cryptocurrency transaction, a purchase using zcash, with the Flexa mobile app.
It was a summer day, so hot the air outside felt like soup, when Joseph joined 10 other teenagers inside the BXL Business Incubator in a ragged neighborhood in the South Bronx. Their former high school English teacher, Carlos Acevedo, arranged for representatives from the Electric Coin Company, Messari, Gemini, Flexa and Casa to teach a two-day workshop for local students interested in cryptocurrency.
Sitting near Joseph during the lecture is Emmanuel Ntiamoab, 18, soon to be a computer science student at the University of Buffalo.
“We, as students in the South Bronx, don’t often get the opportunity to be a part of something bigger,” said Ntiamoab. “So if this cryptocurrency is really like the internet, I want to learn how to be a part of it. I’m interested in development.”
Many of these students hail from immigrant communities, Ghanian, Jamaican, Nigerian, and Dominican, plus, even among the American students there are several Puerto Ricans. Most of them work after school to help support their families. They’re familiar with cross-border payments within underbanked communities. What they don’t know are the different tools available today.
“There’s a large population of unbanked and underbanked people right here,” Acevedo told CoinDesk. “They pay predatory fees. … There are fewer bank branches in the Bronx than any other borough.”
It’s true. The streets outside are full of places to get cash loans and sell jewelry and send payments abroad, all with brightly colored signs, and their correspondingly loud fees. Electric Coin Company VP of Marketing Josh Swihart told CoinDesk each student got a small zcash allowance for completing the workshop.
“I’d love to see this replicated in other cities,” Swihart told CoinDesk. “We’ve already been asked about Oakland.”
Although Joseph already has a summer job in the industry, several other students were interested in finding internships or staying after for the entrepreneurship coaching by the BXL Business Incubator.
They’ve now joined dozens of teenagers around the world who told CoinDesk about their plans to join the cryptocurrency industry, starting by using crypto assets to further their own education.
Meet the teens
That’s what Toronto-based developer Anish Agnihotri, 16, told CoinDesk keeps him engaged in open-source projects since he first learned about bitcoin in 2015.
“I like that anyone, anywhere, can connect with a community of builders that is so welcoming,” Agnihotri said. “I’ve worked with people from Africa, Mexico, China, through things like Gitcoin.”
Fellow Toronto-native Talha Atta, 17, told CoinDesk he was immediately inspired when he learned about bitcoin from the news in 2017.
“Remittances, being able to move money abroad without any fees, would really help my family in Pakistan,” Atta said. “I just want to find the right technology to solve problems and reduce inequality.”
He’s already started experimenting with such use cases. Earlier this year, Atta won a hackathon with some friends by making an IOTA-fueled micropayments system for people who don’t have WiFi to tap into other people’s connections.
Whether they are starting their own companies, studying computer science, doing internships, contributing to open source projects on GitHub or helping educate their peers, here are 10 more teens to watch as they rise through the crypto ecosystem:
1. Elisha Owusu Akyaw
Few bitcoiners hustle as hard as the 17-year-old founder of BlockXAfrica. The Ghana-based Akyaw runs educational meetups through an email newsletter and Telegram group with nearly 300 subscribers, plus 16 teen volunteers who help organize meetups.
“We are working on content in local languages and our English content is always based on local examples and things relevant to the average Ghanaian,” he said.
Akyaw is ramping up BlockXAfrica’s programming this year, with plans for a hackathon, a developer training program, and an online course by 2020. He said the developer training will focus on apps for using cryptocurrency that leverage interfaces the local community is already familiar with.
“People in Africa are more familiar with sending money through mobile phone numbers than email addresses,” he said. Eventually, his goal is to turn BlockXAfrica into a monetized business, with paid trainings and exclusive content. Until then, the group is focused on spreading high-quality information and combating the myth that all cryptocurrencies are “a scam,” he said.
“Most of [the participants] are teenagers because I started by speaking to my friends,” Akyaw added.
2. Harshita Arora
By the age of 16, this entrepreneur from Saharanpur in northern India already sold her Crypto Price Tracker mobile app, which monitors 1,000 cryptocurrencies across 20 exchanges in 10 languages, to Redwood City Ventures for $1 million.
The iOS app maps bitcoin’s price in 32 different fiat currencies. Its global, user-friendly focus earned her the “Woman of the Year” award at a CryptoChicks conference in Toronto in April.
Despite an onslaught of death threats and cyberbullying, Arora continues to work with Redwood City Ventures to further develop the product, which has been downloaded by more than 25,000 people so far.
Instead of letting the trolls get her down, Arora used her earnings to buy textbooks and apply for a O-1A visa to stay and work in the U.S. She has since relocated to San Francisco and hopes to stay to work in the cryptocurrency industry.
Now her second app, Cryptos Stickers, offers over 50 iMessage stickers related to various crypto memes.
3. Anand Patel
Over in London, node wizard Anand Patel has helped at least 10 people set up their own personal nodes for various cryptocurrencies, in addition to roughly 100 people using his scripts to run nodes.
“For bitcoin, I have a lightning node testing their Layer 2 solution,” Patel told CoinDesk. “I wanted to have more of an impact on the new technology so I’d help different communities by creating install scripts to simplify the process for new users trying to set up miners and full nodes.”
Since he first discovered bitcoin four years ago, Patel graduated from the blockchain workshop led by Bitcoin Core contributor Jimmy Song and helped secure networks for proof-of-stake crypto projects such as PIVX, Chaincoin, OXY and Rise.
“I had the basic skills so I thought I’d just experiment, see what’s being done, run different people’s software and learn the process,” he said, adding that he is inspired to help facilitate “a new generation of entrepreneurs that value liberty and co-creation through decentralization.”
4. Kiki Pichini
Meanwhile in the U.S. state of Washington, a 15-year-old figure skater is starting research to build a blockchain application for local fruit growers and sellers.
Pichini’s interest in distributed databases started while working with her dad to build a community registry of ice skating competitions and opportunities. Plus, she started trading bitcoin with her parents as a learning exercise.
After attending Song’s bitcoin seminar, Pichini noticed all the farmers and packing plants in her town shipping cherries and apples across the country.
“Especially here in Washington, there are a lot of people who are mining [bitcoin],” she told CoinDesk. “I think that [bitcoin] could actually be used as payment, especially in the wholesale industry. … I think I’d want to start my own company and have blockchain be a part of it.”
5. Ian Lim
Minneapolis native Lim bought his first bitcoin in 2016, after hearing about it from friends at school, and quickly became a regular at local bitcoin meetups.
When Lim’s mother experienced severe health problems after several strokes, he pondered how to apply knowledge of the bitcoin ethos to the healthcare industry.
“In general, what I want to do is to be on the cutting-edge of blockchain technology in the healthcare space,” Lim told CoinDesk. “Putting myself out there was the best thing I could have done, instead of just reading books but also meeting people who have experience in this space.”
Lim went on to win a Startup Weekend Minneapolis hackathon in 2017 with a Hyperledger-based blockchain solution called BlocVac, which allows patients to keep and share their own immunization records. Since then, Lim has presented his blockchain experiments at universities like MIT and community events with Techstars.
“I see myself primarily as an entrepreneur,” Lim said, “making it commonplace for people to be using applications on top of [the blockchain].”
6. Saleem Rashid
This Londoner made a name for himself in March 2018 by discovering a flaw in the Ledger hardware wallet. His blog post about the vulnerability propelled him to Twitter fame, with some conspiracy theorists suggesting the teen hacker worked for the rival startup Trezor.
In reality, Rashid has contributed code to Trezor’s firmware to enhance security, although he’s not officially involved with the company, and occasionally submits contributions to open source projects such as Bitcoin Core and zcash.
“When you look back on history, or even current world affairs in less fortunate places in the world, you can see where something like bitcoin could be applied to really improve people’s lives,” Rashid told CoinDesk.
His goal is to help improve “the security and usability of private key management” across the cryptocurrency ecosystem.
For now, Rashid prefers to study and experiment on his own rather than join a startup or launch his own venture.
“I would like to study proposals for privacy improvements, such as the zero-knowledge proofs used in zcash,” he said.
7. Chanan Sack
Over in Israel, 18-year-old Sack created his own freelance job teaching developers about smart contracts and writing blockchain research reports for startups. So far, eight developers have taken his ethereum course, customized for each client. He developed the base curriculum while teaching himself how to deploy ethereum code in early 2017.
“You get to meet a lot of interesting people,” Sack told CoinDesk, speaking of both the ethereum and bitcoin communities. “These issues actually matter. This is the internet disrupting something that is very inherent: money, programmable money. It makes me want to put my time in it, because there’s a lot to do here.”
Several of the 25 students who attended Sack’s lectures at Tel Aviv University are now working on their own open source applications. One such student even went on to participate in the winning team of the Tel Aviv Bitcoin Embassy’s 2018 hackathon with a project related to the lightning network, a scaling solution for bitcoin.
Since then, he has also contributed to Andreas Antonopoulos’s GitHub resources for ethereum developers and made a lightning wallet as an experiment.
“We had a great time. It really helped me with my research,” Sacks said of the wallet, which he developed with friends at a Tel Aviv hackathon. He hopes to continue freelancing in the industry, and contributing to the open source projects that fascinate him.
8. Ben Kaufman
DAOstack developer Kaufman, 18, started contributing to open source ethereum projects in January 2018, after two years of researching the space.
“I also love the community and the openness of the platform,” Kaufman told CoinDesk. “I already suggested an EIP [ethereum improvement proposal].”
Kaufman dropped out of his freshman year of high school to start working full-time as a freelance mobile app developer at Tel Avivian startups. But it became a hassle for the prodigy’s parents to get him banking services.
“As a teenager, I have a lot of problems with banks,” Kaufman said. “The concept of bitcoin giving me control over my own financial assets inspires me a lot.”
In addition to leading ethereum workshops for over 100 students at coding school Le Wagon in Tel Aviv, Kaufman is currently researching the lightning network.
“I’m really interested in how the Lightning network can bring bitcoin to more mainstream adoption,” he said. “I’m currently trying to see how I can build something for that purpose.”
9. Alex Sicart Ramos
When Ramos graduated from high school in 2018, he promptly launched his second startup Shasta, a blockchain energy marketplace. The idea came to this Spanish entrepreneur because his first startup, Sharge, which earned him a place on the Forbes 30 under 30 in the European tech sector list, couldn’t get off the ground when it faced regulatory issues related to electric cars and energy sharing.
Ramos first heard about cryptocurrency in 2015 at Tim Draper’s coworking space in Silicon Valley. In 2018, a five-person team helped Ramos launch the ethereum-based project Shasta with a solar-powered pilot in a small Spanish village. Ramos said nearly 2,000 people have used the testnet so far.
“It’s a platform that lets consumers and providers connect in a DAO [decentralized autonomous organization],” Ramos told CoinDesk. “You can manage all the payments and receipts, all the things going on in this marketplace. … If we think it makes sense to make a utility token in this program, if it really makes sense, then we will do it. If not, we will raise money from traditional investors.”
10. Gerald Nash
Computer science student Gerald Nash, 19, has already interned at Coinbase and led several programs at the Howard University Blockchain Lab.
“A lot of students around me have randomly had their Venmo or PayPal accounts shut down or frozen even if there’s nothing suspicious,” Nash told CoinDesk. “The big thing that inspired me the most is the idea of monetary sovereignty.”
Nash first learned about bitcoin on Reddit in 2013, when he was still in high school in Atlanta, Georgia. Now he runs campus events to teach students how to manage noncustodial bitcoin wallets with private keys, the alphanumeric strings that act as passwords.
“I mostly follow bitcoin and ethereum as two of my favorite projects,” he said. “I think over the next five years [crypto] will provide more technical users with greater financial inclusion. … People will have greater access to moving and growing their money.”
Image of teen bitcoiners in Ghana (including Elisha Owusu Akyaw, second on the left) via BlockXAfrica