As Wall Street banks embrace cryptocurrency, startups are trying to attract top financial talent

Wall Street has ramped up hiring of digital asset teams. But some employees are leaving brand institutes in search of more risk and potentially more reward.

JPMorgan Chase, Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs are among the firms with dedicated groups for cryptocurrency and the underlying blockchain technology. JPMorgan has one of the largest crypto teams with more than 200 employees working in its Onyx division. The digital currency JPM Coin is used commercially to send payments around the world.

Umar Farooq, the CEO of Onyx by JPMorgan, said the team has to worry about compliance and protecting the bank’s brand and often moves more slowly than the average crypto startup. But when products do come to market, they reach “a scale that a fintech can only dream of.”

“There aren’t many places where you can launch a new platform, and that platform can go from literally nothing to a $1 billion a day transaction in a matter of months,” Farooq told CNBC. “Scale like this is only possible when you work at a company like JPMorgan Chase. The benefits of this scale far outweigh any downsides that might exist due to more regulation or controls.”

When it comes to hiring, Farooq said it’s a mix of current JPMorgan employees and competition for talent with startups and larger tech companies. From first-year analysts to executives and CEOs, there is greater interest in making the move to crypto, he said.

A “Wall St” sign is seen above two “One Way” signs in New York.

Luca Jackson | Reuters

According to recent data from LinkedIn, financial services firms created three times as many crypto jobs last year as they did in 2015. In the first half of 2021, that pace increased by 40%. Banks on the crypto hiring spree included Deutsche Bank, Wells Fargo, Citigroup, Capital One, Barclays, Credit Suisse, UBS, Bank of America, and BNY Mellon.

Wall Street’s crypto boom coincides with more funding and hiring in the startup world. Crypto and blockchain companies raised a record $25 billion last year, an eightfold increase from the previous year, according to CB Insights data.

Farooq said that despite the start-up boom, JPMorgan has experienced “limited turnover.” Those who left were people who “wanted to start their own company rather than go and do something similar.”

However, JPMorgan lost one of its most high-profile crypto MPs over the past year. Christine Moy is on gardening leave after leaving her role as CEO and global head of crypto and metaverse at Onyx. She has not yet announced her next step.

“After over half a decade of laying the foundations for a blockchain-based infrastructure across financial markets and cross-border payments, and creating new businesses that have already scaled into the billions of dollars at JP Morgan, I want to keep challenging myself, by finding new ways to create value and drive impact for the Web3/crypto ecosystem from a fresh angle,” Moy said in an email to CNBC.

Farewell to Wall Street

Other top crypto executives who have left Wall Street have recently expressed frustration at how long it takes to get projects off the ground within a large financial institution.

Mary Catherine Lader, chief operating officer at Uniswap Labs, left her job as chief operating officer at BlackRock last year. Her foray into crypto began as a side project within the wealth management company.

“It was certainly not my main task,” said Lader. “It was kind of a hobby, like it is for so many people on Wall Street, and it definitely wasn’t something I was thinking about at the time because it was an early stage of the adoption.”

At Uniswap, Lader is now working on an emerging decentralized cryptocurrency exchange. She said she couldn’t pass up the opportunity to work on the next wave of innovation.

“This technology is so critical to the future of finance that it didn’t feel like a risk at all,” Lader said. “I was sad to leave the people I had enjoyed working with for many years. I have a lot of respect for the company but it didn’t feel like a risk. That’s a great thing where we are at Web3.”

Justin Schmidt, former head of digital asset markets at Goldman Sachs, made a similar career change last year. He joined institutional crypto trading platform Talos and similarly described the risk, calling the decision “multidimensional.”

“They’re inherently brand risky — Goldman is one of the most famous institutions on Wall Street,” Schmidt said. “You also take a risk by staying in a more traditional place and I really believe that this is a generational shift and there is a generational opportunity here.”

Cryptocurrency startups and banks are describing a shift in the hunt for top talent. Many are looking past top candidates with MBAs and instead consider those with less conventional resumes. Lader and Schmidt said some of their top crypto collaborators were self-taught engineers or crypto influencers they first interacted with on Twitter.

“I’m constantly meeting people who are 23 years old who are just as smart with the markets as people I’ve worked with on Wall Street for years,” Lader said. “People who honestly had no interest in financial services, who would never really work or be involved with Wall Street, are excited to work at UniSwap Labs and companies like us.”

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