Exclusive interview with WAYVX CEO and cofounder Kazuna Yamamoto about the reasons that brought her to Chile from her home country of Japan, the challenges of being a woman entrepreneur, and how Security Token Offerings (STOs) have the potential to democratize the investment space in Latin America.
Kazuna, could you start by sharing how you first became interested in the areas of fintech and blockchain?
In general, I have always been interested in entrepreneurship. In the third year of university, I started my own company, a B2C e-commerce start-up, for instance, instead of going through the more typical Japanese system of shūkatsu, which is basically a year-long job-hunting process for university students in their penultimate year. By chance, I met a really interesting entrepreneur at this point, who was only 25 years old then but had already founded four companies, with one exit under his belt, and was also an investor, despite the fact that he did not even go to university. He was working on an endeavour related to security token offerings (STOs) and he essentially recruited me. I was already part of a crowdfunding start-up and I found fintech very interesting because it was new and booming, and yet had very little female representation. The same was true in the blockchain space too. Working with him gave me the opportunity to explore more in terms of fintech, blockchain, STOs and so on.
What brought you from Japan to Chile?
I first came to Chile during a university exchange program. Back then, I chose Chile for a number of reasons. The first and more straightforward one is that I wanted to practice my Spanish. I had studied Spanish in high school because I used to dream of working for the United Nations (UN) when I was a teenager, and Spanish was one of the official UN languages. But a more fundamental reason was that I wanted to leave my comfort zone. I grew up in a very international environment because I went to international schools in Japan and also Singapore (where I also lived for a number of years) and my university in Japan was also very international. I knew if I chose to go to the US or Europe, in some way the lifestyles would still be rather similar to what I had already experienced. I wanted to push myself and visit somewhere a bit more different.
For me, Chile was precisely the kind of ‘unexpected’ option. I thought that if I did not do it during my exchange, I would probably not many opportunities to go there after I start working.
I decided to come back after graduating because I really love the people here and the overall environment. I personally feel that people here tend to be more passionate and more politically active compared to people in Japan. I personally see myself as an activist and I am very politically engaged, so for me it was a little mentally draining to be in Japan where people tend to be a lot more reserved and disengaged.
I actually just bought a one-way plane ticket to Chile and returned to Chile with a few thousand dollars in my bank account. Looking back, it was quite an audacious decision but it has worked out so far. I have learnt so much and am continuing to grow so much every day in Chile.
Do you remember if you encountered any culture shock during that first trip to Chile?
What probably struck me the most was the Chilean nightlife and how accepted it was. In Japan, going dancing and going out in general are still fairly stigmatized. It was also surprising to see so many women in different business and political arenas, because women representation in business and politics in Japan is extremely low. I remember feeling pleasantly surprised to see women CEOs and entrepreneurs in Chile because I was not used to that.
Can you tell us a bit more about WAYVX and how you decided to start a STO company in Chile?
Essentially, when I decided to come to Chile, I spoke to that entrepreneur with whom I was working, and we discussed bringing his technology to Chile. He had become something like a mentor by then, and he was interested to see how the technology and platform could work in Latin America. Today, WAYVX is developing the first Security Token Issuance and Exchange Platform in the Latin American region.
However, the COVID pandemic threw a wrench in the works because his company is obviously more focused on Asia and especially Southeast Asia, and they had to adapt to the pandemic as well, so they did not always have the resources to support us the way we would have liked, as a new start-up. We also faced difficulties because we ran out of capital and the team also suffered a little burnout but ultimately, we pulled through and learnt a lot from the whole experience.
Currently, we have two main priorities. The first is to raise our seed round. This is very important because STOs are very cash-intensive. It is rather difficult to raise money in Latin America generally because the amounts are very small and the capital markets are not as mature as in the US or Japan, where seed rounds can go up to USD 5 million, for instance. In Chile, that amount could be reduced by a factor of 5 or even 10. For that reason, we are targeting US VCs as well as High-Net-Worth Individuals (HNWIs), not just for the capital but also their network and connections within Chile and the region.
The second is to finish the protocol we are developing. WAYVX is essentially building a platform where any company or entrepreneur can come and tokenize their project or entity and raise money. This involves a lot of regulatory and legal areas, so we are working hard to advance this part of the platform. For instance, we have been discussing potential collaborations with the Santiago Stock Exchange, since partnering with them would make it a lot easier for us to advance.
How feasible is the adoption of blockchain technology and related platforms like STOs within Chile’s regulatory and financial systems?
Chile’s regulations on this are basically vague in a way that works in our favor. When it comes to blockchain and new fintech, some countries take a restrictive approach where only explicitly permitted activities can be conducted, while others take a permission approach where any activity is permitted as long as it has not been explicitly forbidden. Chile belongs to the second group, while countries like the US and Japan fall into the first. In short, STOs are legally permissible in Chile at this moment.
In 2019, the Santiago Stock Exchange became the first stock market in Latin America to use IBM Blockchain technology within its short selling system for securities lending.
In the middle term, we hope that Chile can draft its own STO regulations, just like other places like Hong Kong and Singapore. That is something we are advocating for.
How aware and open are stakeholders like businesspeople and entrepreneurs in Chile to the concept of a STO?
From what I have seen, they are generally willing to hear about it and try it out, even if they do not fully understand the technology or mechanisms behind it. There is also this sense of ‘fear of missing out’ or FOMO within business circles here, so if someone starts leveraging blockchain technology or participating in a STO, his peers and partners might follow suit in order to not miss out on opportunities. The circles are quite small here so that works in our favor as well.
In addition, STOs can also be a great way to democratize the investment space. For instance, there are huge opportunities in real estate in Chile and Latin America more generally, and it is generally a very stable sector, but the majority of people in Chile do not have the money to invest directly in real estate. STOs can help many of them access real estate-related investments with much smaller amounts of capital. Chile has significant levels of inequality so we also want to work on closing that gap and help more people achieve financial security.
All that being said, the understanding of STOs and blockchain technology in general is not high in Chile. The concepts are complex, and it does not help that many people cannot differentiate between Bitcoin and blockchain, so anything that happens with Bitcoin colors people’s views of blockchain. For instance, the recent fluctuations in the values of Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies have resulted in some people associating blockchain itself with instability, when in reality blockchain is just a technology that has many applications beyond cryptocurrencies.
As you mentioned earlier, fintech and blockchain are still male-dominated fields. With your experience in these areas, do you have any advice to share with other young women entrepreneurs?
If I am honest, there are definitely challenges I have faced and they will face too. In all my meetings since I have been in Chile, for every 25 men I met, I probably met just one woman. I would go with my COO, a man, to many meetings, and despite being the CEO, I would very often be overlooked in favor of him. Many people I met would look at my COO even if I was the one presenting or speaking. Being a foreigner does help a little because I can sidestep the traditional business conventions in Chile a little more than I would be able to if I were Chilean, I imagine. Nevertheless, I know sometimes people think I am bossy or aggressive when I speak up or assert myself. I have heard other people in Chile call women ‘demanding’ when they speak in assertive manners, which is pretty sad.
But ultimately, I think we have to be confident and stand up for ourselves. Sometimes women and minorities have to work twice as hard – or more – to be taken seriously but societies around the world are changing positively. We are all fighting the fight together, and the more women entrepreneurs and business leaders there are, the easier it is for all of us.