Changpeng Zhao

CTO, OKCoin

Back in the early days of globalization and tech revolutions, when management gurus and politicians were going on about borderless commerce and something called the “information superhighway,” they were speaking in near rhapsodic terms of a new human doing new things in new places in new, ever-faster ways. The projected model was of a planetary citizen, born near a millennium’s end, who would be nimble and flexible enough to be at home in multiple cultures, speak multiple languages, and be hyper-motivated by the intensity of competition from around the globe. He or she would also be whip-smart from all the information available instantaneously in the computer age.

A person, in other words, very much like Changpeng Zhao.

Zhao, known by his initials moniker “CZ” to friends and colleagues, is the chief technology officer at OKCoin, a Beijing, China-based cryptocurrency exchange that has torn through the borderless Bitcoin world with a rapid-fire multi-national approach, attracting both talent and capital from around the globe since its founding in 2013. Zhao himself exemplifies all the most prominent features of a citizen of the world, which is an increasingly common perspective in the cryptocurrency sphere.

Born and raised in Jiang Su, China until the age of 12, Zhao first immigrated to Vancouver with his family (older sister and parents), where he graduated from high school. He later moved to Montreal, where he went to college. While there, he managed to add some French (still Quebec’s only official language) to his fluent English and Chinese. He later added what he modestly calls “taxicab Japanese” (enough to transact with cabbies and restaurant servers) after beginning his post-college career in Tokyo developing software for the stock exchange. His career later sent him to New York City with Bloomberg LP, to Shanghai as co-founder and president of Fusion Systems in China, back again to Tokyo and London as head of development for BlockChain.info, then to his current post in Beijing.

That takes care of the planetary citizen part. Zhao has lived and worked in multiple world centers of commerce on large global projects. And he’s all of 37 years old.

OKCoin founder and CEO Star Xu plucked Zhao away from BlockChain.info (an amicable departure, with all parties on friendly terms) to have him primarily lead the company’s technology effort, in addition to its international marketing program. He heads a steadily growing crew that now numbers 150 employees. Ninety of them are technical, roughly a dozen from abroad.

His team hails from China, Japan, USA, UK and Costa Rica. Their love for hard work and long hours is typical in the cryptocurrency world, helping to foster, he says, a sense of cohesiveness and motivation that has driven the company’s continuous and robust growth.

Of his decision to come on board, he says: “I could see that OKCoin has all the elements to become one of the leading entities within the Bitcoin landscape. We have a great group of young professionals, a strong product development team and a clear vision on where we’re going. What drives all of us is our belief that we can become the Google of the Bitcoin arena. There’s not a person here who isn’t working toward that goal.”

Before that happens, of course, Bitcoin must make far more serious inroads into the general population than it has thus far. But Zhao sees that occurring as well. “I firmly believe Bitcoin can be compared to the Internet during the early to mid 1990s. And like the Internet then, Bitcoin is poised for dramatic growth over the next two decades. That’s because it has the ability to reshape the way our society functions. The Internet disrupted the way we communicate, making it faster and exponentially more efficient. Bitcoin can do the same for financial transactions that are a part of everyone’s daily life.”

Zhao himself tends to work 14-hour days, living a spartan, job-oriented life made slightly easier to manage by the fact that his wife and children (a daughter age 11 and a son 9), live in Tokyo, a two-and-a-half-hour hop across land and seas that Zhao makes every weekend. He is typically forthright about the reasons for the separation: “The air, food and education system in China isn’t as good as Japan’s, so for now, we do it this way.” His wife, also native Chinese, has lived and worked in Japan since her own teen years.

An outdoors fanatic, Zhao misses the resplendent skiing, snowboarding, hiking, windsurfing and running opportunities previously available to him in say, Vancouver. He settles now mostly for dumbbell workouts indoors. When the air magically clears from Beijing’s famously troubled skies, he’ll sneak a quick run. Vacations, however, do afford him trips to recreation-focused getaways.

Having a high profile, demanding job that carries him along a variety of digital highways is certainly nothing new to Zhao’s experience. This is a man who has traversed an ocean or three in his still youthful life, and plied his trade on multiple continents that continue to call on his many talents for engineering and entrepreneurialism. Where Zhao and his company go from here would appear to be limited only by imagination. Zhao’s vision has proven capacious enough in him to continue forging ahead in new, ever more expansive directions.