Media messaging and strategy for digital assets companies: An interview with Niki Christoff, CEO of Christoff & Co.
Crypto & Digital Assets

Media messaging and strategy for digital assets companies: An interview with Niki Christoff, CEO of Christoff & Co.

Niki Christoff and Heidrick & Struggles’ Julian Ha discuss some of the learning curves they are seeing when people come into crypto from other industries and share what development goals they would give these people to ensure their adjustment.
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In this episode of our series, “Crypto leadership & talent: Evolution of control functions,” part of The Heidrick & Struggles Leadership Podcast, Heidrick & Struggles’ Adrianna Huehnergarth and Julian Ha speak to Niki Christoff, the founder and CEO of Christoff & Co., a Washington-based boutique consultancy that advises clients on public policy, political strategy, messaging, and media relations. Christoff and Ha discuss some of the learning curves they are seeing when people come into crypto from other industries and share what advice or development goals they would give these people to ensure their adjustment. Christoff shares some of the leadership attributes that are contributing to successes and failures in the industry, how her experience from her advisor and public policy roles influence her as a director, and what she believes leaders should be thinking about and prioritizing in terms of messaging and media. Finally, the three discuss diversity in the crypto sector, sharing the reasons women may not be interested in pursuing roles within these organizations and what the industry can be doing better to attract and retain diverse talent.

Below is a full transcript of the episode, which has been edited for clarity.

Welcome to The Heidrick & Struggles Leadership Podcast. Heidrick is the premier global provider of senior-level executive search and leadership consulting services. Diversity and inclusion, leading through tumultuous times, and building thriving teams and organizations are among the core issues we talk with leaders about every day, including in our podcasts. Thank you for joining the conversation. 

Adrianna Huehnergarth: Welcome to The Heidrick & Struggles Leadership Podcast. I’m Adrianna Huehnergarth, principal in Heidrick & Struggles’ New York office and a member of the Financial Services practice with a focus on fintech. I lead the crypto and digital asset sector here in North America. In today’s podcast, I’m excited to speak with Niki Christoff and my colleague Julian Ha.

Niki Christoff is the founder and CEO of Christoff & Co., a Washington-based boutique consultancy that advises clients on public policy, political strategy, messaging, and media relations. Her specialties include emerging, tech, crisis response, and all things DC. She’s an active investor in early-stage tech companies and hosts a weekly podcast, Tech’ed Up. 

Prior to this current role, Niki managed front-page press and public policy moments for more than a decade at Silicon Valley companies, including Salesforce, Uber, and Google. I can’t do this introduction without also mentioning that in 2019 Fortune magazine recognized her as one of the 25 most powerful women in politics.

Julian Ha is a partner in the Heidrick & Struggles’ Washington, DC, office, and the leader and founder of the Global Government & Policy and Association practices. Thanks so much for joining us today. 

Niki Christoff: Thanks so much for having me. 

Adrianna Huehnergarth: Yeah. So, Niki, to kick off this conversation, do you mind walking us through your first exposure to the crypto space and sector, and what drew you into the space?

Niki Christoff: Absolutely. So the first time I learned anything about crypto, I was invited to a blockchain conference in 2015. I was offered, at that time, someone said, “Oh, I’ll put a wallet on your phone and just give you a bitcoin.” And I said, “I have too many apps on my phone. Like, thanks, but no thanks.” I really did not understand what was going to happen, which I think actually leads to how I ended up in this space.

So I did nothing for several years to my financial detriment. And then, as you mentioned, I run a consultancy in Washington, DC. I work specifically with emerging tech, and one of my first clients was a DeFi Layer 1 protocol, which I’m sure you have no idea what that means. Well, you do know what that means, but a lot of people have no idea what that means.

Adrianna Huehnergarth: I do, unfortunately. I do know exactly what that means. 

Niki Christoff: You know exactly what that means. But I didn’t know what it meant. I knew what this project needed, but I realized I didn’t understand the subject matter, so I sort of fell bass-ackwards into crypto about three years ago—really dug into understanding the tech, the lingo, the concepts, and it has become a part of my business because the bull's-eye for me is usually, over the last 16, 17 years working in tech, existential regulatory issues that require deft storytelling with a focus on Washington. And that could not be more of a bull's-eye for this industry. So that’s what drew me into it once I finally realized it was a thing. 

Julian Ha: Adrianna, I’m curious, is that kind of consistent with how you fell into the space when you’re operating? 

Adrianna Huehnergarth: No, that’s a great question. So I actually originally started working in the fintech space and then about four or five years ago, we had some work with Coinbase and I got pulled into it by my colleague David. And I’ve never really come out of it, to be completely honest with you. 

I think a lot of people go down this rabbit hole, and I feel like rabbit hole is a term I hear from everyone. They don’t think that they’ll like the space or even care about it or even understand it. And then once they get into it, they cannot stop. And I’ve seen that a lot. The other thing that I’ve seen is a lot of people, particularly in our industry, want to move out of big tech and big financial services into something more nimble, different culture, much faster-paced. And then also the desire to be an early person in a super high growth area is definitely what we’ve seen and why people tend to make the switch. 

So, Niki, Julian, obviously this is a newer space, and we know so many people come from different industries like I just mentioned. But when people come into crypto from other industries, what are some of the learning curves you are both seeing and what advice or development goals do you give these people to ensure their adjustment?

Niki Christoff: Well, crypto is intellectually intimidating to people because I’ve heard it described as a combination of computer science, finance, and game theory—so super accessible, no big deal. But actually it’s just like any other subject matter. So if you are an expert practitioner, a litigator, a government relations professional, you have a great Rolodex, you understand the nuances of Capitol Hill or of the appellate system, you can learn the subject matter material. 

This just has a slightly higher barrier because the lingo is very complicated, and the industry values people who get it. It’s not a particularly welcoming space to literal terms, normies, newbies, and yet my advice to someone who’s interested in it is just steal your spine and dig in and ask questions, which is absolutely what I did. And you can figure it out. Anybody can figure this out. It is actually not that hard once you dig in; it’s just a matter of understanding a glossary.

And in fact, you mentioned that I have a podcast. Recently, someone when I brought up my podcast, said, “Oh, it’s like being a vegan. Like you’ve mentioned your podcast in every conversation,” which is true and embarrassing. But I started my podcast specifically because I really did not understand crypto, and I was starting to work in this space.

So I had SEC Commissioner Hester Peirce come on. I had a blockchain founder—Kathleen Brightman came on. The head of a trade association, Sheila Warren, who I know Heidrick knows well, came on and explained Web3 to me. 

And I just asked questions. I asked Hester Peirce, “Is it eth? Is it ethers?” And she said, “No. That’d be like saying golds,” but I just didn’t know. And so you just have to ask questions. You can absolutely learn it. It’s much harder to learn the decades of experience you need to operate at a really high level. So don’t be afraid to ask questions is the advice I give to people. 

Julian Ha: I think that’s great advice, Niki. I would just add though that, in speaking to some folks who’ve kind of come from other sectors, they are sometimes a little bit surprised at how fast-paced kind of the evolution and innovation is coming in this space—not just from a product level, but also from a regulatory and enforcement angle. And then also, you know, crypto blockchain are extremely global, and so keeping up with how the EU, how Asia, the Middle East, the US are or aren’t regulating this sector is kind of a full-time job in and of itself. 

So I think kind of surrounding yourself with a policy team and key consultants are going to help folks getting into the space really stay on top of things. Then there, of course, as you know, there are a lot of key trade associations that can certainly help executives, again, stay on top of developments and ensuring their industry and interests are defended, or frankly, just listen to Niki’s podcast and you’ll be good. You got all your bases covered. 

Niki Christoff: Thanks for that plug, or just turn it on, walk out of the room, and then give it five stars. No, I’m just kidding. 

Adrianna Huehnergarth: Excellent. I would say it sounds counterintuitive, but the execs that we place here at Heidrick in crypto and digital assets and Web3—whatever you wanna call it—a lot of the advice that we give them is literally forget everything you’ve done these past 5, 10, 20, 30 years. When you step into the room in crypto, things move at a different pace. The organizations are structured much more differently. The cultures are completely different, and so we really just tell people to take a step back, be humble, and really listen for the first few weeks to see how things are done.

Don’t step in with your assumptions that it’s going to work similarly to whatever bank you used to work at, whatever hedge fund, whatever big tech company. Because if you come in with those assumptions, people are just not going to want to be working with you moving forward. 

I would say we place two types of candidates, those who’ve been following the space for a really long time. People we call crypto curious, which I know sounds like kind of a nerdy, weird term, but people who are listening to Tech’ed Up, which we’re going to plug 3,000 times here. Or people who are, you know, reading the news, staying in on the fast-moving culture and things in the space. But then also people who have been pulled in because of their own expertise and may not have necessarily been focused or paying attention. And that is really where we test people’s adaptability and ability to be quick learners. 

So, Niki, in your current role, you have a really unique lens into the industry through your consultation with clients. At a high level, what are you seeing as some of the leadership attributes that are contributing to successes in the industry and maybe even some of those that are contributing to failures?

Niki Christoff: Well, I loved what you said, Adrianna, about when candidates go in to speak to a company or a project or an association in this space that they should drop the experience that they have, at least in the interview process. And I think that’s partly because this industry is uniquely defined by the number of founders. Because it’s so decentralized, everything is founder-led, and because it’s so new, it’s founder-led. And as someone who has worked 16, 17 years with founders and then professional CEOs in the tech industry. I think that there’s a difference—this is a stereotype, but I believe it to be true—between a professional CEO and a founder. 

And professional CEOs—think Eric Schmidt; think Tim Cook; think Satya Nadella—listen to their teams. If you say, “If you do this, this is going to happen.” Founders have to touch the hot stove. You can say, “Oh, if you do this, you’re going to burn yourself.” But they have to touch it anyway. And so when you’re in an industry like this, it’s people, it’s high risk, it’s high reward. It’s big stakes. They’re moving very fast, as you said, but it’s dominated by a founder mentality. 

So they don’t wanna hear the trad—which is traditional—the trad approach to Washington. They want you to set all of that down and think at the speed they do in, in a creative way. But you also have to find a way to successfully communicate what you know to be true about the way Congress operates and the way the press operates.

And so it’s this balance of getting that tone and tenor right, which I find really challenging, but also really interesting. And I think right now some of the headwinds we’re facing are because that leadership style has led to, frankly, some unforced errors, and I think there is more of a desire now to say, “OK, we’ll back up a smidge and maybe take your trad advice on how a bill becomes a law.”

But you’re right, culturally, there’s a desire for you to really think completely outside the existing system because that’s the whole point of this. 

Adrianna Huehnergarth: Following up on that, what would you say are the critical skill sets and capabilities needed for leaders in this space, particularly founders as you mentioned, and have you seen a change in what organizations are looking for in leaders?

Niki Christoff: There has been a shift for sure in the last three years. So first of all, when everything is going up and to the right, you can get away with all sorts of behavior and language and tweets in a way that when you’re in more of a bear market or a crypto winter, which we are right now, you really can’t. 

You have to go back to the fundamentals, and what I’m seeing is the leaders who are willing to be less aspirational and ideological in their language and more precise and intellectually honest are getting more traction here in Washington. Now, that may not be true with investors. That may not be true with recruiting engineers, but certainly here in Washington, that’s true. 

So I’ll give a very specific example. Denelle Dixon, who’s the CEO of the Stellar Development Foundation—I’m a huge fan of hers. She’s so smart. She and I were talking recently, and she said, “It’s not no fees;”—using crypto for remittances and sending money overseas—“it’s just much, much lower fees.” And that is an intellectually honest thing to say, and I think we’re seeing a shift toward that slight bit of nuance, and I think that’s a really constructive shift to be happening.

And it’s happening because we just have to take out some of the sky in the pie and just be really real about what the potential is, what the actuality is, what the real uses are, what the aspirational uses are. And those leaders—the people willing to be a little more nuanced—I think that’s being rewarded right now in this sort of headwinds environment.

Julian Ha: And maybe I’ll just add a little bit, Adrianna, on, maybe tactically on the professional in the policy space. For folks who are in that world or looking to get into that world, having some technical knowledge is important. I’m not saying you need to understand the code, but I think understanding some of the underlying technology so that they can navigate the concepts with some fluency is going to be important and enhance their credibility.

The commercial acumen is important. That’s true for all policy professionals. But the ones who can connect the dots between the relevancy of the policy and the advocacy and how that enables the commercial success of the company are going to be hallmarks of professionals that succeed in that space. Given all that we’ve been going through in this world, I think risk management mindset is going to be important.

Crypto blockchains, still relatively new. A lot of risks associated with their use in operation, so the effective advocates are going to be the ones who can see around the corners and play that 3D chess game that’s the sector. You’ve got to obviously have great communication skills. They’ve got to communicate effectively with regulators, legislators, colleagues, customers, investors, the entire ecosystem.

And then finally, given our line of work, the ability to build teams and retain talent. That’s, again, not unique to this space, but I think it’s certainly critically important, especially as we’re going through this phase of development in the crypto world. 

Adrianna Huehnergarth: Definitely. And other things I’ve been seeing recently, particularly, I wouldn’t say there’s been a huge amount of transition in terms of founders, outside of their founder-CEO role, but there has been a good bit of transition. So definitely what we’re seeing is a shift in executive culture because new CEOs are coming in, bringing in their new teams and then really shifting down or working down that culture that they had previously or currently set.

So it’s been a really interesting time for what the variations of what organizations are looking for. The other thing that I personally think is really important is somebody who is really comfortable with ambiguity, because a lot of these roles are just less clearly defined than they might be—or what you’re being told and then coming into might be very, very different. And also being very comfortable and having the ability to make a lot of progress without as many resources you may have had previously is something that we really touch on in terms of exec leadership and where people are very successful. So, Niki, from your perspective, how has having independent director experience influenced your approach to executive roles and vice versa?

How does your experience from adviser and public policy roles influence you as a director? 

Niki Christoff: Well, this is sort of a good segue from something Julian just said. And by the way, Julian and I spend a decent amount of time talking about the importance of representation on boards and having more representative boards, and that includes gender diversity, it includes racial diversity, but it also includes subject matter diversity. And you just said something, Julian, that I think is catching on, not just in this crypto industry but in tech in general, and frankly in retail in general too, and in every company in the US, which is de-risking for reputation risk. That is an existential commercial risk for companies right now.

So when I think about boards, I served as an independent director on a public company board. Typically, boards are trying to recruit someone with operations or finance experience. And often most of the director seats are not independent directors, right? So it’s the investors who choose the director. So this, to me, was a hugely important experience because I didn’t know how to audit financials or read a cap table or manage big sales and M&A from an actual commercial standpoint.

I knew about governance and law and politics and reputation, so I learned those basics, so I jumped at the chance to serve on a board like that. However, I would encourage boards to think about what I ended up bringing to the table myself already, which was this idea of risk management and reputational risk management, and regulatory risk management specifically.

So those sort of all tie in. I think we’re in a new era where instead of just thinking about maximizing shareholder value, you’re thinking about all of those values around your brand and your company, because those are business matters. And so it’s tying in, I think we’re in a really nice moment where it’s evolving how companies and leadership and even investors are thinking about their investments and broadening the experts that they need to do this, which includes, as Julian said, their head of government relations needs to have a commercial mindset because government relations is going to impact the bottom line in this environment right now.

Adrianna Huehnergarth: And, Julian, in your role placing regulatory and policy executives, what have you been hearing from both the organization and the candidates about the importance of having this balance? 

Julian Ha: I think it goes without saying that finding that right balance between stability and innovation is critical for kind of the long-term success of the crypto sector.

So in an ideally balanced equation, innovation will drive the growth and progress, while regulation will provide that foundation for building trust and credibility and the clarity and the permission to kind of operate in that world. So, you know, innovation though, again, is a key driver in the crypto space, and it’s important to foster an environment that’s going to encourage new ideas and technological breakthroughs.

But as we talked about, you know, this is such a fast-paced, constantly evolving sector that you’ve got to innovate to stay competitive and keep up with kind of changing market demands as well. That said, stability regulations is going to be essential for this whole thing to thrive over the longer term. And I think financial stability is necessary to prevent some of the bad actors and market volatility and to ensure that investors feel confident in the security and the reliability of their investments.

So it’s a long way of saying that finding that right balance between innovation, stability, regulation is definitely a delicate task. Ideally, it’s a collaborative effort between, you know, industry leaders, policymakers, regulators. Unfortunately, I think, Niki, you’ll agree that we haven’t, at least here in the US, seen that symbiotic relationship click just yet, which is important given ultimately that’s going to depend on striking that right balance.

Niki, would you agree? 

Niki Christoff: I absolutely agree. I mean, not only that it’s adversarial in the United States between the industry and regulators right now, and what really bums me out about this in general is. One of the things that the United States does so well is technical innovation. Like, we’re so good at it, we’re frankly—we’re the best at it actually, and we’ve been able to have, you know, I crawled out of Web 2 into Web 3. 

And during all my time at Google and Uber and Salesforce, we very effectively, as an industry held back regulation. And I actually think we overdid it. We were maybe too successful in letting the industry grow because now you have a lot of externalities. And I hear people in the crypto space say, “It’s like the internet. What if you guys had regulated the internet?”

And I feel like I need to say, “You know, people hate the internet. They hate the internet. They think they should have regulated it more.” So what we’re now seeing is this backlash, which is unfortunate because. These inventions are not going to be uninvented. These innovations are not going to disappear. They’ll just go other places, like Singapore and Germany and Dubai, places that understand the tech and are more welcoming. And my fear is that if the industry and the regulators don’t start working in a more collaborative way, we’re just going to lose the opportunity to continue pushing our economic driver, which is tech innovation.

So it’s just this really critical moment for the next 18 months to get this relationship better and to start working together or we’re just going to ship everything overseas and then we’re going to have to pay to bring it all back—like we did with semiconductors. We should not be offshoring the tech that our people are developing here in the United States.

So it’s a real concern to me. And I also think it’s a completely solvable issue if we just start shifting some of the levers and the ways we approach each other. 

Julian Ha: Couldn’t agree more. 

Adrianna Huehnergarth: And with everything going on in the news about crypto, good and bad, so much of the recent news has been very negative with the crypto winter. Where should leaders be thinking and how should they be prioritizing messaging and media aspects currently?

Niki Christoff: So I would recommend two things. One is a lot of the negative headlines. Julian mentioned bad actors. It’s sort of ironic that the key to blockchain technology is it’s this transparent, immutable ledger. And yet the biggest fiasco—Sam Bankman-Fried and FTX—was secret, like zero accounting, and I mean, just profits, losses, where’s-the-money accounting. That’s not blockchain technology. That’s just a scam. I’m not saying you guys have to say that it was a scam or a crime, but it wasn’t great. 

So I think one is the business fundamentals of auditing and accounting and transparency. That is key, right? That’s just absolutely key to building trust. And then I think the second piece of advice, which I give every single day to everyone I work with in this space is you cannot win in Washington if you have not won the hearts and minds of the average American person. 

And the average American still doesn’t totally get this. They don’t know what a stablecoin is. They don’t know why they should care when the dollar works fine, and they don’t know because the story has not been simply and effectively told in those places. But really at the end of the day, a member of Congress cares about 750,000 people in his or her district.

So I think a key, a sort of gap in our communications, has been around really talking in a simple way about the potential, the real use cases, and how this is something we don’t want to ship overseas. I think that’s something we really need to be thinking about: hearts and minds. 

Adrianna Huehnergarth: And more recently, what advice have you been sharing with your clients on the topics you discussed? Any lessons learned or anything you’ve changed in the past few months in how you’ve been navigating? 

Niki Christoff: Absolutely. I actually am right now cooking up the idea. Well, ’cause one of my friends over dinner said, “Aren’t you literally in charge of trying to tell a better story?” as I was complaining about failed storytelling in this space.

And I thought that is a completely fair criticism. So I’m actually cooking up right now a broader campaign because, by definition, this is a completely decentralized industry. That’s the great beauty of it. And yet, you have to kind of be in lockstep when it comes to having a good, positive narrative. And so I’m really pushing in every day talking to people: How can we tell these stories? How can we not be at loggerheads with each other? How can we speak simply and get this sort of bigger effort and campaign going? 

The other piece of advice, which I also give almost every single day, is Twitter is not a real place. And Crypto Twitter for sure is not a real place. It’s an echo chamber of people who already know about crypto, so you can spend a lot of time there, but that’s not impacting people who vote in midterm elections and people who reliably vote every presidential election.

Only 1 in 10 Americans even have an active Twitter account. So another piece of advice I have is: Think more broadly about the aperture of where we’re communicating. And so really, obviously my specialty is communicating around regulatory issues, but saying it in the Twitter-sphere is not going to have the impact of saying it simply in a more mainstream, either outlet, either paid media, earned media, speaking, all of that matters a lot.

Adrianna Huehnergarth: Great. Yes, I stopped reading Crypto Twitter two years ago. Tt was making me crazy. 

Niki Christoff: Oh, good for you. I have not, but I have one of those apps, it’s called One Second—shout out to Neeraj from Coin Center who taught me about it—where I have to breathe for 10 seconds before I get on Crypto Twitter, which has really been a huge, huge mental health saver for me.

Adrianna Huehnergarth: And then so diversity, I know this can be a tricky topic within this domain. So historically we’ve seen fewer women interested in pursuing careers in disruptive industries like startups, private equity, venture capital. What are the reasons that you would think women may not be interested in pursuing roles within these organizations, and what can we be doing better to attract and retain diverse talent?

Niki Christoff: I actually think this is a little bit of a perception problem. Almost 90% of the people I work with in this industry are women. So the heads of three of the biggest trade associations are women in this town. I work with—the biggest lawyers are women. Many of the public policy heavy hitters are women. I personally know and have worked with former FBI agents who are women, the former general counsel of the CIA, who’s a woman. All of these people now work in the crypto industry. That’s their full-time job. Prosecutors. 

So there’s this stereotype that it’s bros, and part of that is that’s who gets a lot of the ink spilled. It’s dictators in Central America and people in backward white baseball hats. That’s who we see. But it’s not who I interact with on a daily basis. I actually see a lot of women in this space because again, you’re looking for people who have a really. An interest in the bleeding edge, especially in government relations, in these existential issues. And there’s nothing more challenging right now. And so it does attract that talent. So I actually think the industry, for me, at least in my daily experience, and again, I’m not an engineer, so I don’t work in that part of the industry, and I surely cannot tell you what’s going on with private equity and venture capital on their diversity issues. I don’t know. That’s a question for them.

But in this space, which is in this town, in the area especially that Julian and I work in, It’s very, very woman-heavy in a way that I love and enjoy and find sort of defying of the stereotype. But we need to platform and elevate those voices, those faces, those people, those moms who work in crypto because it’s not how people think of it. And I think it will add credibility to the overall industry.

Adrianna Huehnergarth: Couldn’t agree with you more. Julian, why don’t you chime in? 

Julian Ha: As Niki pointed out, it’s so interesting that I think in the crypto blockchain space, every major trade association that I’m aware of has been led by women, some of whom are ethnically diverse as well on top of that, right? And I think when I interact with a number of the heads of the function for policy for crypto blockchain companies, they’re also gender diverse. And I think more women were hopefully able to jump into this space because it was a new field and you didn’t have entrenched behaviors and expectations so that a number of gender-diverse professionals were able to pivot and be the change that they wanted to see happen that had passed by in more traditional trad sectors.

Right. Again, I think it’s been really encouraging, and I hope that will, you know, play out. 

Adrianna Huehnergarth: And I think a lot of the women in this space, and I agree with you, I mean, I’m newer to working in the regulatory association space, but the majority of people I’ve come in contact with in this space are highly, highly, just cream-of-the-crop women and other diverse individuals, I would say. And I think, going back to the VC and PE question, my guess—and I’ve seen this happen with a number of companies—is when a founder is a younger guy, they tend to hire their friends or people in their direct circle, people in their direct community, and a lot of that tends to be a less diverse population.

So there’s kind of a bifurcated issue. I would say like 60%, 70% of the companies that we tend to work with in the space are really, really struggling with diversity. And a lot of it has to do with hiring the same people from the same place, very engineering product heavy. And then the other 30% or 40% actually are more diverse than your average organization. And that’s because they’ve been very smart about who they’ve hired at the top and the culture that they’ve put in from the very beginning. So I can’t really explain it, but that’s kind of what I’ve seen in this space. And then the other thing that you are alluding to is women just tend not to scream from the rooftop saying how amazing and how early they’ve been in Web 3.

So a lot of the guys, again, on Crypto Twitter, who tend to get retweeted or, you know, shared on LinkedIn posts of the room, you probably saw that, Niki, the “room where things happen” on LinkedIn. It’s just not the best way to be showing what’s being done really in crypto. Currently, it’s a lot more diverse than I think people tend to see.

Niki Christoff: I am really glad that Julian brought this up. We do see people of color in this space, but not even close to mapping the interest in this industry. Right? Because a lot of the problems that this space can solve are for diaspora community sending money overseas, people who are credit invisible, people who have been de-risked out of banking. Like, a lot of the people with great interest in something that is an alternative to traditional finance are people of color. So if you are in this space and those are your potential customers, you would be well served to build out your team with people who can be in that mindset just naturally and organically.

So we do see it, but nowhere close to representative of the users, which, by the way, unfortunately is how all of tech is. If you look at who’s using technology and then who’s building it, it doesn’t map to what the world actually looks like and that creates dumb product outcomes, right? And so we all, I think, are in violent agreement on this, but it’s good for business to do it, and I think specifically in this industry, you do not see the representation racially that maps to the interest and the potential customers and clients who are probably going to be most interested in it. 

Adrianna Huehnergarth: And then one last question: So given how much change has taken place, I would argue the most change in one industry over the past five to 10 years, what advice would you give to your younger self or other people thinking about moving into the industry?

Niki Christoff: First of all, if somebody offers you free bitcoin, just, you know, you should take it. It doesn’t matter if you feel like you have too many apps on your phone, say yes to things. That’s a lesson to me personally. And then the other thing I would say, I do think I believed this, even I—you know, I was an attorney 25 years ago, and then I worked in politics, and I worked in polling, and then I sort of fell into tech, and I am a voracious learner. I’m so curious about how things work. You don’t have to decide you’re going to do this for the rest of your life, but you will be well served to keep learning, keep meeting people, keep building relationships. That is just going to make you always interesting and on the edge of the next thing. 

And so there’s nothing you can’t learn. You can figure it out, and you don’t have to commit to this for your entire life. You can just say we’re in a season, which is what I do, like when I started doing this, like it couldn’t have been sexier. So I wanted to learn it. I wanted to understand it. This is tech. It’s going to evolve. It’s a long career, so just dive in, and even if the project or startup you go to fails, those relationships and that knowledge and the layered subject matter expertise are just going to make you better and better as a professional.

Adrianna Huehnergarth: Great. Well, thank you so much for coming here today. We really appreciate your time, and hopefully, you’ll be back again. 

Niki Christoff: Thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate it.

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About the interviewers

Julian Ha ( is the global managing partner of Heidrick & Struggles’ Legal, Risk, Compliance & Government Affairs Practice and head of the Association Sector. He is also a member of the Diversity, Equity & Inclusion and CEO & Board of Directors practices. He is based in the Washington, DC, office.

Adrianna Huehnergarth ( is a principal in the New York office and a member of the Financial Services and Technology practices and the FinTech sector. She leads the Crypto & Digital Assets sector in North America.

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