Four years after dropping out from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, Suji Yan pinned a tweet to his profile in an unlikely moment of triumph.
The tweet was for the Web3 Drop Out Scholarship, an effort Yan founded that offers $50,000 to people who leave big companies or universities to enter Web3. If that sounds a little like the Thiel Fellowship created by billionaire Peter Thiel, which provides university dropouts with $100,000 over two years to pursue other work, that’s because it is.
In 2017, Yan thought he could offer more to the world by doing rather than learning and applied for Thiel’s scholarship. Although he didn't get it, he still dropped out. He has since started his own business, worked as an independent journalist and is now developing new tools to “decentralize” social media with figures like Jack Dorsey.
"There is not a lot of what we have [that the Thiel Fellowship] can provide," Yan said, adding that famed opportunity for renegades and outsiders (including Ethereum co-founder Vitalik Buterin) now seems "more traditional.”
Yan’s wager is that Web3 will fundamentally change the world – how we work, play and interact – over the next 20 to 50 years. The scholarship, which paid out tokens to three out of 40 candidates in its first year, is a path for similarly self-motivated people, who otherwise might be cut off from traditional financing, to start building.
His own company, Mask Network, which uses open-source browser extensions to add privacy and Web3 tools to social media platforms, like Facebook and Twitter, has had its financial ups and downs, Yan said. It’s now part of Twitter’s secretive Bluesky project working to open source social media algorithms and is transitioning into Web3’s community ownership model as a decentralized autonomous organization (DAO).
"Our goal is to make sure in the next 10 years I will definitely not be a CEO. If I'm the CEO still running this business it's definitely bad," Yan said.
CoinDesk spoke with Yan as part of Future of Work Week to discuss why he thinks Binance and FTX are too big, the digitization of everything and at least one path to “making it” in crypto.
You were an independent reporter before getting into Web3 and crypto. Do you think journalists should learn how to code?
Coding is a tool. I think it’s definitely something really important for journalists to learn. It’s not saying they need to learn calculus or fancy machine learning. Coding is generally very important and helpful – like driving a car or being able to cook for yourself.
How did you get involved with Jack Dorsey's Bluesky project?
Bluesky was announced at the end of 2019 by Jack on Twitter. One and a half years later, Jay Graber, who had been involved in Bluesky since the very beginning, was appointed as CEO. I met her online because she was from the Zcash community. I was lucky that when I was in college, Andrew Miller was a young professor at the UIUC [University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign]. He is also co-founder of Zcash, the president of Zcash Foundation. That's how I know Zcash.
When [Mask Network] raised money we started to donate to other decentralized social networks, which also connected us to other Bluesky teams. It was a really small world in 2019. So we were all connected. Then Jay started this Discord group, which later became a much more serious group with different people from Twitter and the crypto community.
After Jack departed from Twitter in 2021, Bluesky became more independent and Jay became CEO – we're still figuring out what's the next thing we're going to do. But overall, I think, no matter what changes – like with Web5, Web6 – it doesn't matter. Whatever it is doing, we’d love to help. We’d love to be part of it. We have already been involved for two years.
How does Mask Network bring privacy and benefits from Web3 to social media like Facebook and Twitter with an open-sourced browser extension? How can you be sure that Facebook or other social media companies won't block access?
We don't use APIs (application programming interfaces). There's no server interaction or middleware. One common mistake is to believe [Facebook], you just can't believe in them. So we never use any APIs. Zero. We learn the technology, but we don't rely on any of them. There is no way to block us.
You dropped out from the University of Illinois. Why?
One thing I really care about is being pseudonymous, anonymous. I really enjoyed this community. So I just wanted to see what I could accomplish with a pure, online anonymous identity without saying, “Hey, I'm whoever from whatever college, this is my name, this is my application.”
Obviously, staying in a college is not up to most choices. So I decided to drop out. I bought ETH and bitcoin in earlier days, so I was lucky. And I did receive a lot of help back in 2017, but I didn't receive much support as a crypto founder. No one offered me a fellowship. But I dropped out and received funding from VCs to start my own business.
What do you want to achieve or encourage via the Web3 Drop Out Scholarship?
When I was in college, I didn't have this chance to receive this kind of donation. Unfortunately, the Thiel Fellowship is more traditional and there is not a lot they can provide [for Web3].
We think Web3 will provide a lot of opportunities in the next 20 or 50 years. We want kids to be able to help themselves. They say I have this dream; I just need some money to start it. No matter what dream you have, as long as it makes sense to us, we're going to help you. And if you need further funding or referrals we can provide for you. We have connections to everyone.
What was the common theme among those three successful applicants this year?
They all share a passion for the decentralized world. They all think that staying in college or large companies is not a necessary routine they have to follow. They all have enough knowledge or are willing to learn to achieve their dreams. Some of them do not have a tech background but want to learn stuff. One of the winners uploaded the proof of dropout.
You actively discuss Web3 and crypto in China, moderate panels and give speeches. What are your thoughts about the development of Web3 and crypto in China? More broadly, in Asia?
Asia is a huge market. We will not leave just because the Chinese government or whatever says it's not legal; it's like a gray area. I remember like in the early days of bitcoin, everything is a gray area. Whatever people want, that's actually what we want to build.
See also: 3 Takes About China's Crypto Ban That Are Wrong | Opinion (2021)
I'd say if it's something people want, you cannot ban it at all. If people think just because the local government doesn't like it, they just ban it. They’re completely wrong. The whole industry, bitcoin, emerged from a gray area, from a tiny piece of cyberspace.
Could Web3, truly built on open protocols, break the "great firewalls" of China’s internet?
They will not only break the “great firewalls.” It will break every nation-state border. That's what I believe. That is also one reason behind the Drop Out Fellowship logic: You don't need to have education from these colleges that are certified by governments. They will not, do not teach you how to do revolution. They're part of the system. But it will take years.
In your Twitter bio, you say you are “anti 996.” What do you think about the work culture in crypto?
We’re turning ourselves from a company to a foundation, and eventually, into a DAO. For now, we are still running a company, which means I'm CEO, and there are people I write checks to. The Ethereum model or Bitcoin model is working – it's like members become volunteers. That's something that really makes me excited everyday.
If I wake up in 10 years, and I realize that I’m still the CEO [that’d be] a terrible thing. I think founders of these large public companies have been CEOs for too long. 10 years ago, they're the CEO, and then after 10 years, they’re still CEOs. I think a lot of businesses are able to become communities, like decentralized exchanges.
We have a DAO to form an organization for the DAO members. The labor union is the first version of DAO. If our employees are in other DAOs, I'm really happy with that. But for now, we're still a company. Our goal is to make sure in the next 10 years I will definitely not be a CEO. If I'm the CEO still running this business it's definitely bad.
What advice would you give to someone trying to make it in crypto?
You will see a lot of big whales or big companies playing games, but try to remember the fundamentals of the industry is to evolve in a decentralized manner and cross nations’ borders. If you believe in that, if you follow that path, you're gonna be successful, you're gonna make it. But if you don't trust this logic and get lost in your marketing, you're not going to make it because you’re wasting your time.
That is what I learned in the past cycles: Don't believe in the large company and large organization. Yeah, talk to them, but believe in the fact that eventually it's the people who are going to create history. It's not the big CEO who will create history.
Large companies like Binance and FTX have become too large. The fundamental logic of this industry is we're pushing the human being into a digitalization being and forming new communities, staying together, with decentralized technology. We're realizing this.
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