Binance and He Yi

Calling a spade a spade holds Binance’s lesser known cofounder in good stead

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It was lunch break, but Yi He didn’t have time to eat. 

As a work-from-home mom of a two-year-old, Binance’s cofounder and chief marketing officer says there was never any time to slow down.

Instead, He said she was attending a 1½ hour online English class during lunch. He wanted to polish her language skills, she said, as the world’s largest cryptocurrency exchange is sparing no efforts to expand globally.

Originally from Yibin, a prefecture-level city in the southwestern province of Sichuan, He joined Binance on a lark. In 2017, when Changpeng Zhao was looking to set up Binance, he came looking for his former colleague.  

“CZ asked me if I could be a consultant as they drafted the white paper,” He told Forkast in an interview from Singapore. On July 13, 2017 — the night before Binance went live — CZ kept calling He to ask her to officially join the startup, she said.

“We’re going online tomorrow, and the price of BNB (Binance’s native token) might increase by 10 times, and then my offer to you will be a tenth as it was,” He recalled CZ as saying. 

“You have to decide now if you are joining us or not.” 

“And I said yes,” He told Forkast.

Coming full circle

Life hasn’t been easy for the 35-year old. 

The worldwide problem of elitism in schools and highly desirable companies is accentuated in China by its notorious internal migration (hukou or huji) system. And despite U.S. regulators coming down hard on American companies employing friends and relatives of influential Chinese to win business, guanxi (a culture of trading favors and leveraging relationships) remains rife among state-run and even private companies in the mainland.

He worked as an assistant counselor with a clinic affiliated to the Institute of Psychology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in 2007. Work hours were long, He recalled. Though she undertook studies in psychological counseling for her master’s degree at the institute, He said she couldn’t finish her studies. 

He attempted many jobs before she entered the crypto space, she told Forkast

She previously worked as a college class advisor and hosted a number of travel shows on Chinese television. Her notable TV presence included “The Beautiful Destinations” and “As Far as You Go,” along with a few other shows she hosted from 2012 to 2014.

“[Hosting TV shows] may be a job that many people dream of, but I felt anxious because I could see that the influence of the TV industry had gradually been eroded by the internet,” He said. That prompted her to start exploring opportunities in the Chinese startup world.

In March 2014, He cofounded OKCoin, and as a vice president for user operations and marketing, she grew it to become the largest Chinese crypto exchange at the time, snapping up 60% of the market share in the mainland, He said. 

That was when she met CZ and eventually persuaded him to come on board as chief technology officer of OKCoin. However, they both soon parted ways with OKCoin in 2015.

“The differences in opinions and values between the founder and the cofounder appeared as the company developed rapidly,” He said. “So CZ and I left.”

CZ went on to found Bijie Technology, a cloud-based software maker, while He joined Yixia Technology, a Beijing-based mobile video developer, as a vice president. In less than two years, He launched Yizhibo, a live-streaming platform later acquired by Twitter-like Weibo.

Trial by fire

But saying yes to CZ was easier said than done.

When Binance went online the day after He agreed to join the company, the price of BNB fell by 50% in an hour, He said. “But I didn’t renegotiate the offer,” officially joining Binance on Aug. 8, 2017, she told Forkast in Mandarin Chinese, her native language. 

Less than a month into her new role, Binance faced its first major regulatory hurdle. On Sept. 4, China banned residents from trading crypto on exchanges and declared initial coin offerings illegal.

“We were not in Shanghai at the time, but in Japan, as Binance had a small office there then,” He said. “It was exciting in a way.”

Binance had to deregister some mainland users at the time and bought back the crypto its users held at market prices, she said.

See related article: Binance wants to play ball with regulators

“We used up almost all the liquidity of Binance to buy back the BNB held by the users,” He said. “We made some tough decisions.”

He says the customer will always be at the core of what the company does, no matter how big it gets. “I have always been called the chief customer service representative of Binance,” He said. “One of my very important tasks since I joined Binance is to constantly listen to the voices of the users in various communities.”

To substantiate her claim, He cited the instance when Binance was breached in 2019 by hackers who stole US$40 million worth of cryptocurrencies. The firm announced the stolen assets would be replaced by Binance’s own stash of Bitcoin, He recalled. At the end of 2020, it also pledged to spend US$10 million on reimbursing users who were affected in a DeFi hack, He said.

But not everyone buys the altruistic nature of He or Binance’s actions.

“When Binance was hacked, it immediately offered compensation, or it would risk losing the users,” Taiwan-based Kunchou Tsai told Forkast. “And of course that’s also because it could afford the compensation,” added the managing partner of Taiwan-based Enlighten Law Group, acknowledged for his expertise in the fintech sector. 

Wonder Woman

He remains unfazed.

“My leadership style may not be very feminine,” He admits. “I’m very straight-forward … if I think something is not good, I will directly tell [my team members] that it is not good,” she says. 

In addition to looking after Binance’s customers, He said that over the past three years, she’s started to look at public communications as Binance expands operations. 

See related articles: Binance wins crypto license in Dubai days after FTX and Binance wins license in Bahrain, explores acquisition of Brazilian brokerage

That has meant additional responsibilities while juggling motherhood.

He hasn’t hired a helper even as she logs 16-hour plus days. She says her mother has been helping with raising her child even as the family moves around the world in lockstep with Binance’s ever-expanding operations.  

“I am still in a mobile state,” He told Forkast. “Since we need to set up headquarters, we have to go to several places to have a look recently,” she said.

In an expansive interview with Forkast, He said Binance wants to set up one or more offices in countries where a welcoming regulatory environment would help with ease of access for users.

That has meant late night calls to accommodate time differences for her colleagues based in other time zones, He explained. In turn, this has reduced the time she can spend with her child to only one to three hours, she lamented. 

Ningwei Qin and Tom Zuo contributed to this report.

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