Gabriel Abed converting naysayers to change Caribbean economy bit by bit
Without LimitTuesday, January 10, 2017
with Rachael Barrett
Bitt Co-founder and CEO Gabriel Abed is a man of infectious enthusiasm and conviction who sees himself at the forefront of the battle that will usher in a new age. Bitcoin currency and blockchain technology are widely criticised, mostly misunderstood and generally considered "fandangled new concepts" incongruent with the traditional cash economy.
Yet pioneering entrepreneurs like Abed the world over are harnessing this new technology, capitalising on what has been the first major innovations in payment methodology and currency itself for decades.
It’s an innovation that Abed and his team regard as a ripe opportunity for Caribbean economies to make use of as a tool to level the playing field in terms of driving growth within a global context. Abed shares his journey to the forefront of the bitcoin revolution and how one man’s passion led to a US$-50million valuation and a chance to change the world.
"I went and did my degree in Cryptographic studies in Canada, then I went off to Portland, Oregon, and worked for a Silicon Valley company, and then I went off to Trinidad for two years and now I’m back in Barbados...so at some point we come home."
It becomes clear that coming back home is a key part of the narrative Abed envisioned for himself, despite not finding the environment as accommodating as he hoped.
"The unfortunate part is we have such a brain drain in the Caribbean, there’s no opportunity for the youth to really envision themselves doing something different or great or amazing. It’s quite stifled in the region. When I fist started Bitt a couple years ago the barriers to entry were ridiculous. As a young entrepreneur I found that the market was not forthcoming — and worse than that the technical skill set did not exist on this island or across the region.
"But fortunately, as we grew, people who were educated abroad realised, hey, this company in Barbados is giving us this opportunity. So we’ve been able to repatriate some of our finest guys who were educated in Canada or England that were Barbadian or Trini or Jamaican are now flying over to Barbados and living here to work on this really cool start-up."
For Abed the Caribbean is still the ideal place to live and work, and he hopes that his peers will soon grow to appreciate the natural paradise he feels we often fail to appreciate that we are lucky to call home. This is why, even though it has come as a surprise to many, as the business grows he still insists on keeping as much of the team based in the region.
"As I talk to you I’m staring at the ocean in Barbados — one of the perks of the Caribbean. My developers develop all day long, and if they have a bad day then when they walk outside it’s the beach. It’s a different kind of world down here for tech companies, and its really one of the biggest selling points. If I can build something anywhere in the world, why would I not do it from a paradise island?"
Abed’s development into leadership has come second to an inclination toward technology;
"I’ve always been a techie, I did an Associates degree in Barbados... my CXCs were based around IT, physics and math, and then I went up to Canada [University of Ontario] to do this really techie course, the Bachelor of IT, majoring in network security.
"As a matter of fact I really didn’t even want to go to school, I wanted to drop out, but my mother found the course and said try it, I think you’ll have fun.’’
It was during that period that he learned about cryptographic currency, or bitcoin.
Clearly well rehearsed, Abed is able to succinctly simplify the concept of how Bitcoin works and notes that for his own part this revelation was immediately the indication to him that this was the direction in which he wanted to shape his future, but determinedly so in the Caribbean region as opposed to anywhere else.
Abed has described his push into banking technology as part and parcel of his drive to change the Caribbean economy, levelling the access to services for ordinary citizens. Staying in the region to develop this also affords him the means to execute his vision at a large scale with maximum impact.
"I was very focused on coming back to region — on being a big fish in small pond. I saw the deficiencies that existed in this market and there were many, from government to the private sector, and they ranged from sector to sector, banks to courier services, restaurant industries, etc.
"Because I’m a software engineer and understood cryptographic systems, the epiphany moment came when one of our software clients couldn’t receive payments, because the bank wouldn’t let them receive those payments. I realised the entire market had faced this problem of strictly not being part of a global market, and we decided to bring Bitt about to service exactly that — a market of people in the Caribbean who do not have access to global financial services — from bill payments, to payroll, digital sending and digital receiving. For no fees. Slowly but surely we are taking this throughout the region.
"We start by building out the basics, then you convince the government that this is the ideal solution, then you do the same with the Central Bank, and it sounds easy but this is years of work, processes and procedures and coupling these with bleeding edge technology. We have a team of 50 people...all to build this crazy world of new generation banking."
In April 2016, US retail giant Overstock.com, through its Medici Subsidiary, took a stake in Bitt Inc, investing US$16 million, raising Bitt’s value to approximately US$50 million.
Abed sees the Bitcoin revolution as what e-mail was to snail mail years ago, more efficient, easier to monitor and track.
Bitcoin technology is commonly interpreted as a payment system, but Abed is quick to point out that the service is as much a measurable unit and means of ensuring regulated growth.
Naysayers were aplenty in the beginning, as Abed recalls that the knocks he faced when he started on this journey four years ago proved to be useful learning tools in shaping Bitt’s future.
"You know how many offices I was laughed out of when Bitcoin wasn’t a thing in 2011? But I believed in mathematics and trusted in my education, and people like my mother gave me that drive forward.
"There are lots of naysayers in the market, but I’ve already reached somewhere that I was told was impossible. And I have enough money now to keep us going the next seven years so they have to listen us.
"Ultimately the naysayers were proven wrong and many were converted. Our Governor of the Central Bank [in Barbados] was one of the first. He ‘naysaid’ me out of his office three times. And I came back by the fourth time with trust systems, better security protocols, anti-money laundering policies, counterterrorism financing policies, a compliance department, an FCA — until he couldn’t say no and now we are operational."
Abed repeats that he sees the high fee structure currently in operation by most financial service centres as incongruent with the concept of banking as operating in service to the people.
"My mission is to allow every last man, woman and child to have access to global financial services without spending a dollar."
Abed is keenly focused on what he sees as a means to allow the ordinary consumer a way to keep more of their money in their pockets.
"Its outrageous, we are raping the Caribbean billions of dollars over the years. How does Jamaica settle 25 per cent of its import from Trinidad? Through US partners, US settlements. Remittances to the Caribbean are approximately US$10 billion and US$1.5 billion gets sucked into the banks. Let’s change all that."
His confidence and drive are supported by a strong network of support that starts at home,
"There are quite a few guys who have said things that have made me change the way I see the world, but I’m inspired most to see a different world ahead of us and actually bring about change, looking at the norm, and to question and challenge the status quo."