The Face of India's Crypto Lobby Readies for a Clash
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because if crypto takes off in India, it will have Akshay Aggarwal to thank.
By Parthshri Arora
“Do you want to buy a condom, ma’am? It’s specially designed for women,” Akshay Aggarwal asked passersby near Bryant Street in Palo Alto, California, in 2015. Frustrated by their lack of success, Aggarwal and his team, called the Angels, took a different tack: Sell the condoms to men by saying that it’s good for their partners. As fellows at an entrepreneurship program run by venture capitalist Tim Draper (an early investor in Skype, Tesla, Twitch and others), this next-level pivot was necessary. The Angels sold around 17 condoms in nearly five hours.
Now, Aggarwal, 28, is attempting to sell something else: cryptocurrency. As the Indian government soured on the idea of a decentralized currency, Aggarwal joined a growing internet movement called India Wants Crypto. He brought with him a 15,000-strong community of blockchain enthusiasts who wanted to participate in saving blockchain’s most popular application.
It’s my greatest fear, being one of the common folks, you know?
The mobilization resulted in multicity crypto advocacy roadshows, with Aggarwal at the center, using tech linguistic poppycock, like, “A lot of things that will be required to give power to the people will come from this (cryptocurrency) space.” He even thinks crypto and blockchain can help the dwindling Indian economy by eluding corruption.
Born to an engineer father and business major mother in New Delhi, Aggarwal was always into technology. His parents ran an IT talent sourcing firm for government projects, where he would play with computers; his mom took over the business after his dad died from stomach cancer when Aggarwal was 7.
Growing up proved to be a challenge. “He was a bakchod [Hindi slang for bullshit artist] and verbally annoyed people to the point of them wanting to punch him,” says Manav Ailawadi, Aggarwal’s friend from school and current business partner. When asked about the fights, Aggarwal says: “I used to be loose with my jokes.”
Over time, the gibes turned into impassioned arguments. When Ailawadi’s Delhi startup of herbal air purifiers didn’t take off, he sought counsel from Aggarwal, who had recently returned to India from a stint in Silicon Valley. Aggarwal told Ailawadi that his startup had no potential, so the friends teamed up. “We were initially looking at inefficiencies in the manufacturing chain that can be solved with technology, and came across blockchain,” Ailawadi says. “We wanted to learn more about it, so [we] started Blockchained India as a knowledge-sharing platform.”
Aggarwal’s tryst with blockchain was different. Coming off a computer engineering degree from an upper-class private university and an internship at a travel startup in Bangalore, he had a thirst for entrepreneurship inspired by the Facebook film, The Social Network. “There’s no fun to be found in doing OK, 9-to-5 normal stuff,” he says. “It’s my greatest fear, being one of the common folks, you know?”
A friend’s recommendation helped him land at Draper University, where fellows are asked to “identify their superhero powers” and are given an actual cape on the first day. “The program is designed to make you think at the next level,” Aggarwal says. He hung around to work on a screen-sharing app idea born out of a woman looking at her phone in their cafeteria. “We wanted to be a part of that conversation she was having,” he remembers. “She was looking at her phone in a half-sexy, half-kinky way.”
While working on the app, Aggarwal went to a party hosted by founders of Bitcoin Magazine and the Valley’s crypto gold rush piqued his interest. Blockchain was nascent in India, even in Bangalore, so he brought the idea home, birthing Blockchained India in February 2017 with Ailawadi and two others.
Within a year, they had grown from a meetup of eight to 750, aided by Aggarwal’s connections and his ability to attract high-profile speakers, including government bigwigs and a co-founder of Ethereum, the world’s second-largest cryptocurrency. By having entrepreneurs and policymakers mingle, the events were fertile ground for back-channel communications. ConsenSys, the blockchain company backing Ethereum, gave a presentation to the premier policy think tank of the government of India, NITI Aayog, according to Aggarwal.
But with the Indian government becoming more hostile toward cryptocurrency — the Supreme Court hears petitions this week about banning it altogether — the community pivoted to crypto activism. Aggarwal and Ailawadi believed this was a necessity, but co-founder Kumar Anirudha and two others quit.
“Industries can’t really use cryptocurrency due to the volatility in its prices,” Anirudha says. “For example, let’s say a company brought 100 chairs for one bitcoin for a conversion for $5,000. By the time they’re going to sell these chairs, they’d be looking for a profit. But because of the volatility, let’s say the prices go down, they’re not going to make a profit.” Of Anirudha’s departure, Aggarwal says, “His vision was based around a technology [blockchain], and I wanted to build this into a billion-dollar knowledge-sharing business.”
The business now helps crypto and blockchain companies — including big players ConsenSys, Stellar and R3 — break into the Indian market. Aggarwal helps them launch products, source talent and, most of all, network. This year’s roadshows, called India Dapp Fest, spread the gospel further.
And Aggarwal might be on to something. There is gunpowder in the crypto air, with the world’s economic structure ready to explode. And notwithstanding his skirmishes with the government — which rejected the group’s policy recommendations after Dapp Fest — Aggarwal is now a quasi-public figure. He’s getting more press attention than even the guy who started India Wants Crypto.
“It got my name out there,” Aggarwal says of the roadshow. “It’s important to be seen at being great at something.”
- Parthshri Arora, OZY AuthorContact Parthshri Arora