Beryl Chavez Li, co-founder of Yield Guild Games has a non-traditional advice for you to attain financial freedom, and don’t worry, it does not involve opening a bank account, which is the first thing any other person would have told you immediately. In fact I thought Beryl, who spent the first years of her career in finance, would say the same.
But Beryl does not think users actually want to be part of a financial institution. “Maybe a user just wants to be able to make money, wants to be able to earn more and store it in safer places,” she told me in an interview. Filipinos, ever since we are old enough to know about finances, are encouraged to open a bank account and store our money there. In essence that’s correct, but as we all know, not everyone can sustain having a bank account with all of its requirements. Many of us don’t even have proper IDs to open one.
Beryl believes it’s now possible to be financially free without having one. She points to the disruption happening in the way we work — play-to-earn — and the disruption happening in finance — called decentralized finance or DeFi — as two of those things that could even replace how we view and classify jobs and earn money in the future.
Entrepreneur-in-Residence at Coins.ph
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Beryl first became interested in blockchain as an infrastructure to move funds around the Philippines during her time with Coins.ph. As its first Entrepreneur-in-Residence in 2014, she was in charge of business development and was pivotal in hiring the first key members of the Coins.ph team.
Around this time, Beryl Li was also part of a project funded by the Department of Information and Communications Technology (DICT) to create a digital startup roadmap in the Philippines. The targets were ambitious: developing and improving 12 key areas, including IP, legislation, creation of science parks and R&D. The project became the precursor to the “Innovative Startup Act,” a law that provides benefits and incentives to startup and startup enablers in the Philippines. Fintech companies, including Coins.ph, would benefit from the tax breaks and incentives provided by the law.
Coins.ph is now one of the most recognizable Filipino crypto and fintech startups, which was acquired by GoJek in 2019 for $72 million, and Beryl was part of the early team that bootstrapped it to develop the app to acquire more users in its first years.
“We pushed out the app, and the first thing we built was the on and off-ramps. I felt it was really, really important. Otherwise, people’s funds would be stuck inside Coins.ph, or they could not easily wire funds to acquire assets,” Beryl said, adding that even today, it’s still a challenge to cash in and cash out between crypto and pesos in fintech and crypto platforms.
A Saturated Niche
The focus on “banking the unbanked” is evident in one key national statistic: the number of unbanked and underbanked segments in the Philippines is expected to cut by half to around 20% of the bankable population by 2025. However, being banked only means “having an account with a financial institution.” It’s easy to open an account, but it’s also easy to lose them when you can’t maintain a sufficient balance. Actually, many Filipinos don’t even have sufficient IDs to open one.
For Beryl, instead of concentrating solely on banking the unbanked, she would rather focus her career on two far more important aspects of finance — financial literacy and financial freedom.
“I don’t think those two can be separated because — If you give somebody the freedom to figure out where they want to put their funds, what they really want to be invested in, what do they want to do with their money, I think that’s financial freedom,” Beryl said, emphasizing that giving Filipinos the option to earn money is financial freedom in and of itself. And arriving at that kind of decision requires financial literacy.
Beryl champions financial literacy as the first step to achieving the freedom to choose what a person wants to do with their money. Bank accounts may be a good choice, but simply having one does not impact anything about the person’s earning capacity.
But a new status quo is developing in the world of finance. By 2015, Beryl pursued a post-graduate degree in finance at Cambridge University where she would get to meet the who’s who of the Ethereum community today.
Blockchain has disrupted finance. Bitcoin may have proven that decentralized digital money is possible, but Ethereum proved that financial services can be done without needing any human intermediary and interaction.
Smart contracts, decentralized exchanges, and secondary markets built on the blockchain were the subject of Beryl’s thesis for her Master’s Degree in Finance at Cambridge University in 2015. By 2016, she was the president of the university’s Cryptographic Society and was leading, organizing, and hosting events dedicated to discussing cryptography and cryptocurrency. “I thought that was a brilliant crowd, most of them were doing their PhDs, and I thought it was really interesting because I was already familiar with Bitcoin,” Beryl said of her time in Cambridge.
At one point, she invited Vitalik Buterin to one of the society’s events. Vitalik talked about blockchain, ERC20 tokens, smart contracts, all those concepts we are now very familiar with today. “And that’s when I took Ethereum seriously,” Beryl said.
Trailblazing at CapchainX
In her final year in Cambridge, Beryl co-founded CapchainX, an asset tokenization platform. It was 2017. It was the great ICO rush, and many companies were trying to take advantage of this new form of financing. With so many of them launching ICOs just about every week, Beryl noticed major flaws: There was no transparency and there was an information gap in the token’s fundamentals.
“Token buyers are not buying the real fundamentals they think they are getting,” Beryl wrote in an op-ed for e27.
Others in the market clearly saw the value in the vision that Beryl and team had at CapchainX as they successfully exited the company after it was acquired by SMKG (SMKG:USOTC US), an industry leader in specialized industry e-commerce and fintech in North America.
Yield Guild Games
In August 2020, a Coindesk opinion article revealed that several Filipinos in Cabanatuan City, Nueva Ecija, were playing Axie Infinity to earn weekly income that’s enough to feed their families for the entire month. A month earlier, the price of SLP shot up to $0.23; Filipino players farming 500 SLP per week were suddenly earning Php 22,000 per month. “[Playing Axie Infinity provided] food on the table, it’s money for [the players’] families, and it’s saving them when they cannot even leave the house during this pandemic,” said Gabby Dizon, Beryl’s future co-founder of Yield Guild Games, who was interviewed in the Coindesk article.
The Coindesk story got Beryl’s full attention. Along with the rising prices of Axies in the marketplace, Beryl, Gabby Dizon and fellow co-founder Owl of Moistness thought providing players access to these high-value game assets to earn a living by playing a game was a rock-solid opportunity to make a positive impact on these players’ lives.
“While I’ve been involved in fintech projects for quite some time, this was a unique opportunity for me to truly ‘bank the unbanked’ and engineer alternative ‘non-financial’ products,” Beryl said in a separate interview with Gokhshtein Media.
Yield Guild Games (YGG) is a play-to-earn guild that gathers people from around the world to earn crypto by playing games within blockchain-based economies. What Beryl described as “alternative non-financial products” are in-game NFTs assets, such as the popular Axies from Axie Infinity that are loaned to the players so they can “play-to-earn” without having to invest any money upfront or having to take on any risk. YGG has since onboarded players in other games like League of Kingdoms and Sandbox, where utilizing virtual lands lets players earn cryptocurrency.
The rules for gaming assets like virtual lands are simpler, programmable, and quicker to implement. The metaverse, where these virtual lands are, is a full-fledged ecosystem where financial rules are set up from the very beginning. YGG’s vision is to bring these players to the metaverse and seek yield-earning opportunities together in what it calls the “jobs of the future”. Beryl said doing jobs in the metaverse ended up being a fun thing to do because of the gamification of the entire experience.
“People end up having fun because they can be creative, and they can contribute on how to make this parcel of metaverse land valuable if they build on top of it,” she said. With crypto earnings baked in, it is also a platform to get financial literacy.
Democratizing Access to Finance
In May 2021, a documentary narrated how Axie Infinity players in Cabanatuan were able to sustain themselves during the pandemic by playing the game. Part of the reason why it grew was through the efforts of a group called “Axie University” which is now also part of YGG. Eventually more and more people are onboarded to NFT games and many of them go to Twitter to thank Axie Infinity and YGG for providing them with a way to earn a living by playing a game without initial upfront cost. Data shows that Axie Infinity is on track to reach 100,000 users on June 2021. This game is not even on the App Store and Play Store.
Is this way more awesome than “banking the unbanked”? Beryl thinks so. She thinks maybe users don’t want to be part of a financial institution. “Maybe a user just wants to be able to make money, wants to be able to earn more and store it in safer places,” she said, adding that if users want to move between programs, they should be able to do so without being penalized. “If they’re going to pull in and out of programs, they should have the upper hand to be able to choose what they want at any time and be given several options.”
Such actions are either impossible or restricted in the current setup of the financial system. After spending the first few years of her career in traditional finance and then in fintech, Beryl recognizes the risks that threaten the financial system, but she firmly believes there are alternative approaches that can truly foster financial inclusion. She believes that blockchain, which made it possible to verify records in a trustless manner and also made NFTs and alternative non-financial products possible, could be the single best tool to protect the global financial system.
Anyone can Participate
Play to Earn, DeFi and NFTs are promising something that’s quite possibly more important than banking the unbanked – the true meaning of economic empowerment is more than having a bank account. And financial inclusion can be achieved even without one. Just ask the Axie Infinity players in Cabanatuan.
The keyword here is “everyone.” Whether you are a skilled player or not, you can earn just by spending enough time in the game. Of course, skill is a factor to achieve more, but at the bare minimum, all you have to do is allot time each day to play. Beryl said there’s no harm trying NFT games because anyone can do so from the comfort of their homes. “You don’t lose anything. You just spend your time playing, so you just end up earning money while being safe home with your family.”
Beryl understands there’s a subset of people who just want to have fun. YGG, Beryl said, has options for every type of player. “You can choose among the games that we tokenized, or maybe apply to be a scholar or be part of an esports team. You can meet people and decide what you want to build or not, purely just to have fun, while at the same time get rewarded for doing so,” she relayed.
And this is what makes Beryl excited for DeFi and the budding Non-Fungible token (NFT) markets. “What we’re seeing in DeFi and play-to-earn is that a lot of people have access to these options, and they don’t want to be told what to do with their money. They don’t want to be told what they’re not allowed to participate in this, and that, and the reason why DeFi really flourished is because of that main philosophy. They really want freedom,” she said.
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This article is published on BitPinas: Beryl Chavez Li – ‘Why Play to Earn’ is More Powerful than “Banking the Unbanked”