Smeal MBA alum pioneers accessibility in cryptocurrency investing
As the cryptocurrency market continues to evolve, obstacles such as education and accessibility have left many behind from reaping the economic benefits. A Penn State Smeal College of Business alum is breaking down these barriers by pioneering a new wave of accessibility in FinTech.
Natasha Bansgopaul is the co-founder and chief operating officer of VegaX Holdings, which has developed a cryptocurrency technology platform that provides investors with “one-stop access” to secure digital asset strategies and indexes — helping those without extensive knowledge on digital currency to experience the benefits of investing in it.
“We create infrastructure and build the technology to help traditional financial institutions and investors operate and enter into crypto,” Bansgopaul says. “We want to be known as the company that makes it a lot easier for people to get into the crypto-world while bridging the gap between traditional finance and digital assets.”
“Smeal prepared me for my traditional corporate experience and my entrepreneurship experience.”
The Value of Networking
The 36-year-old received her MBA from Smeal in 2010, basing her college choice on the close-knit community and smaller class sizes that allowed her to become close with both classmates and faculty who ultimately sculpted her positive experience in Happy Valley.
“Smeal prepared me for my traditional corporate experience and my entrepreneurship experience with all of the challenging classes and experienced professors who equipped me with the tools to thrive in these environments,” Bansgopaul says.
She says the biggest lesson she learned from Smeal about running her own business was the importance of networking — a value that Smeal sees as integral to a student’s success.
“In these experiences, I was taught about corporate-level networking because of mandatory events such as going to company-specific dinners or being interviewed by alumni for job openings in their field,” Bansgopaul says. “There is so much preparation to help you better navigate the corporate world.”
Bansgopaul reflects on how making the most out of her Smeal education prepared her with the necessary skills to succeed in the corporate world — such as negotiations and strategic leadership classes, in addition to attending etiquette classes that focused on dress code and proper dining skills.
She describes having multiple mentors in the college who helped mold her aspirations to become an entrepreneur, including Raghu Garud, Farrell Chair of Innovation and Entrepreneurship. Garud says that he clearly remembered Bansgopaul as standing out amongst his MBA class.
“During the course, she stood out as a person who would make a difference,” Garud says. “She was an outstanding student — not only was she intellectually engaged but in addition she was socially immersed.”
After graduation, Bansgopaul worked at PepsiCo for several years before jumping ship to launch her first startup, which operated at the intersection of financial literacy and crowdfunding. In building blockchain technology while establishing her two other fintech companies — DarcMatter and Konstellation — she realized how difficult it was for people to understand what cryptocurrency and blockchain even meant — let alone how to invest in it.
“Smeal prepared me for my traditional corporate experience and my entrepreneurship experience.”
Connecting the Old with the New
Bansgopaul and her business partner, Sang Lee, whom she met during their undergraduate education at Binghamton University, saw great potential in establishing a business based on building the bridge to help connect traditional finance with decentralized finance — or as Bansgopaul describes it: “connecting the old school with the new school.”
In 2019, they launched VegaX Holdings. Since its launch, Bansgopaul has increased the platform’s assets by over 10,000% with plans to close the company’s Series A round this year.
“Financial services, by their very nature, have such huge inefficiencies which ultimately leads to big inequalities in access and cost. Ultimately, investors that may need the highest level of access are sidelined while investors that already have access are enhanced even further,” Lee says.
Lee, who currently lives in South Korea where VegaX has its second headquarters, says that the company provides the same level of access to all investors by making it automated and easy to understand.
Bansgopaul emphasizes that the largest obstacle the company faces is the very one that inspired her company in the first place: the lack of education regarding cryptocurrency.
“People assume that crypto is completely coming toward the disintermediation of banks or that we are trying to completely overhaul the financial system, but the reality is that there are a lot of changes that need to happen to make things more efficient and to move into the digital age,” she says.
With people either assuming they understand things that they don’t or refusing to learn new concepts, Bansgopaul says it’s a recipe for disaster. To combat it, her company provides context to people in the traditional finance world to help them better understand the dynamics of the crypto world so they can become active participants in it.
“The goal is to give everybody the tools they need to be able to succeed in this world versus a traditional world where those tools are often hidden behind dark curtains that you have no chance of opening,” Bansgopaul says.
Growing Personally and Professionally
Since its launch, Bansgopaul says she’s experienced countless rewarding moments, such as the growth of the company’s employee base, which she says continues to attract people who want to advance the company’s position spearheading cutting-edge technology.
She’s also proud of securing venture capital seed funding, an accomplishment she described as being particularly hard because “Black women don’t get funding, let alone million-dollar seed funding, nor the chance to raise a Series A round.”
As a Black woman leader in FinTech, Bansgopaul says she’s faced significant challenges in navigating the space — like trying to attract investors who don’t look like her or are in “different circles.” However, she says she has welcomed these challenges as an opportunity to grow and notes that she’s seen progress in terms of diversity and inclusivity.
“There are more opportunities for women to learn and take ownership of the financial side of things, as well as ownership over what they see the future being since the industry is so young,” she says. “There’s a lot of opportunity for people to carve out lanes for themselves to learn and build — and I think that women particularly have taken that opportunity.”
Because of this, Bansgopaul is hopeful that in the future, there will be a lot more women who look like her at the table.
An illustration of her up-and-coming career trajectory, Bansgopaul was recognized as one of Penn State’s 2020 Alumni Achievement Award honorees, which highlights remarkable achievements from alumni 35 years and younger. She has also been honored as “Female Executive of the Year” and “Female Entrepreneur of the Year” from The Stevies organization and has been recognized by various publications throughout her career, including Forbes, FastCompany, Black Enterprise, Korea Times, Essence, and ThriveGlobal.
“Keep learning, keep meeting people, and keep talking about what you’re interested in and passionate about.”
In March, Forbes published an article establishing VegaX as a “venture-backed company disrupting the Global FinTech Blockchain market.” To Bansgopaul, this reflects her business’s mission of building technology that allows all players to be entered into this space, “whether you are a big institution or a person who has never had a bank account.”
The article claims that a higher percentage of Black people (23%) own cryptocurrency than Hispanics (17%) or white Americans (11%). In response to this, Bansgopaul emphasized that a core focus of her company is making sure that disadvantaged and minority communities can access the market in a meaningful way. People of color have historically faced more obstacles in traditional institutions, so they are seeking out ways to invest in crypto. Many minority communities, however, still do not have the resources to teach how to invest in crypto. Bansgopaul’s company tries to fill that void and simplify the process.
To ensure this, the company offers workshops on digital assets and other incentives to minority- and women-led communities and organizations interested in entering the space, which she describes as a passion project she shares with her business partner due to their own experience living in these communities.
On top of her own business endeavors, Bansgopaul is also an advisor for EMTECH, a FinTech firm building modern financial infrastructure for central banks, and Waju Water, a New York-based beverage company utilizing upcycled processes.
In 2021, Bansgopaul was selected as a White House Presidential Innovation Fellow, a prestigious, rigorous program for the country’s leading technologists. In her position, she is detailed to the National Institute for Standards and Technology leading artificial intelligence initiatives on transparency.
“The goal of the program is to provide technologists with a year of governmental duty working on significant problems that their assigned agency may be having with the goal of providing positive impact and services for the public at large,” Bansgopaul says. “It is a wonderful program full of extremely intelligent and accomplished people who are all focused on this collective goal of making things better for the public.”
In 10 years, Bansgopaul said she hopes the company is continuing to grow and is operating as a service provider for 95% of financial institutions globally. She emphasized that her company’s primary focus is not to become a household name, but rather to become the standard for helping people better navigate the market so they can experience its benefits.
Her advice to people who aspire to launch a company or pave a unique way to success is simple: continue finding ways to inspire personal and professional growth.
“Keep learning, keep meeting people, and keep talking about what you are interested in and passionate about,” she says. “Because I think a lot of opportunities pop up from people understanding what your visions are and where your passions lie.”
Smeal By the Numbers
Here is a glimpse at how Smeal prepared students to make an immediate impact in the real world this past year: