- Sandler’s vision includes getting cryptocurrency into everyone’s hands, especially for women
- Sandler says bitcoin is a message about “financial empowerment and self sovereignty”
Fidelity’s Christine Sandler is campaigning to make digital assets part of everyone’s lives.
As the head of sales and marketing at Fidelity Digital Assets (FDAS), the investment giant’s bitcoin custody and trade execution business for institutional customers, she’s bridging gaps between old and new finance one partnership at a time—with clients, other companies and her own colleagues.
“Sales is a very granular grassroots message,” she said. “It’s very specific to the client, and it’s tactical.”
Closing the investment gap
Fidelity began exploring digital assets in 2013. FDAS was born out of Fidelity Center for Applied Technology in 2018 and now has more than 100 clients across its digital assets businesses, as of December, four times more than the same time in the previous year. The firm doesn’t disclose assets under custody or trading volumes for digital assets, however Fidelity Investments has more than $10.2 trillion in client assets under administration and processes more than 2.3 million trades a day.
Sandler’s vision includes getting cryptocurrency (bitcoin and beyond) into everyone’s hands. Especially for women, who are already fighting to close the gender pay gap but also now have an opportunity in digital assets to close the gender investing gap more quickly. She’s also passionate about hiring and promoting more women into leadership roles in the cryptocurrency industry.
“Bitcoin is a message about financial empowerment and self sovereignty,” she said. “Anybody can learn. I don’t know how to build a carburetor, but I know how to drive a car. I don’t know cryptography, but I could buy crypto. I could buy and understand how crypto functions and what its role is in the broader global economy.”
Expanding the comfort zone
Today at Fidelity, Sandler is in charge of growing custody assets and execution volume. When she and her team are introduced to a new client that says their firm is interested in offering clients exposure to bitcoin or putting bitcoin in its portfolio, Sandler helps them understand the landscape, the value proposition, the challenges, how they should think about it and how they should hold it.
“We help them think about how they would leverage this asset class or benefit from it, and that’s when I know I’m doing my job,” she said.
FDAS launched in October 2018 to build enterprise-grade bitcoin custody services for large institutions. Sandler said it plans to add custody for ether this year, which could open the door to “lots of different things,” but the firm is still focused on traditional clients who aren’t digitally native (though FDAS does have some digitally native clients on the platform).
“We tend to focus on those that are new to the asset class, and when they’re new to the asset class, 90% of what they ask about is bitcoin,” she said.
Some are becoming more comfortable with digital assets, though. Those who are more familiar with bitcoin are showing interest in Ethereum, decentralized finance (DeFi) and non-fungible tokens (NFTs), she said. “People who are new to the ecosystem don’t realize that there’s so much diversity in the overall assets.”
Starting to come together
Sandler comes from a long career in traditional finance. She spent seven years as a trader, first at W.H. Reaves & Co., now Reaves Asset Management, then at Spear, Leeds & Kellogg, which is now owned by Goldmans Sachs. In 1998, she left trading and switched to sales. At the time, trading was becoming more quantitative, Sandler said.
“I looked at trading and said, ‘Well trading has begun to change, is it changing in a way where I’m going to be a better trader or am I going to be negatively impacted by these changes?’” Sandler said. “I came to the conclusion that I’d probably be fighting for a seat at some point.”
Sandler’s sales career began in 1998 at Bloomberg Tradebook, the company’s agency broker for big investment advisors and money managers. There, she was offered the opportunity to manage others.
She got exposure to some of the technical technological changes around the electronification of the equities business, learned a more technical approach to trading and articulated those learnings to a broader set of investors. And as a manager, it was where things “started to really come together” for her, she said.
“I had an idea of how I would want to be treated as an employee and I tried to apply that to how I managed others,” she said. “You get lucky if you hire the right people, so I tend to look for strong self-motivated people. And then I try to give them a little bit of rope and let them do what they do best, and that so far has worked out pretty well.”
Building the dream team
“My favorite job—this one, notwithstanding—was as global head of sales at the New York Stock Exchange,” she said. “I entered at one level, I left at another level and the great thing about it was there was so much change in the business at that point.”
It was 2007, and the business was about having clients that were also competitors, she explained.
And as a bonus, many of the senior leaders were women—specifically, women without overlapping skills: one operator, one M&A lawyer, a strategy head and a marketing head.
“We all got along really well, so it was like working with your best friends. It was a unique experience,” for the era, she said.
“On old Wall Street there were so few of us [women], you did get that kind of catty kind of Queen Bee Syndrome; the dominant female didn’t want anybody challenging them and there was really this kind of pervasive undertone that women didn’t really go out of their way to help other women,” she recalled. “You often found women getting ahead or getting exposed to different challenges and opportunities with the help of a male mentor. I didn’t have a strong sense of female mentorship throughout the beginning of my career.”
Sandler, a strong and passionate advocate for greater gender diversity across corporate levels and especially at digital assets firms, said the tone is set from the top. If a company’s leaders say it’s important to have a diverse and nonhomogeneous leadership team, they’ll prioritize it – the way they did at the NYSE.
“And there are lots of great mentors, male and female, who will help you along the way. Just go find them,” she said.
Coming out of retirement
In 2018, Sandler had come out of her two-year retirement to become head of institutional sales at Coinbase. She’d first learned about cryptocurrency years earlier in 2011. She took it upon herself to learn as much about it as she could because she was fascinated by the idea of decentralization, and asked a tech friend one day to explain “the blockchain,” she said. Specifically, she wanted to understand distributed ledger technology.
“He basically explained the trustless exchange and why that’s so important: because nobody controls it,” she said. “I grew up in an ecosystem where that central counterparty was the fiduciary or the responsible party that created the rules, enforced the rules and made everything happen in a centralized way.”
Though she was more focused on learning about distributed ledgers, as so many with traditional finance backgrounds are at first, cryptocurrencies had a permanent place somewhere in the corners of her mind. She said she did eventually go down a bit of a crypto rabbit hole.
“I kept going back to some of the challenges that we had in traditional finance,” she said. “I remember in the teeth of the JOBS Act we had a difficult time raising money for small and mid cap companies. I thought, ‘Is traditional finance – is that broken?’”
Later, initial coin offerings (ICOs), a form of crowdfunding using cryptocurrencies, were the hot new thing that quelled her worries about finance.
“When you think about it, it’s pretty elegant,” she said of ICOs. “If we can solve some of the governance challenges I think we have a lot of freedom in terms of how we can shape the future of finance. ICOs were a glimpse into what that future could be, and clearly, DeFi is another window into what that future could be.”
Moving into the cryptocurrency industry full time in 2018 carried much more career risk than it does today, but it wasn’t the only kind Sandler was managing.
“I had very trusted friends who said to me, ‘No one’s gonna hire you, you’re a 50 year old woman, your options are going to be limited.’ It was soul crushing to hear that my age and my gender would be such an obstacle to me finding employment. I thought that if I married my thirst for knowledge with the right environment that I could probably be pretty lucky, and enjoy potentially the second half of my career. I didn’t realize I would get this lucky.”
Achieving diversity in custody deals
Sandler has been at Fidelity since 2019. She and her team, together with the operations and research teams, reinforce products’ attributes and articulate value propositions for clients and potential clients.
While the goal is to grow the custody business as much as possible, Sandler wants to achieve diversity in the different custody deals they win, across large banks, regional banks, pensions, endowments and more.
“If we reached our goal and it was 100% hedge funds, of course that would be great, but it wouldn’t prove that there was a really strong institutional narrative taking hold,” she said.
Hedge funds tend to be first movers because of their approach to risk and the flexibility they have to add assets to their overall investment portfolios. Sandler said FDAS has been seeing good gains from hedge funds as well as financial intermediaries like banks, and expects that trend to continue.
Sandler also expects to see the asset management business grow more this year, based on the number of ETF filings this year alone. Once an ETF is finally approved by the Securities and Exchange Commission, it’s expected to help retail investors begin their bitcoin journey, if they haven’t already.
FDAS doesn’t serve retail clients, but Sandler said it’s keen to see more products in the hands of retail clients, “even if we cannot serve them at this time by offering them access to spot bitcoin.”
“There’s what we want,” she said. “More people, more individuals, more families and more 401Ks exposed to digital assets, and bitcoin is a really great way to start.”