At MIT, Gensler ‘read more white papers’ than anyone: Former teaching assistant

At MIT Sloan, one former student and teaching assistant said Gensler had a reputation as a tough grader who did his homework


Midjourney modified by Blockworks


Now-SEC Chair Gary Gensler, from a “social perspective,” came across as an MIT Sloan professor that was “super friendly, super nice, super approachable,” according to a former student.

But from a “business perspective,” it quickly became clear that “this guy is serious,” said that former student, once tapped to serve as one of Gensler’s teaching assistants.

Kenny Li — who graduated from MIT Sloan with an MBA and co-founded the Manta Network on Polkadot — told Blockworks that Gensler was a tough teacher, a harsh grader and someone who generally knew his stuff. 

Kenny Li, Gary Gensler's former teaching assistant
Kenny Li, Gary Gensler’s former teaching assistant | Photo provided by Kenny Li

Li’s generally positive recollection of Gensler flies contrary to scores of dabblers and professionals alike in all things digital assets. A number of industry participants, perhaps now  approaching something close to consensus, have derided Gensler and the SEC for the US securities regulator’s scrutiny of wide swaths of the sector. 

Everyone from Coinbase CEO Brian Armstrong to top officials at lobbyist Blockchain Association have weighed in on the SEC’s actions with oscillating shade. The regulator in recent weeks has levied lawsuits against Binance and Coinbase, and officials have also fired a fresh round of warning shots at other crypto-linked entities. 

They’ve pointed to Gensler’s purportedly shifting tone about what constitutes a crypto security — and whether it’s even possible, at present, to set up an exchange that meets the regulatory prerequisites to freely facilitate the exchange of tokens. 

Li graduated from MIT Sloan in 2018. Given the pace of crypto developments since, that may as well have been a lifetime ago, at least in digital asset terms. 

Looking back, what sticks out now, he said, is the deep rooted work Gensler put in to explain markedly complex blockchain topics to students who may have not known much about them. The now-SEC chair “read more white papers than anyone I’ve ever met,” Li said.

“One of the classes…he started diving into the technical details of how proof-of-work actually works, how mining actually works, all this stuff,” Li said. “It was a blend of thinking and [considering] it all from a holistic industry perspective of, ‘What actually is the blockchain, and why is it defined as a blockchain?’ That is something that, honestly, most people in the space still probably don’t even know how proof-of-work really works.” 

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Gensler worked with Li on a paper charting the history of cryptocurrencies, which Li said Gensler sent to Binance CEO Changpeng “CZ” Zhao to read. 

“I remember the first draft of the Binance paper came back with so many marks, so many comments and everything, and I was just like, ‘Wow, out of all the classes I’ve taken, I’ve never seen a professor go into this much detail with edits and suggestions and thoughts,’” he said. 

Having gotten his start casually mining bitcoin (BTC) years before he officially broke into crypto with Manta, Li said he’s come a long way since those graduate school classes in terms of his own understanding — and his own two cents of where regulations does, and should, factor in. 

Where is crypto headed?

The SEC’s recent enforcement actions against Binance and Coinbase are really representative of a “larger question,” Li said, a question that’s “not just about the SEC,” but rather “where is this industry really headed?”

He rattled off a number of problematic trends, including the continued prevalence of rug pulls and related scams on DeFi protocols. Li said, “they’re the ones that take precedence,” even though such bad actors are “not representative of all of the things that are happening on the development side.” 

Polychain led a $1.1 million seed round for the Manta Network in 2021, alongside participation from several other investors, including the now-defunct Three Arrows Capital and Alameda Research. The privacy-oriented Manta Network, which incorporated a decentralized exchange into its business plans, went on to rustle up another $5.5 million in an ensuing raise.

At MIT Sloan, which houses MIT’s graduate programs in business and management-related fields, Gensler worked as a senior adviser to the MIT Media Lab Digital Currency Initiative, in addition to serving as a professor for several cryptocurrency classes. 

Lessons learned from Li’s time looking over papers and helping Gensler with mounds of coursework as a teaching assistant often remain front of mind in his professional dealings with building out the Manta Network today, he said. 

“When you’re in the crypto space, it’s really interesting, because you feel like you’re going a million miles an hour, regardless of what the market conditions are…it must be hard to regulate,” he said.

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