In the Wild West frontier of cryptocurrency, Stanford GSB student Natalie Meurer spotted an opportunity — not to make money in the speculative quicksand of that evolving realm, but rather to bring some sense of ethics and order to what struck her as potential chaos.
Meurer hopes the nascent company she formed in 2021, Probably Something, can “bridge the gaps between creators and collectors” and shape the ethical norms necessary to prevent disasters such as the meltdown of now-bankrupt FTX Trading.
“It’s this space where there’s very limited regulation — similar to advanced military technology — where there are very few ethical norms that hold any sort of water, and it’s incredibly opaque and not understandable to others,” said Meurer. “These things make it a breeding ground for misuse. I realized there was a need for a company to shape norms in the space.”
She brings to that mission her experience as a software engineer with Palantir Technologies , where she previously built technical safeguards to protect data and individual rights and civil liberties, particularly in government institutions such as police forces and the military.
Why did you call the company Probably Something?
My focus was on realizing the promise of crypto, which is open infrastructure that anyone can access. So, I called the company Probably Something because I wasn’t sure if it was possible. It’s probably going to be something, but I didn’t want to embody the typical crypto over-exuberance and overconfidence that so many people come at this with.
Does it have funding?
We sold NFTs and brought in $1.5 million in 2022. Then from that we’ve been able to build out the team and launch a product called Lifeboat, which helps an individual [collector] understand what is going on in those [crypto] communities. We’re building out the creator side of the platform right now with a product called Beacon. The idea of Beacon is to get a more humanistic understanding of who your community is.
You say you want the company to “bridge the gaps between creators and collectors.” What does that mean, exactly?
One of the most compelling things crypto does is bring people from around the world together in shared ownership of these JPGs. It was falling short on the ability to do that because it was inaccessible. There was no community management software. Creators didn’t have tools to harness this incredible global community that was forming around their products. That’s what we’re building toward — a more humanistic and effective brand experience, and ultimately a more vertical experience.
How about an example?
Say you’re a fan of nice mattresses or really nice wine. Instead of just being a patron of one organization you can actually be a patron of an entire industry. For example, Adidas and Nike have both launched NFT projects. Adidas could say, “I want to reward all the Nike holders with Adidas merch by virtue of their interest of shoes.” That’s something you can’t really do in the existing world.
Your professional focus before coming to the GSB was on building technical safeguards for data protection and individual rights in government. Why do you feel those safeguards are so important?
The government is the only organization that can legally kill you. When you’re dealing at the law enforcement and military level, these are truly life-and-death decisions. There’s no question it matters to get them right. When you think about the use of new and untested tools in the military, such as AI, the downsides of getting that wrong are so significant that to not spend time on what could go wrong is to ignore immense impacts on the lives of others. Over the past 250 years in the U.S., we’ve spun up all these institutions designed [to protect] life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. If those institutions aren’t upholding the values we’re fighting for, we’re not really fighting for anything at all.
Are there philosophical parallels in the crypto world?
In the context of crypto, technology isn’t just unequivocally good. FTX and so many of the crypto shortfalls have borne this out. They only matter if they’re safe to use and people can get real value out of them and not be burned.
Which brings us to your previous focus on data logging. Why is that back-end function of technology so important?
It’s important that we have constraints around technology. We need technology that can explain things better and foster inclusivity, but we also need technology that reins in the worst of technology. In the context in which I worked on data logging, law enforcement and defense, the question of how technology is being used is as important as what the technology is. If someone is abusing the technology, then it isn’t serving its purpose and the institutions [that use it] are subverting their main mission, which in the case of law enforcement and defense is to protect people.
There’s a lot of focus these days on proper handling of classified information. Since you had top secret clearance from the Department of Defense, what personal obligations and responsibilities do you think that access brings?
It gets back to a sense of responsibility. It’s only recently that classification has been attainable for more diverse individuals. Getting access to those spaces is so hard for a reason — because you’re serving something bigger than yourself. The stakes are so high. That’s really all I can say about it, but it ties into my sense of nationalism. Being part of something bigger than yourself is a commitment to fight for Western values. At the end of the day, it’s just following rules.
Your honors thesis at Georgetown was about the importance of deleting data. Explain.
This idea of permanent record is fundamentally at odds with justice writ large in society. Say 20 years ago someone stole a loaf of bread as a 16-year-old. Now they’re 36. Is it relevant to who they are today that they stole a loaf of bread when they were 16? The ability to delete and forget is essentially the ability to move on as humans.
At Palantir you helped prioritize underrepresented candidates in the hiring process. How specifically did you do that?
We thought about diversity as diversity of perspective. Obviously, there are more standard diversity metrics that people go for, but the important thing for our team was to find voices that embodied different perspectives on privacy and ethics. We had someone on our team who was Singaporean, for example, and he had very different expectations about security and privacy coming from what I would describe as an authoritarian country. In the hiring process, we also made space for what we called “bet” candidates. These were candidates where their coding ability was undeveloped, but the bet was that they’d learn quickly and that they would embody something we didn’t yet have on the team.
Any mentors who had an outsized impact on you?
One is John Glavin, a professor of English at Georgetown who runs the Carroll Fellows Initiative. I was part of that program. He is ruthlessly exacting in what he demands of students and is a towering figure for the people he works with — so much so that he’s polarizing. He sent me some hard-hitting emails early in my undergrad experience that helped me push myself harder.
My boss at Palantir for five years, Courtney Bowman. The thing he instilled in me was leading with discomfort, which is an idea you can hear in my ambivalence about crypto. It’s acknowledging all of the bad, but if there’s a kernel of good there, you use your acknowledgement of the negatives to drive toward something that’s more positive.
Any books, classes, professors, or experiences at GSB that have been particularly useful?
The Leadership Perspectives class taught by Joel Peterson and Charles O’Reilly brings different leaders at the top of their industry to class to talk about their journey and the tradeoffs they made along the way — the good, the bad, and the ugly of their careers. It’s amazing to see these wonderful people at the top of their field, but also the ways that people respond to these leaders.
Generally, how would you describe your GSB experience?
I deferred admission for five years, and the question was to go to business school or not. The reason I came was that I wanted to surround myself with people who thought differently than me. I got that in spades. The GSB embodies international perspectives in a way that’s far more than I expected, and it embodies a commitment to servant leadership in a way I didn’t expect.
Photos by Elena Zhukova