Cathy Yoon ’07 Reflects on the Transition from Big Banking to Life at a Blockchain Startup

portrait of new york law school alum cathy yoonPublished in February 2019

Blockchain technology has become a media buzzword, launched a generation of “crypto-billionaires,” and altered professions as diverse as banking, fashion, and nonprofit giving. Yet, a decade ago, blockchain was virtually unheard of.

Catherine (Cathy) Yoon ’07 has witnessed the technology’s dramatic growth first-hand. She first learned about blockchain a few years ago. Today it’s the focus of her legal career.

Yoon attended NYLS as an Evening Division student while working full-time in the mergers and acquisitions (M&A) group of The Bank of New York’s legal department—a quick walk from NYLS’s Tribeca campus. She worked hard to balance her busy day job and the demands of law school. Throughout, Yoon steadily focused on her plans to practice M&A law. She graduated near the top of her class.

After graduating, Yoon became a Business Transactions Associate at a large firm—Schulte Roth & Zabel LLP. She then spent seven years in house at The Bank of New York Mellon (BNY Mellon), where she was part of a 50,000-employee workforce and a 200-person legal department.

Yoon’s corporate career was taking off, but she yearned for fresh challenges. She was beginning to work on blockchain-related projects at BNY Mellon. In late 2017, a longtime mentor recruited her to join his blockchain- and cryptocurrency-consulting startup, Genesis Block. Yoon decided to take the leap.

“Working at a big firm or a large corporation, there was a hierarchy and strict parameters around my job,” Yoon says. “Working for a startup, you can’t say, ‘That’s not what I was hired to do.’ You’re directly invested in the company’s success, so you take on whatever is needed.”

Yoon now serves as Genesis Block’s General Counsel. She also provides legal guidance to GB Capital Markets Inc., an affiliated broker-dealer of Genesis Block.

In startup life, she says, no two days are alike and she must often re-prioritize her workload on the fly. Her role includes advising entrepreneurs and industry leaders as they progress towards a digital token offering or other types of capital raising, navigate complex legal issues, or structure deals. She also handles traditional general counsel and corporate secretarial duties, helps shape the company’s strategic initiatives, meets with potential new clients, and plans industry events to ensure that Genesis Block is part of critical discussions about the future of blockchain.

Wearing many hats has pushed Yoon to expand her skill set. Formerly reluctant to speak publicly, she’s now a frequent participant in industry panels on topics such as whether the blockchain era has changed investors’ approaches and how lawyers and startup leaders can work together efficiently. Last fall, she discussed how blockchain is shaping the future of fashion at NYLS’s 2018 Fashion Law Symposium. Yoon has found that she likes clearing up misconceptions about blockchain and spreading the word about its enormous potential. After all, it wasn’t so long ago that she herself was a blockchain novice.

“In the beginning, I was kind of a skeptic,” she reflects. “What got my attention was that the central idea of blockchain was to be able to do transactions without a middle man. It’s a way for people to transact with one another outside of the norms of what is traditional or accepted today.”

She says that a frequent point of confusion is the difference between Bitcoin and blockchain.

“When I mention blockchain, sometimes I get a blank look,” she says. “When I mention Bitcoin, eyes light up. A big part of my mission is education: blockchain does not equal Bitcoin.”

Yoon says that people’s curiosity about her field has created networking opportunities. She’s also advised NYLS students who are contemplating following a similar career path.

“My biggest advice to people is, maintain your network like it’s your full-time job,” she says. “And work hard. I’m willing to help you, but you have to work hard too.”

Yoon balances her work ethic with a commitment to helping others. She does pro bono work with the City Bar Justice Center’s Neighborhood Entrepreneur Law Project, which offers free legal counsel to low- and moderate-income entrepreneurs, and she is an advisory member for GlamourGals Foundation, a foundation dedicated to inspiring and empowering teenage volunteers to provide companionship to women living in senior homes. And in her free time, she takes every opportunity to snowboard.

“I’m not saying you can have it all,” Yoon says, “but if you want to, you can have a pretty full life.”