The founders of multibillion-dollar companies are not like you or me. Building a corporate giant requires a combination of smarts, drive, and ruthlessness that normal people don’t possess—and that’s doubly the case when the company in question is the industry leader. This brings us to Changpeng Zhao, the founder and CEO of Binance.
Along with my talented colleague, Yvonne Lau, I spent weeks digging into how Zhao—or CZ as he’s universally known in Crypto Land—built a crypto exchange that became the world’s biggest in barely a year, and that today towers over the industry. Unlike Coinbase founder Brian Armstrong, who is fixated on Hollywood status and vanity projects, Zhao has a disarming charm and humble affect that conceals a cutthroat—and sometimes lawless—approach to business.
Zhao’s life story, which he has widely shared, is compelling. He arrived in Canada from China at the age of 12 and worked at McDonald’s and Chevron as his father pursued a doctorate and his mom worked sewing jobs. Zhao thrived in his new company, participating in math competitions and becoming captain of the volleyball team, and then going on to university and finding his way into finance.
It’s a nice story but one that offers few clues as to how Zhao became a globe-trotting baron who today stands astride the crypto industry. After all, lots of us worked hard in high school and went on to some sort of success in the professional world. Peeling back the layers of Zhao’s story, though, reveals two big factors that shaped who he is today.
The first is geography. In many ways, Zhao was in the right place at the right time, coming to Canada at a time when the country was a springboard for talented young people born in Asia. Upon his return to China in his mid-20s, he leveraged his familiarity with both Asian and North American cultures to rise fast in the go-go tech scene of Shanghai during the first part of the century. It didn’t hurt that he had elite math and coding skills he had inherited from his father.
The other big factor that shaped Zhao is that same father. Despite being a brilliant academic, the senior Zhao remained on the periphery of the university world due to the oppression he encountered during the Cultural Revolution, and then later due to his poor English skills. Zhao told me that his father’s experience—along with reading the personal finance bestseller Rich Dad, Poor Dad—taught him to seek a different path. If you want to add a psychological layer to the story, Zhao conveyed a sense of pain when recounting to us how his aloof father didn’t attend a single one of his volleyball games. It’s not hard to imagine how such an experience could shape a future CEO.
As I said, Zhao’s life and career are a nice story—though one that should not inform our opinions about Binance and its controversial business practices. After all, the most recent great narrative in crypto—about a Stanford-born whiz kid who believed in effective altruism—fooled all of us badly. That said, the tale of the forces behind Binance’s remarkable rise is well worth a read. (The feature is only available to subscribers—please consider supporting Fortune’s quality business journalism.)
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The failed Signature Bank‘s 24/7 payment tool, Signet, which was a key financial conduit for the crypto industry, is a white-label product made by an enterprise blockchain firm. (Fortune)
The Coinbase executive convicted of insider trading must pay the company $470,000 in restitution. (WSJ)
A detailed investigation suggests U.S. Bitcoin mining operations harm both the environment and public utilities, though prominent crypto figures dispute the findings. (NYT)
Bitcoin broke the $30,000 mark for the first time since last June. (Coindesk)
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