Crypto’s Most Powerful Woman Speaks Out as Crisis Rocks Binance
Behind the scenes, Yi He is an influential power broker in the $1.2 trillion crypto market. Now, the firm she helped start with Changpeng “CZ” Zhao is under threat from regulators.
One senior Binance executive has managed to stay out of the global spotlight over the past six years and counting — even now as governments everywhere intensify their crypto clampdown: Yi He.
As a co-founder of the besieged digital-currency empire, she's one of the most powerful players in the $1.2 trillion industry. She also has much to lose as the regulatory onslaught deepens and causes an existential crisis for crypto's largest exchange.
After successfully marketing Binance in its early days across media platforms, Yi He — a former host on Chinese television — proved instrumental to its meteoric rise. Now she's confronting the most dangerous moment in the history of the firm, a dominant force in everything from token trading and venture capital to digital art. US financial watchdogs accuse Binance in civil complaints of operating illegally, violating trading rules and falling short on compliance, and it faces scrutiny elsewhere from France to Australia.
With the company's commanding market share now under pressure, top executives have billions at stake. CEO and co-founder Changpeng “CZ” Zhao is worth around $29 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, and Yi He also enjoys massive wealth as an early shareholder. (The size of her stake is undisclosed.) The pair's fortunes are shared on multiple fronts: They have been partners in business and in life, and have children together.
In a series of interviews with Bloomberg, including one in Dubai just before a fresh lawsuit landed from the US Securities and Exchange Commission, Yi He seeks to convey two key messages. First, Binance and regulators may not be so far apart. Second, the company is far from the villain critics make it out to be.
“If they really took the time to understand our industry, they would see that if Binance isn't compliant, then practically no other global trading platform or offshore company is,” she said last month at Address Fountain Views, a five-star hotel in downtown Dubai.
While Binance famously claims it has no formal headquarters — making it harder in theory to sue and regulate — Yi He and Zhao have set down roots in the firm's adopted home in the Gulf city-state. She likens her relationship to the Binance CEO as similar to having a college roommate. Yet at first blush, the pairing — and the governance issues it raises — recalls the onetime romance of Sam Bankman-Fried and Caroline Ellison at now-doomed FTX. Yi He summarily rejects the comparison. (More on that later.)
In response to the latest US allegations that signal the end of the freewheeling crypto era, Yi He struck a more conciliatory tone in a follow-up WhatsApp message.
“We respect the attitude of regulators, whether it supports or opposes the development of crypto,” she said. “I understand that the overall intention of regulation is good in order to protect investors.”
To be clear, Binance is hardly the only firm feeling the heat. The SEC has also accused major platforms including Coinbase Global Inc. and Kraken of breaking securities rules. Yet the allegations against Binance are notable in their scope and severity. US officials say, among other things, that the firm has lacked adequate money-laundering controls, has pumped up trading volumes and has mishandled client assets. It's also being investigated by the Justice Department, Bloomberg News has reported, while Binance's US platform is being cut off from the banking system. Similar banking-related woes are hitting the firm elsewhere. Probes by US authorities don't always lead to charges being filed against an individual or company. The Justice Department hasn't announced any case against Binance, Zhao or other executives. US regulators haven't alleged that Yi He broke any rules.
A Binance spokesperson referred Bloomberg News to the firm's response to the SEC's complaint earlier this month. Binance has called the regulatory actions “disappointing” and vowed to defend itself, saying customer funds were never at risk on its platforms.
Behind the scenes, Yi He's clout is vast across an exchange that accounts for around half of all crypto trading volume, with a global workforce of about 8,000. Among other duties, she oversees the multibillion-dollar venture capital fund Binance Labs, which has backed more than 200 projects, including decentralized file-sharing platform BitTorrent and blockchain gaming leader Axie Infinity. She is credited with fueling the growth of the Binance-initiated BNB Chain, whose native token has recently been dubbed an unregistered security by the SEC. She also helps supervise the institutional client business as well as acquisitions like CoinMarketCap.
Yi He arrived for the interview in Dubai accompanied only by a security guard. Her limited proficiency in English is, she said, a big reason she never became the face of Binance. It's a vulnerability she acknowledged throughout her interviews with Bloomberg, including a more than three-hour meeting conducted in Mandarin. Yet executives at the firm have sought to play down connections to China, where a crypto trading ban is in force.
“When I interact with Western journalists or give public speeches, people might perceive our company as a Chinese company, right?” she said.
Yi He's participation in Binance's earlier days can be found in evidence collected by the SEC as part of its case against the exchange. In a translated transcript of a 2019 audio file published June 6, she was named by the speaker, identified as Zhao, as part of the decision-making process for how Binance could circumvent restrictions to get American users onto its larger Binance.com venue.
To critics, Binance still operates like its juvenile startup days with a governance and ownership structure cloaked in mystery, whose promise to millions of users effectively boils down to: You can trust us. Yet in Yi He's view, Binance offers more transparency than its detractors allege and has been cooperating with US regulators, something authorities in Washington have disputed.
'The trend of regulations is inevitable globally,' she said. 'It's not something you can solve by shouting ‘fight' a couple of times.'
Yi He didn't respond to claims from the SEC that market makers affiliated with CZ traded on Binance, that those firms used so-called wash trading to pump up volumes and that client funds have been commingled and liberally transferred in and out of various accounts. Meanwhile, she emphasizes that unlike the allegations against FTX, Binance has not touched user funds for its own purposes or used its native BNB token as collateral for loans.
Speculation is intensifying that a post-Zhao era is coming. Though he has conveyed no appetite for relinquishing power anytime soon, that now seems like a distinct possibility. When asked about Binance without her and Zhao, Yi He said they each have backup executives in training while declining to name them. “I think we'll be fine. We're not single points of failure.”
Unlike on Wall Street, where transactions are carried out by a daisy chain of middle men, centralized crypto exchanges do everything from matching orders to custody of client assets — exposing investors to potential conflicts of interest and counterparty risk. As scrutiny on the business of crypto grows, Binance has sought to reform its image by beefing up its compliance staff. But there are signs its loyal fanbase is starting to crack in the wake of US allegations. Its share of trading in both the derivatives and the spot market has fallen from their peaks earlier in the year, according to industry specialist CCData.
“Binance is on the back foot,” said Columbia Business School adjunct professor Austin Campbell, who previously worked at Paxos, which issued the Binance-branded stablecoin BUSD. “Regulators in the West are coming for that business model — either you have a fully separate custodian or there are much more strict rules about custody, handling of user funds, and bundling of duties.”
When Yi He first broke into the crypto scene at the OKCoin exchange in 2014, China was its center. Already well-known as a travel show host, she appeared as a judge on a reality TV program to promote the platform. That same year, Yi He recalls, she hired Zhao as chief technology officer, based on his years of engineering trading systems, including a stint at Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News.
By the time Zhao asked her to be a consultant for Binance in 2017, Yi He had left the virtual-currency industry to become an executive at a live-streaming company. She helped rewrite parts of the white paper for Binance's $15 million initial coin offering that summer and later agreed to join Binance. Unlike most co-founders, she wasn't part of Binance when it began, technically speaking. But those familiar with its early lore generally agree her fame in China's crypto community was critical to its instant success, at a time when the exchange was an upstart compared to the likes of OKCoin and Huobi.
Fast forward six years: the crypto industry is getting punished for being a hotbed of supposedly illegal activity — and Binance's zeal for market share has put a target on its back. With its trading promotions, it was in a way Robinhood before Robinhood. For example until mid-2021, users could withdraw up to two Bitcoins, without offering any proof of identity. It has also listed some tokens that have turned out to be duds, including the TerraUSD algorithmic stablecoin that imploded last year. To crypto critics then, Binance has generated profits off retail gamblers in coins they barely understand.
Then, there's the elephant in the room: That Yi He and Zhao have children together — an open secret among the more informed members of the crypto community. How would she describe their relationship? She demurs.
“What do they call it in the entertainment industry? CP?” she said, referring to Chinese Internet slang for fans wishing two people, either on-screen or in real life, were in a romantic relationship. (It's known as “shipping” in the West.)
She also called Zhao her comrade-in-arms, then something like a college roommate. Their liaison only began after she joined Binance, she said. Yi He drew a parallel with Amazon.com Inc., when Jeff Bezos's former wife MacKenzie Scott served as a contributor in the early years of the company's founding. She acknowledges that it's not a “perfect” example, and among other reasons why the analogy is questionable: Scott wasn't deeply enmeshed in Amazon's billion-dollar businesses like Yi He at Binance.
As for parallels to Bankman-Fried and Ellison, Yi He emphasizes the differences.
“There is a significant distinction here: Caroline was an employee, whereas I am a partner,” she said. “The relationship between co-founders requires much more than what a dating relationship does. A co-founder relationship is about comradeship, a dating relationship is about chemistry. The former is based on shared beliefs and goes beyond gender, the latter is based on physical attraction and selfish desires. ”
Yi He also pointed out that her status as a crypto pioneer predates CZ's. “Even without taking into account personal relationships, I was the one who brought CZ into the cryptocurrency exchange business,” she said. CZ “bringing me to Binance is based on the achievements I had already established,” she added.
But for regulators concerned about blurred lines and concentration of power, the situation will raise red flags. She runs both the Binance arm that invests in crypto projects and the one that decides what get listed. Binance's token listing team, supervised by her, is so secretive that few insiders even know its members, according to Vishal Sacheendran, a director at Binance. It's part of an effort, the firm says, to reduce potential conflicts of interest. Yet this kind of business model sounds particularly opaque in the aftermath of FTX's downfall, which was partially attributed to the intertwined relationships between its exchange operations and trading arm Alameda Research.
To be clear, the big crypto exchanges typically amalgamate a whole range of financial services that will never exist under the same roof in traditional finance. But her varied portfolio, and the opacity around who runs what, speaks to the perception of a tight circle of control at Binance's core. She plays down conflict-of-interest concerns, for the record. “Many projects we invest in actually aren't listed. There are different leaders and different teams, and those two teams are completely separate.”
Regardless, US regulators seem determined to take the crypto giant to task while declaring large swathes of the industry illegal. Something may have to give. It's not clear what concrete concessions she and Zhao are willing to offer right now, even as she acknowledges that the anything-goes crypto era is finished.
“If you can't beat them, you have to surrender,” she said.