An Interview With Irina Marinescu: On Web3 Ecosystem Building and the Mission of Buidlbox

29 May 2024

Hackathons are where crazy ideas advance humanity. I had the pleasure of speaking with Irina Marinescu, the CEO of buidlbox, to discuss this flywheel of web3. Inspired by her experiences across finance (on Wall Street, at large law firms, at the SEC and World Bank), technology, and education (teaching at Cornell Tech), Irina now aims to empower pioneers of the future. Under her leadership, buidlbox is dedicated to crafting a social network for developers, positioning the platform as a central hub for developer engagement and growth within and beyond web3.

Irina, what has your journey been like, and what sparked your interest in web3?

Growing up behind the Iron Curtain, innovation, especially around capital allocation, was effectively off-limits. My parents courageously left everything behind to start anew in the '90s—we literally arrived in America with two suitcases. So, the immigrant or outsider perspective runs deep for me and inspired my focus on finance and tech to grok both how money moves and how modern networks and tooling empower our workforce to upskill and advance. So education and the grind are core to my north star—what’s so beautiful about America is these two, in combination, can really lift people up.

I landed at Barclays in the summer of 2008, only months before it bought out Lehman Brothers on the eve of bankruptcy. I will never forget the shockwaves across the 26,000-strong Lehman workforce that flooded the press that weekend. Sitting in the eye of this cataclysmic hurricane gave me a very real sense of the dangerous opacity and fragility of some of our traditional financial trust networks and how those risks are socialized.

By 2012, I’d graduated law school, had spent time clerking at the Federal Court of International Trade, at the SEC building market manipulation cases, and at the World Bank trying to hard code anti-fraud and anti-corruption mechanisms in World Bank Group-financed activities. I cared more than ever about financial impact, integrity, and agency, and started practicing law by helping tech entrepreneurs scale and fuel strategic growth with financial leverage and other tooling, just as Bitcoin became more prominent and investable. By 2015-2016, I started exploring crypto investability more broadly and later wrote about how securing debt with crypto might fare in bankruptcy.

By 2020, I gained some recognition among peers and was invited to teach at Cornell Tech, where I collaborated with my very dear and talented friend Brittany Laughlin from the Stacks Foundation to design multidisciplinary courses for JD, MBA, and CS students around DeFi and crypto more broadly, which we taught over several years. We knew from our own experience ideating since college that combining skillsets was not just positive-sum, but the natural way to build open, permissionless technology and best prepare students to innovate and navigate web3.

By 2021, I was fully mission-driven to advance open networks and open source more broadly, so I joined Gitcoin full-time as General Counsel, a project at the heart of hacking towards more sustainable funding for open source software. A core element to my mission remains upskilling and shepherding talent into and within web3—and Gitcoin did (and does) this exceptionally well through grants and bounties as well as hackathons (which we at buidlbox now champion).

What I learned is that when done well, hackathons are arguably the most effective zero-to-one ecosystem growth tool.

Can you talk more about the role of hackathons as vehicles for ecosystem growth?

Ecosystem building is tough. To start, you need diverse talent and consistent developer relations. Simply running a hackathon won’t yield lasting results. So, we at buidlbox matched hackathons with branding programs, gamified leaderboards, educational resources, job boards, and more, discovering a magical formula that works when consistently applied—this is what we call “modular devrel”.  This approach gives builders discrete time and space to brainstorm, build, and showcase their work, simplifying community engagement and support. Meanwhile, sponsor ecosystems can readily identify their 1000 true fans by bolting on programming, services, or tooling that makes the most sense for that particular community’s pain points.

Hackathons are one particularly versatile tool that provides discrete venues for targeted deployment. Some might view them simply as marketing tools, but they're vital for R&D and ideation. Ideally, they should be part of a thematic, year-long program that allows for continuous building. They are even more impactful when offered as a capstone project alongside in-person events, creating even more connectivity and engagement. Good execution means identifying and matching skill sets, interests, languages, and primitives that are in demand by builders, with the ecosystems most dedicated to cultivating them. LUKSO, for instance, has been a longtime partner and harnessed buidlbox to originate a variety of novel tooling and social solutions on Universal Profiles.  At the end of the day, hackathons are a compelling forcing function for discovering web3 utility, which is among the most important work for proving out the potential of web3 writ large.

How would you describe a good hackathon?

Glad you asked! We recently alluded to a few features here—namely, compelling challenges and prizes that tap into community demand, great documentation, and other developer resources, useful tooling and integrations to speed up experimentation and deployment, ease of communication and robust feedback loops, and clear and unequivocal criteria and guidelines, to name a few. However, a tangible proof point that comes to mind for me personally is when, after a hackathon, builders are eager for the next opportunity to learn, earn, and grow and the community sentiment is buzzing about it. At best, a great hackathon is when builders acknowledge that it was just the start—good hackathons are the kindling for competitive deployment, bringing out the best in builders, and driving more iteration and engagement going forward. Whether you’re a seasoned Solidity dev or eager to pick up Rust, Stylus, or Cairo, having a venue to learn, earn, compete, connect, and showcase your work is key. At best, you become a vocal, credentialed contributor to an ecosystem you call home, and that community rewards you for your expertise.

Is there a project born during a hackathon that impressed you and exemplifies why hackathons are valuable in the first place?

That’s tough—there are so many! One that stood out recently was a decentralized fashion house. It debuted in a no-code hack that we sponsored so it did not deploy a live MVP, but I love to see encoded transparency on-chain applied to historically opaque industries.

Ultimately, my highest conviction is that building compelling web3 use cases that seamlessly onboard the next 1 billion is the most important work—if regulatory rails are our biggest industry hurdle, moving upstream to win the hearts and minds of everyday voters will make the most difference. buidlbox is driven to do just that—powering zero-to-one web3 deployment through hackathons while giving builders a venue to showcase and monetize that work via longer-term job opportunities, mentorships, and academy programs (to come!). Impactful hackathon projects can gradually shift how regulators and the public perceive web3. By showcasing and igniting innovation, we can reshape public understanding. We're not just building for today—we're laying the groundwork for economies that will provide sustainable, meaningful solutions for future generations.

So, how can we get more builders involved?

We need to make it easy for participants to find a community where they can showcase their work and consistently contribute after each hackathon. For example, buidlbox builder profiles point directly to project demos, advertise technical skills and desired ecosystems, host a curated content library of battle-tested development tooling and educational resources, and make it easy to follow other builders. Hackers can also connect directly with sponsors and secure recognition and badging for their achievements through leaderboards and prizes. These features are all built for builders first.

In short, it’s all about simplifying upskilling, fostering community connections, and enabling builders to make a lasting impact.

How do you support those with a vision but no real-world startup experience?

Our community's strength lies in its diversity—buidlbox builders range from highly skilled developers to experts in design, business bootstrapping, marketing, and token economics, among other specialties. This variety mirrors that of every great venture; as with building great courses at Cornell Tech, mixing skill sets is critical to building something that matters.

That said, affording builders the opportunity to upskill through discrete educational resources or longer-term academy programs is also critical for cultivating repeat contributors—educational opportunities are just as mission-critical as a diverse community. For instance, MorphL2 invites hackathon winners to its incubator program.

Finally, ensuring projects can compete for long-term funding through grants programs, access to mentors, and future hackathon competitions is also key. Mentors, often brought in by sponsors familiar with each ecosystem, provide important guidance, whereas grants avenues like Gitcoin, for instance, offer runways toward sustainability while projects work toward product-market fit and adoption. Alternatively, ArbitrumDAO ran a funding round through each of the Allo x Arb hackathon winners, whereas LUKSO had 1st-place winners of each hackathon challenge meet with their Engineering Leads.  In each case, less experienced contributors can upskill or partner with others who complement their strengths, together fueling sustainable ecosystem growth.

How do you see the profile of builders today, and how can we get more non-tech people involved?

It’s true that a majority of buidlbox talent is technical—proficient in the full stack of skills and languages needed to deploy trustless rails, tooling, and other products and services. However, non-technical roles are equally vital, and I suspect they comprise a massive opportunity in web3 at large; we operate in a technical space with much of the innovation to date owed to 10x giants, whereas the concentration of robust primitives that we enjoy today (vs. 2008) is ripe for experimentation, especially by long tail (non-engineering contingent) of contributors.

To engage this non-technical talent—the evangelizers, supercommunicators, and designers, for instance—we host a number of no-code hackathons, making it easy to follow and collaborate with technical talent on the platform. Modular devrel is also about cherry-picking the features and services that will best solve a given ecosystem’s pain points; there is no one-size-fits-all. For instance, whereas some newer ecosystems could use more robust documentation, others would most benefit from continuous education or vibrant community events like hackathons. Ultimately, we endeavor to provide all skill sets with a flywheel of opportunities to contribute and be recognized for doing so.

What are some insights you can share about the current state of the web3 space?

First, the richness of data available on open networks presents an incredible opportunity, especially for data scientists, yet we are not seeing enough of them in web3. We could do a better job to collectively welcome them. The case for leveraging this talent pool is becoming clearer with every advance in machine learning and AI, for instance—since blockchain and AI are so synergistic. I mean, if a main web3 challenge is discerning signal from so much noise, it’s ML and AI that can efficiently and effectively drive high-fidelity decision-making and, in turn, really adapt and scale permissionless systems to real-world use cases across healthcare, financial services, and life sciences, among others (cue DePIN).  We're actually working adjacent to this by collaborating with projects like Open Source Observer, which provides the information that helps ecosystems understand where they can effectively find and engage their ambassadors.

Second, with the proliferation of other chains and L2s, and the related increased demand for development skills beyond Solidity and EVM proficiency, builders focused on interoperability and related tooling will be in high demand. This might seem obvious, but the Polygons of the world and many other projects are focusing on exactly this (in the case of Polygon, via the Agg Layer), which means that broader engineering and architecture skills are increasingly prized.

What excites you the most about the future of web3?

Diversity of talents, skills, interests, and circumstances; I deeply believe education and work are tremendous equalizers, and buidlbox sits at the intersection of, and aims to advance and improve both. We know, for instance, that corporate boards with women outperform. Women in Crypto, which I helped found, also champions women in leadership.

Web3 is a step function improvement on how we work—we enjoy the creative freedom to work collaboratively and asynchronously. What a gift! This flexibility is a blessing, which in my case, allows me to engage actively with my daughter, fueling a virtuous flywheel of professional inspiration. At the end of the day, my time and contribution are short-lived—arguably, my biggest impact is helping to revolutionize the way she and her generation will learn, earn, and grow.  The shift towards more inclusive and equitable participation will only enrich web3 further and I think the future we are building for our kids is among the most rewarding parts of our work.