Irene Hernández, MBA ’18
Irene Hernández, MBA ’18, joins Christopher Reichert, MOT ’04, to share how her experience at MIT Sloan and working at the MIT Media Lab led her to create GATACA, a global digital ID platform that provides verified identities to deliver a fast and secure customer onboarding experience. They also reminisce about Irene's favorite memories and classes at MIT Sloan and her advice to prospective Sloanies.
Christopher Reichert: Welcome to Sloanies Talking with Sloanies, a candid conversation with alumni and faculty about the MIT Sloan experience and how it influences what they're doing today. So, what does it mean to be a Sloanie? Over the course of this podcast, you'll hear from guests who are making a difference in their community, including our own very important one here at MIT Sloan.
Hi, I'm your host, Christopher Reichert and welcome to Sloanies Talking with Sloanies. My guest today is Irene Hernández, a 2018 graduate of Sloan's MBA program. She teaches in blockchain and business applications at the OBS Business School as well. She did blockchain research on decentralized grids at the MIT Media Lab when she was in Cambridge. She speaks four languages: Chinese, English, German, and a little bit of Spanish. She was awarded an MIT Dean's Fellowship and a SEPI Foundation Fellowship. It's a pleasure to meet you!
Irene Hernández: Thank you. Gracias.
Christopher Reichert: She's also the founder and CEO of GATACA, a global digital ID platform that provides verified identities to deliver a fast and secure customer onboarding experiences, which I want to return to in a minute. For users, that means you have a mobile identity application. It's like a wallet on your phone and you can store your personal data securely, and then you can manage access to all the different digital services at one place. For companies, GATACA offers them identity verification and single sign on tools. So, the companies get the service from GATACA, which then offers it to customers and they all join up on credentials issuing and validation platform to keep it all safe and secure. So, welcome!
Irene Hernández: Thank you. I couldn't have explained it better myself.
Christopher Reichert: The first question I have is for the name GATACA. Everyone knows about the movie. Did it come from the movie or from somewhere else?
Irene Hernández: No, it did not come from the movie. I hadn’t seen the movie at the time I put the name. Actually, my husband was the architect of the name, but it's kind of related. The G-A-T and C, that are the four main letters that compound the name of the movie are also the four main components of the DNA. Because we're building digital identities, which is in an essence, the DNA of the internet, we found it pretty appropriate to put the name for the company.
Christopher Reichert: So, you mentioned, you wrote a Medium article about “35 Use Cases of Decentralized Digital Identities.” Tell me a bit about what's the genesis of GATACA and how did you come around to starting the company?
Irene Hernández: Well, my professional journey has always been about seeking the next big thing for me. A little bit about myself too, that explains how I ended up building GATACA. I was born in Spain, where I went to a German school, so I grew up between two different cultures. Also, my mom was an executive in a large corporation, so I would travel a lot and I got to spend periods of time in other countries. I guess all of that shaped my mindset early on and helped me learn everything with a global perspective and understand my life, not only as part of my family and friends, but as part of the whole planet. My parents also woke up in me a growing interest for new technologies. I remember my first computer was an Amstrad with a green screen and MS-DOS operating system. I can still remember there being CD games to access the QBASIC Gorillas game. I guess throughout time, technology became my second passion.
I did my college degree in telecommunications engineering and sought a job in the R&D department of a multinational telecom operator at the time when mobile phones were the next big thing. I helped the company build two business units from scratch—amazing projects, love them—and they made me realize how much I like bringing a new project to life. This is then when I decided I wanted to become an entrepreneur. I tried a couple of business ideas on my own. They didn't really ever go anywhere. So I decided to quit that great job and a very comfortable and happy life to pursue this decision. I knew entrepreneurship is not easy. So I decided to get some help and apply to MIT business school, very well renowned in entrepreneurship. Together with some new tools and expand my network to increase my chances of success. While at MIT, I discovered blockchain technologies very early on. I joined the MIT Media Lab and their DCI department where research is on blockchain technologies.
While working there, I had this click moment in which I thought, "Wait a minute. It makes a lot of sense." These technologies can help me solve a personal problem I was very frustrated with at the time, which was my privacy and how I had to give away all my personal information to everyone. I was also a victim of the Equifax data breach so all my financial information is likely in the dark web, sold for a few pennies. I thought that there was something fundamentally wrong. So I started monitoring all these data breaches and I discovered that identity fraud is the fastest growing type of cybersecurity attack. My underlying hypothesis, I conducted an independent research study at MIT, and my hypothesis was that if we're advocated to a fully digital economy, this is going to get worse and worse. The reason is that our current authentication architectures are obsolete. They were defined in the ’80s and they've not changed ever since. We still use usernames and passwords in centralized architectures where businesses are responsible for creating our identities and maintaining our data.
Christopher Reichert: Yes. Let me ask you a question about that. So back in the ‘90s, Microsoft tried to introduce this product called Passport and the idea being that all your passwords and whatnot would be centralized on this platform. Then when you left a Microsoft product, although I'm sure they never wanted you to leave a Microsoft product, that you then would have this one place with identity credentials. But GATACA is really about decentralizing digital identity. So how do you explain GATACA as a company, which is one entity, will provide a decentralized experience? Give us the underlying thinking and mechanics of that.
Irene Hernández: The idea is that not even an organization can control nor see the user's data. It's actually the final user who stores and maintains their personal information. We're just a technology provider and enabler, if you will, so that users can connect with credentials, issuers and with digital service providers and share that information security and under their control while we as an organization are just the channels for those communications.
Christopher Reichert: If we think about blockchain, I think this is one of the, maybe I'm not getting it, but I guess the idea for blockchain as I understand it is that the jigsaw puzzle that makes up your full identity is stored in multiple places and needs to be consistent between them before your identity is verified. Is that a good summary of blockchain?
Irene Hernández: Blockchain has many different use cases. We don't use blockchain to store your identity credentials. That would be actually a mistake. Your identity credentials are physically stored in your phone. What we use blockchain for is to store public keys that we use to verify the authenticity and ownership of those credentials. As per the name, public keys are public. The problem of public keys is how you distribute them worldwide. Blockchain is the nicest environment to be able to distribute your public key to the world. In addition to that, there is one additional problem that may seem minor at the beginning, but it's crucial, which is how do you uniquely identify one person worldwide? So, in the United States, you have the social security number, which is the one that kind of identifies you uniquely in the United States.
Irene Hernández: But yes, talking about one single identifier or number that is unique worldwide, you need an organization or someone that is capable of managing this database of unique identifiers. We would, again, fall in a real problem if we concentrate all of these numbers or references and each ones of those numbers in a central organization. So blockchain provides the infrastructure to be able to store those decentralized unique identifiers for everyone worldwide.
Christopher Reichert: So that's really the platform that links the request and the answer together in a distributed way that has a public component that can't be corrupted, but it does have to be verified.
Irene Hernández: That's right.
Christopher Reichert: Right now, I guess the two big, easy authentication platforms that I'm constantly encountering... It seems to me, I have three choices when I sign up for a service, depending on the service of course. Banks are their own thing, but let's say I sign up for another online consumer facing website or service. I have user email and password, create another password and we roll our eyes because we're probably going to use the same again, right? Rotating through six different versions. The second and third tend to be Facebook and Google open authentication. So tell me, how does this fit in there? It sounds to me like it replaces all of those assuming companies and users sign up together?
Irene Hernández: Absolutely. I'm really glad that you pointed out at the beginning that, well, banks do another thing, that's the problem. The Facebook and Google authentication does not guarantee your identity. For sensitive services like financial services, e-government services, e-health, you really need to be sure who are you're dealing with at the other end of your computer. What decentralized digital identities can provide is this single sign on capability combined with the security level of our government issued certificate. So you are able through decentralized digital identities, to not only verify, but also demonstrate who you are.
Christopher Reichert: I think I was thinking of services like... Well, I guess LastPass is a good example. It seems to me that what GATACA is trying to do is completely change the approach from making it easy for people to remember passwords, which is just addressing the symptom of the disease as opposed to curing the disease. GATACA looks like it's totally just flipping that around, is that right?
Irene Hernández: That's correct. We're looking at a whole new paradigm. We actually want to kill the concept of password, doesn't make sense. 60% of people use the same password everywhere for as long as they can. What we're proposing is to change completely the architecture to invert it, so users are the ones holding a central repository of their information that by the way, can be verified, and in a simplified way, they grant access to that repository of personal information to the businesses instead of the other way around. I deliver you a bunch of information from scratch every time for each service provider and that business is responsible for maintaining this instance of my identity. We want to think about it the other way around. So have one single true instance of my identity that I then share selectively with businesses.
Christopher Reichert: So, tell me, how did you decide on attending Sloan? Were you thinking of this business before you got to Sloan, or is this something that came together with your experience at Sloan at the Martin Trust Center or in classes or with fellow students?
Irene Hernández: It came together while at MIT. I knew I wanted to do something bigger than myself. All the ideas I had been juggling in my mind before joining Sloan were not big enough, I guess. I wanted to think big, to do something that could really impact the world we live in. This sounds maybe too romantic, but I think we're working towards that goal. At MIT, it's the collaboration with the Media Lab what made me realize how in love I am with the technology itself, with blockchain technology and its underlying philosophy and how it could solve the authentication problem I was mentioning before.
Christopher Reichert: How did you connect yourself with the Media Lab and I think other prospective students would be interested to know what that process was like if they want to do it?
Irene Hernández: So, in my case, I got involved with, I guess, everything. With blockchain technologies at the time I joined MIT, there were not many groups out there. I remember they were organizing lunch sessions on Wednesdays and I joined a couple of them. I met a couple of professors, asked around and they told me that the MIT Media Lab had these current initiatives and I should talk to them. So that's how I reached out to people at the MIT Media Lab in the DCI department and finally got my internship there. Then I stayed a little bit longer collaborating with the department.
Christopher Reichert: Interesting. I used to wander down to the Media Lab myself because I just found that the environment just had this creative, edgy unknown element to it, which I loved.
Irene Hernández: You can definitely smell innovation in that building.
Christopher Reichert: Exactly. So, you were at MIT, you were at Sloan and you were interning at the Media Lab. How did you integrate that at Sloan with courses? Did you take any particular courses to enhance the work over at the Media Lab, or even for that matter, improve your own knowledge or skills in entrepreneurship?
Irene Hernández: Yes, I definitely took advantage of all the courses I had to move the business forward. In the end, I came up pretty early during my stay at MIT with the concept and I leveraged any single course towards building a business out of it. I also did an independent research study on how blockchain technologies could help in a digital identity use case. It was a combination of three different pillars. One is my research, more technical research at the MIT Media Lab on the technology, plus more entrepreneurial courses from Sloan, plus an independent research on the specific business concept.
Christopher Reichert: Did you have a favorite professor at Sloan or class?
Irene Hernández: Wow, that's hard. That's a hard question. I guess Michael Casey was one of the persons that really shaped my stay there at MIT. He's not only an amazing speaker, but also very, very generous with helping students getting into real business, getting people connected with each other and he's introductions were key in the beginnings of GATACA
Christopher Reichert: So, you've been out for, I guess, two years now, just under... It's almost exactly two years. Do you have a favorite Sloan memory that comes to you?
Irene Hernández: Quite a lot. I guess there is one memory that always comes to my mind, which is riding the bike, in Boston then Cambridge. You are kind of going back to your youth and riding your bike to move to places. I remember on a very sunny day, it was I think, around March or April, and moving from Eastgate, from the Sloan building, to the Dome and feeling the sun on my face and then entering the building, going into the basement and meeting someone in a very, very old classroom from that iconic building. I guess at this moment, I felt how lucky I was to be there and having had that opportunity to get involved in the community.,
Christopher Reichert: So, for other prospective students, you were overseas and this is a big move to move to the United States for one or two years, if not more. How did you choose Sloan and how did you kind of grapple with that sort of large decision?
Irene Hernández: I had it easier. I was living in the states already when I made that decision. I was transferred with my company to Miami to consult to multinational corporations, U.S. headquarter corporation. So I already knew the culture. I was a Green Card holder, so the step was not that big for me. The decision itself came pretty easy. I wanted to become an entrepreneur. I was an engineer. What's the best way to get involved into the entrepreneurial world other than getting into an entrepreneurial community that can provide you the network? In terms of business schools for me, there was no other choice. So it was a matter of making that first step and saying, "Yeah, I'm going to do it."
Christopher Reichert: Were you married at the time that you did this? I'm curious what impact your partner had on your decision to attend Sloan?
Irene Hernández: Yes. Yes, I was married. We've been lucky. We've been living in many different countries in Germany, Czech Republic, obviously in Spain. Then we moved together to the United States. We have been lucky to be able to move with our respective jobs and companies, employers. So that has not really affected none of us—we both never had to leave everything for the other's wishes in career path. We just managed through living some periods of time split until we could reunite again in our chosen destination, but we've always made the decision together and made our way through to make it together with our own career and professional goals.
Christopher Reichert: So, if you had to have a do-over at Sloan, like a class that you'd wish you'd taken, what would it be?
Irene Hernández: I would have worked longer for the MIT Media Lab. I would have taken advantage of that incredible opportunity to actually do the “mens et manus” philosophy of MIT and work more and studied less.
Christopher Reichert: Interesting. I thought you were going to say, let's see, "Work more and party less." No, you studied. You're saying you studied a lot?
Irene Hernández: Well, it's the dedication to the MIT Sloan courses, not studying itself, but definitely a lot of projects going on out there. I would have really dedicated more of my time to doing something really different than going through the MBA courses.
Christopher Reichert: I think for me, when I think about it, there's so many decisions you need to make and unfortunately, something has to give. If you could only add another year or two or five, then you could do it all, but that's not the answer either, right?
Irene Hernández: Well, I guess my definite do-over is to have tried to stayed at MIT as a collaborator, as possible working at MIT. That's something I miss. I really miss being there in Boston and smelling that innovation I was mentioning before is something that I wish sometime in the future, I will be able to.
Christopher Reichert: You've had a few different positions and careers and lived in different cities. What's your definition of success?
Irene Hernández: For me, it's the when something that remains a legacy, whether that means personally to my family or a real impact to many people in the world. Both for me are okay definition for success, but leaving the world better than what you encountered.
Christopher Reichert: Interesting. What's next for GATACA? Is that something I can start using now, or how are you partnering with companies to come on board to the platform?
Irene Hernández: Well, we've come a long way. Since we left MIT, we've entered into a very strategic agreement with a national government organization in Europe to deploy, eventually, a technology at national scale. We just were selected by the European Commission to help them define the technical specifications for a decentralized digital identity in Europe.
Christopher Reichert: That's fantastic!
Irene Hernández: Yes. The company is doing amazing. Fortunately, the market is growing exponentially. The world, specifically policymakers, have realized the potential impact of these architectures in even growing GDP by three points according to some analysts. So the concept itself is taking good momentum and we're very well-positioned because we've been working on this for three years now. So we're one of the providers with the most advanced and mature products out there.
Christopher Reichert: That's great. Well, that's good to hear that. I do think that for all of the ways that people have been trying to solve the whole password conundrum, I hope that your platform prevails. Do you have any parting advice for prospective Sloanies or people who might want to consider moving halfway across the world to attend MIT?
Irene Hernández: Just do it. Everyone can. It's all about attitude and thinking big. I guess some of our fears sometimes limit our capabilities, but it's only a mindset status. For me, everyone can do whatever he or she proposes. So, yes. Go for your goals.
Christopher Reichert: That's great. How are things in Spain now with the COVID-19? Are you slowly opening back up?
Irene Hernández: Yes. Not everywhere. I’m still under lock down. We can't go outside. It's going way better. The daily incidences have lowered under 500. So definitely, we're dealing with a core finally, and we expect by June to be not back to normal, I guess we will never be the same, but definitely, we are already ahead of the crisis.
Christopher Reichert: That's excellent. Well, I want to thank Irene Hernández, a 2018 graduate of Sloan's MBA program and this CEO of GATACA, G-A-T-A-C-A, for joining us here on Sloanies Talking with Sloanies.
Irene Hernández: Thanks, Christopher.
Christopher Reichert: Hasta la próxmia.
Irene Hernández: Hasta la próxmia.
Christopher Reichert: Sloanies Talking with Sloanies is produced by the Office of External Relations at MIT Sloan School of Management. You can subscribe to this podcast by visiting our website mitsloan.mit.edu/alumni, or wherever you find your favorite podcasts. Support for this podcast comes in part from the Sloan Annual Fund, which provides essential, flexible funding to ensure that our community can pursue excellence. Make your gift today by visiting giving.mit.edu/sloan. To support this show, or if you have an idea for a topic or a guest you think we should feature, drop us a note at email@example.com.