Women of NEAR: Sofia The Sandbox Queen

Women of NEAR is a new series dedicated to highlighting the work, vision, and experiences of women’s leaders in the NEARverse. By exposing women’s contribution to the ecosystem, it aims at inspiring other women to join the NEAR ecosystem and enrich it with their ideas. The third episode of the series is dedicated to Sofia, the Open Web Sandbox’s leader. Born in Russia, Sofia spent the past few years in Belgium, where she studied philosophy and psychology. Her mixed background and aptitude for people is what makes Sofia a successful crypto community builder. Throughout this interview she shares her experience and valuable insights for those trying to orient themselves in the chaotic world of crypto.

Russian Born and European Nurtured

Moscow, Russia, Sofia’s hometown.

Sofia was born in Russia, Moscow, where she lived until she was 18. In Moscow she received a good and well rounded education and had the opportunity to learn English at an early age. This opened the doors to Europe where she moved right after high school:

“ When I finished school I felt I didn’t want to study in Moscow anymore because the mentality was very far from what I envisioned for myself in the future and I was curious to see where a change of environment would lead me. I was encouraged by people around me to explore opportunities in Europe and that is what brought me to Belgium where I’ve been living in the past six years and where I’m finishing my masters in organisational psychology”.

Being naturally curious and driven, Sofia made the best out of her experience in Europe. Throughout her years of university, she made her way into the world by being open to new perspectives, worldviews, and disciplines.

“After some time spent in Europe I developed different interests. My first education was in philosophy, which gave me a broad perspective on things. When you are 18 years old you don’t really know what to do with yourself, or at least, I didn’t so I was just absorbing what was around me like a sponge”.

Sofia’s curiosity and sociability led her to pick up new interests and eventually, brought her to crypto.

“A year ago I was talking to a friend of mine who is a software developer and we were having some random talk and we ended up talking about blockchain. At the time I didn’t know anything about it but the concept immediately caught my attention. That is when I started reaching out to people and then a friend of mine offered me a part time job in crypto where I was learning all about it and doing research to bring crypto to mass adoption. This is what brought me to start working for 4nts basically and after 6 months it evolved into a different project which is now known as Sandbox”.

Although Sofia did not have a background in blockchain, she immediately understood the relevance of this technology and she did not hesitate to jump headfirst into it. After just six months, Sofia had already acquired a proficiency in crypto and was ready to embark into a new project.

The Open Web Sandbox Experience

The Open Web Sandbox is a runway to get people involved with NEAR. (Source)

Sofia’s many interests and mixed background enabled her to navigate the chaotic world of crypto, but not without struggle. Finding ways to get involved was not as easy as it is today and there was also no place where to ask basic questions. Because of her own onboarding experience, she immediately fell in love with the Open Web Sandbox concept:

“When I first heard of Sandbox I fell in love with the idea of a collaborative hub where people can just come and chill out. Personally I wish something like this existed when I first joined the NEAR ecosystem because a lot of things were not clear. People were very friendly, they would always respond to you and tell you where to find information but there would not be that place where you feel safe asking questions. I knew that there was a Russian speaking guild for instance, but I still didn’t feel comfortable enough asking questions there because those people are smart and have been there for quite some time so I didn’t want to ask my basic questions to them. Sandbox has the potential to make onboarding easier and simple, not just for those that want to join NEAR but also for those that do not know anything about blockchain come to, to learn, ask questions etc..We want to be a space where we help each other in this Web3 journey”.

Determined to make onboarding experiences easier and seamless Sofia rolled her sleeves up and took charge of the project:

“At the time when the idea first appeared I was the person that raised her hand and proposed to try to do something with it and since then we have obtained funding to scale it up. Today we have 7 more people in the team”.

The Open Web Sandbox (OWS) took off only a few months ago and its work has already had a huge impact on the NEAR ecosystem. Thanks to OWS, guilds and other NEAR projects can easily access the resources they need to fulfill their missions. At the same time, the OWS offers a space for newcomers to get access to opportunities and learn all about NEAR.

A great turnout for the OWS Launch party on their discord channel. (Source)

Sofia is very passionate about her work, and she is very proud about where NEAR is going.

“NEAR has evolved a lot in the past year, there are so many new projects emerging from space. And I have the sense that when I talk to people that are not necessarily involved in crypto they have heard of NEAR even though it is not one of the top 5 protocols. Looking at the community development and how people are interacting with each other and guilds, you can clearly see a positive development. A year ago it was very different from now, only a few guilds were active on a daily basis and actually doing things, and then maybe you had ten other guilds with a silent telegram and discord channels. A lot of effort was put in to boost the guild program which is a wonderful initiative for the community and this effort definitely paid out.”

Work is Fun with OWS + NEAR

The Open Web Sandbox gang!

When Sofia talks about her job you can see sparkles in her eyes. Working in the NEAR ecosystem gave her the opportunity to work with friends and have fun while growing and strengthening the NEAR community.

“My best friend is working with us, and most of the people in the team were my friends or became my friends. I love working with them, I never thought that this could be so fun!”

Everybody in the Sandbox team is personally very committed and involved in the future of OWS and this is reflected in their extraordinary performance.

“The key thing is that a nice environment fosters caring even when there is a lot of work to do and pressure to deliver. Working with people you care about in particular helps a lot. In my team people are thinking about Sandbox when they are at the university. Our software developer, Valentina, was texting me the other day when she was in class with some ideas that she had. In these moments you really realise that the passion for what you are doing is coming from the fact that you care about the project, the people, and I think that this is one of the beautiful things that I think NEAR offers. You can work with your friends and people that you like to work with. You don’t have to do it with people that you don’t like. Sometimes it is still healthy to try to find ways to approach individuals that you are not liking from the first encounter but the fact that you can choose people and you can choose the communities with which you want to engage and how to engage is beautiful. The amount of freedom you have is something that you don’t find in traditional industries I think.”

According to Sofia, the world of crypto offers a lot of freedom and the perfect environment for ambitious and driven people:

“I think people don’t want that many things when it comes to work. People want to work with friends, they don’t want to be micromanaged, they want to be given trust and autonomy. These are the things that ambitious individuals enjoy. This is also what I hear from my team basically, we do have weekly calls and I do not have time to check what everyone else is doing every hour and I also don’t want to do that. We have a set of deliverables, we know that there are things that need to be done by the end of the month and we are given the trust and the autonomy to do them at our own pace.”

Working with friends has the added benefit of creating an environment of trust and mutual support. Everybody is invested in the project and has the freedom to work on it at their own pace. This is the beauty of crypto for many workers, it empowers them to establish their own terms.

Working in Crypto as a Woman

Sofia in Leuven, where she is currently based

Crypto is known for being a space dominated by men, but that does not mean that women have an hard time being recognised as equal or to reach positions of power:

“In the year that I spent with NEAR I cannot remember being treated differently due to the fact that I’m a woman. What I see is that there is a lot of interest and that makes me feel happy actually. Usually it is not that common for women to be in crypto I would say or to be engaged in a deeper level. I know a lot of women trading or holding crypto, but it still makes me feel very happy when I see a top position in crypto being held by a woman. Recently, I had a talk with a friend of mine who is also a software engineer that told me that it is still quite strange to see women that are doing something in crypto and who understand the technology behind it, and the ideology too, and the value beyond financial speculation. So quite often there is still an element of surprise when meeting women in crypto, as they are definitely still a minority.”

Although there are still not many women in crypto, it offers one of the most inclusive working environments according to Sofia:

“Crypto is definitely much more welcoming for women than other environments because nobody really cares who you are. If you have a NEAR wallet and you can interact with it, it’s ok whoever you are so in this sense it is very open. I think it’s a nice environment to be in as a woman, or anyone really.”

Sofia’s Vision On the Development of NEAR

The NEAR Community has come a long way! Sofia and Vasilya gave a presentation on the main stage at NEARCON Alpha about their work with the Open Web Sandbox. (Source)

NEAR’s community has been growing consistently in the past year, there are now over 60 active guilds and 200 hundreds projects building their applications on top of it. The rapid growth that NEAR is witnessing is extremely positive and is also the result of the incredible amount of funding that is being allocated for the ecosystem’s development. This incredible development comes, of course, with its own challenges:

“I know that a lot of funding is being allocated for NEAR’s community development. I personally do not know of other blockchains that are investing so much in community development. This is amazing but also challenging. What is challenging is that you need to ensure that the initiative is progressing and that they are doing something that adds value to the ecosystem. But this is a very common problem for startups, it is not a challenge only in this context. As it progresses the right adjustments will normally take place”

In the past months, the NEAR ecosystem has attracted a growing number of people and projects. According to Sofia, the challenge that NEAR will have to face in the coming months is to help systematise and guide the joint efforts of the community.

“There is a lot of effort going on, you can see this on the forum. People are renting office spaces, they are trying to have hubs for developers in different countries for Metabuidl, different kinds of events. So at a certain point you need to systematise this effort and you need to direct it in the right way. This is the main challenge that the NEAR Foundation will be facing in the coming months.”

In the future Sofia also sees some room for improvement when it comes to communication:

“I think an improvement could definitely happen in communication. Communication could be smoother than it is now because in such a chaotic place where there is an overload of information. I see now that the NEAR Foundation is only starting to look into the onboarding processes. So I think that the communication between the community members and NEAR Foundation could be more clear and accessible, especially when it comes to important decisions. It would be nice to have a way to spread information more efficiently to avoid information asymmetry. I don’t even know if it’s possible or how realistic it is. Maybe it is a problem that web3 brings with it but is something to consider in my opinion.”

Sofia’s vision and story is another valuable account for young women getting started on crypto. Although everyone has its special path in life, being exposed to other’s experiences and thoughts can provide inspiration, comfort, and motivation to persevere in one’s endeavors. For the NEAR community in particular, these kinds of stories help see the people behind the screens and learn more about their human side and story, thus fostering a sense of community.

👉 Check out the Open Web Sandbox on their Discord Channel

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Crypto scavenger and cypherpunk ally, writing on privacy, crypto projects, philosophy of technology and more.