Changpeng Zhao, 44, has spent his life trying to overcome borders. As a child growing up in China, he waited for years until his family could win permission to see his father in Canada, then pursued a career (including a few years at Bloomberg LP) that took him around the world. Now, as chief executive officer of Binance, the world’s biggest cryptocurrency exchange, he’s trying to get more people to use a global form of money and says his company—which booked more than $800 million in revenue last year—doesn’t need a headquarters. Zhao spoke to Bloomberg Markets in early March from Shanghai about his career and the growth prospects of crypto and his company. He also responded to critics who question Binance’s regulatory compliance. His comments were edited for length and clarity.
(After the interview, Bloomberg News, citing people familiar with the matter, reported that the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission is investigating whether Binance violated the CFTC’s rules by allowing U.S. residents to place wagers on derivatives. Binance hasn’t been accused of misconduct, and the investigation may not lead to an enforcement action. Zhao wouldn’t comment beyond saying that Binance works with regulators and takes its compliance obligations “very seriously.”)
OLGA KHARIF: Can you talk a little bit about your early years, starting in China?
CHANGPENG ZHAO: My family has been always a little bit nomadic. My mom is an elementary and high school teacher, and my dad was in a master’s student-plus-teacher type of role. He eventually became a professor [with a Ph.D.]. And so, as I can remember, I always lived on campus, in either high school or in a university. I did move around a lot. Even in China, my parents were moving between different cities.
OK : Why did your family move to Canada?
CZ : My father went through the Cultural Revolution in China. They canceled all the university classes. They sent all of them back to the countryside to learn the real ways of life. He didn’t take a single class. And then finally the Cultural Revolution was over, and everyone was applying to go overseas to study. So my father applied and got accepted by the University of British Columbia. That was in 1984. So between 6 and 12, I didn’t get to see my father that much. In 1989 we finally got a family visa to visit my dad. My mum took me and my older sister to Vancouver, and we just stayed.
OK : How did you end up studying computer science when you got to college?
CZ : My dad bought a 286 computer, probably when I was 12 or 13. He paid C$7,000 [$5,570] for that 286 computer. Back then it was a huge, huge portion of our household savings. My dad always says that’s the most expensive computer, or thing, he has ever bought. So I was playing really basic games on my computer, and I really liked it. My dad is a programmer, so…