- Yi He is believed to be Changpeng Zhao's partner and has long played a 'confused' role in the crypto exchange.
- Binance and CZ admitted to violating US banking law on Tuesday and paying $4bn in penalties.
- 'My hobby is Binance,' Yi He told Zhao last year.
Back in 2015, Justin Sun and two other crypto executives took to the stage on a reality TV show telecast in China. Wearing onesies with goat horns and white bonnets, they performed a number called the “Twisting Goat Song.”
Sun, the founder of TRON, a blockchain network, had clearly not practised the routine and he kept copying the moves of the woman to his right, who nailed the steps to applause.
Yi He, a former TV show host, was in her element. Yet in short order she would go on to play a very different role as the co-founder of Binance, the world’s largest crypto exchange with about $8 billion in daily trading volume.
Now, six years later, Binance has agreed to pay $4 billion to US authorities after admitting Tuesday that it violated anti-money laundering laws and facilitated crypto trading for criminals and terrorist organisations, including Hamas-linked groups and Isis.
Founder and CEO Changpeng “CZ” Zhao resigned after pleading guilty to violating federal banking laws and failing to implement mandatory anti-money laundering measures since the company’s founding in 2017.
Richard Teng, Binance’s global head of regional markets, took over as CEO, the company said.
Yi He, who has been at the side of Zhao since almost the beginning of the company, did not come up in a multi-faceted settlement that involved the US Department of Justice, the US Treasury Department, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, and other departments in those agencies.
With Zhao, the face of Binance and perhaps crypto itself, now out of the picture, He’s role may come into sharper focus. She is not nearly as well known Zhao. She gives few interviews in English, which she’s previously put down to her shaky grasp of the language. While Zhao maintains a steady stream of tweets to his 8.6 million followers, Yi He largely likes and reposts his and Binance’s messages to her 194,000 followers.
Binance did not respond to requests for comment from DL News.
‘Everyone is a bit confused about who I am and what I do at Binance. I’m Binance’s co-founder, but usually just call me chief of customer service, even though I don’t really manage the customer service team.’— Yi He, Binance
Her exact role in Binance is fuzzy. Yi He’s biography on the company’s website says she leads business, marketing, and branding strategy.
For years, her official title was Chief Marketing Officer. (In September, Binance named a new CMO: Rachel Conlan former global head of brand and partnerships at the crypto exchange OKX.)
Even so, Yi He rarely used the title. “I do not really call myself CMO, I always call myself Chief Customer Service Officer,” she said in an interview with Bitcoin Addict Thailand in 2022.
“I think everyone is a bit confused about who I am and what I do at Binance,” she said in a presentation during Binance’s five-year anniversary celebration in 2022. “I’m Binance’s co-founder, but usually just call me chief of customer service, even though I don’t really manage the customer service team.”
Confusing matters even more, Binance appointed He last August to head Binance Labs, the exchange’s venture capital arm with $7.5 billion in assets and more than 200 projects in its portfolio.
What seems clear is how close she is with Zhao. In 2022, Reuters reported the two were in a romantic relationship and other media outlets have reported the couple have two children together.
Zhao responded angrily to the Reuters article in a Binance blog post, saying his “toddlers are not in the public interest.” He said Binance works with law enforcement officials to seize assets of organised crime groups and writing about his kids puts them in “harm’s way.”
Responding to the Reuters story, a Binance spokesperson said, “Two consenting adults starting a family together is not news. Media have known about their relationship (which pre-dates Binance) for years.”
Disclosing personal relationships between senior executives, especially C-suite officers, has long been considered a best practice in corporate management.
Hazy corporate culture
Still, Yi He has been cagey about her relationship with Zhao. In an interview with Bloomberg News earlier this year, she likened them to comrades-in-arms and college roommates, and then suggested people are just trying to ship them.
She has insisted they are business partners and co-founders. In less formal interviews, and she has called Zhao her boss.
In any event, the lack of clarity around Yi He’s role appears to underscore Binance’s hazy corporate culture.
With no home base and a constellation of operating entities worldwide, Zhao designed Binance to be a new type of enterprise catering to a new type of online marketplace that deals in a new product — cryptocurrencies.
Regulators see it differently. The US Securities and Exchange Commission called Binance’s model “an opaque web of corporate entities” in the lawsuit filed against the company and Zhao in June.
In its own lawsuit, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission said: “Binance’s reliance on a maze of corporate entities to operate the Binance platform is deliberate. It is designed to obscure the ownership, control, and location [of the company].”
Binance and Zhao have denied the agencies’ accusations they are unlawfully running an exchange and broker-dealer and offering unregistered securities to US investors. Binance and Zhao have vowed to fight the allegations in court.
“From the start, we have actively cooperated with the SEC’s investigations and we have engaged in good-faith discussions to reach a negotiated settlement to resolve those investigations,” Binance said in a statement on June 5.
With expectations mounting that the US Department of Justice may be moving closer to opening a criminal case against Binance, Zhao and He’s leadership may be facing even more pressure.
Spicy food and pandas
Yi He grew up in a rural village in Sichuan, a province in China famed for its spicy food and home to most of the country’s remaining pandas.
She didn’t have a really good family background, He said during her speech at Binance’s five-year anniversary celebrations. Her mother and father were both teachers and her father died when she was just nine.
According to Chinese media reports, she’s worked in schools and as a psychological counsellor. But she got her big break in 2012 when she landed a job as a host of a televised travel show.
She came across as funny and personable. On a programme called “Beautiful Destinations,” He travelled through China and to other Asian nations such as Vietnam and tried her hand at different tasks.
In a wet market in Guangxi in southwestern China, she picked up wriggling crabs, worms, and even hoisted up a stingray by the tail for the camera. It tried to get into her handbag.
Another time, she held up a big, fat worm and offered it to the director of the show. The other woman shrieked and ran away. “Come touch it, come touch it,” He laughed. After two local kids joined the chase, the director eventually agreed to hold it, screaming the whole time.
Then He ate it. She didn’t seem to want to, but she did.
Yi He has downplayed her showbiz career. She was, in her own words, “a poor stupid TV show host.”
Not for long. In 2013, she discovered Bitcoin. Like many, she had loads of questions about this new form of money. “A lot of people talk about Bitcoin like a Ponzi scheme or something,” she said in the Binance anniversary speech.
Despite not having a technology background — or experience in marketing or managing — she plunged into the fledgling sector. Her boldness paid off when she landed a position at Okcoin.
Founded in 2013 by Chinese entrepreneur Mingxing Xu (known as Star Xu in English), Okcoin was one of the most popular exchanges in China and would eventually rebrand globally to become OKX.
As with Binance, pinning down He’s exact role at Okcoin isn’t easy. Her Binance biography says she was a co-founder at Okcoin though she joined a year after its founding.
As part of her job, she hired a Chinese-Canadian living in Shanghai named Changpeng Zhao.
She was a prolific evangelist on social media platforms like Weibo, as well as active in crypto telegram and WeChat groups.
In 2017, Zhao returned the favour and asked Yi He to join a new exchange called Binance.
Among her first tasks was rewriting the Binance white paper, according to an interview with Bloomberg News in June. But as a better known figure in Chinese-speaking cryptocurrency circles than Zhao, Yi He brought the spotlight to the nascent exchange.
She was a prolific evangelist on social media platforms like Weibo, as well as active in crypto telegram and WeChat groups. Nicknames for influencers and celebrities in China are common online and she is often referred to as “the First Sister in the Coin Circle.” (Justin Sun, her one time dance partner, is known as “Brother Sun.”)
Yet even as Binance grew into the world’s top crypto exchange, so, too, did China’s scrutiny of the sector.
In 2019, Chinese regulators shut down her Weibo account, along with those of other popular crypto advocates like Sun.
But there are occasional glimpses of her showmanship. At the Binance anniversary talk in front of a large audience, she went off on a tangent about dieting and exercise and how she’d managed to get back into shape after having two children.
“Maybe I can show you,” she said as she lifted up her top to show off her abs to cheers from the crowd.
There may not be so many cheers inside Binance these days. In the last six months, an exodus of senior executives have left the company as US regulatory pressure mounts.
Chief Strategy Officer Patrick Hillman and Binance’s senior vice president of compliance Steven Christie both left in July. Matthew Price, the global head of intelligence and investigations, Leon Foong, the head of Asia-Pacific, followed them out the door the next month.
At the same time, Binance has retrenched by withdrawing licencing applications from Germany and Austria, exiting Canada, and clashing with UK officials. Amid the turmoil, investors pulled $3.8 billion from Binance in June.
As for Yi He and CZ, they live in Dubai, a burgeoning crypto hub. And He remains an unabashed booster for her industry.
She believes that web3 will onboard more than a billion people in the next five years. And in her speeches she touches on the refrain that Binance is her life and that the mass adoption of crypto means serving customers properly .
Yi He’s commitment is so great she has few interests and no hobbies.
“Even CZ, he looked at me and he said, ‘you don’t have any hobby,’ she recounted at the anniversary celebration. “And I said ‘my hobby is working for Binance. You are my boss you should be happy about that, right?’”
Updated on November 22 to report on Binance’s settlement with US authorities and Zhao’s guilty plea.
Callan Quinn is DL News’ corrsepondent in Hong Kong. Have a tip about crypto in Asia? Contact the author at email@example.com.