Oliver Meeker

Oliver Meeker ’09

blockchain business development
professional IBM

“Blockchain” entered the popular lexicon last fall when cryptocurrency Bitcoin skyrocketed in value and sent investors scrambling to capitalize. Oliver Meeker ’09, a blockchain specialist at IBM, was ahead of the curve. We turned to him to ask:

Q: How does blockchain actually work?

A: “The notion of cryptography and big data analytics isn’t new, but what’s so exciting and breakthrough about blockchain is that it allows for sharing data in a permissioned, distributed and immutable manner through some pretty nifty consensus algorithms. Bitcoin was the first application of blockchain, but any multiparty transaction with lots of paperwork and not much trust among the participants is a great use of it — finance, insurance, manufacturing, logistics, real estate, government. Essentially, it’s a decentralized ledger — meaning multiple copies of the ledger exist in a given blockchain network. It’s highly secure because it’s all encrypted, and highly transparent because everything is time-stamped and all parties involved have to agree on a set of terms before it becomes valid, achieving consensus.

One thing IBM has been focused on is empathy for the user — who’s using the technology and how? Cryptocurrency is very cool, but there are lots of applications for blockchain technology to weed out redundancy, bad actors and inefficiency. I was involved in the early days of the IBM Food Trust solution, figuring out a use case around food safety by leveraging blockchain. Food safety is a huge issue — one in 10 people get sick from food borne illnesses each year, about 420,000 people die. There are lots of serious problems, and a lot of current tech approaches haven’t been adequate.

Say Walmart buys mangos from the same supplier as Kroger. The two retailers won’t want to share price information, but if there’s a foodborne illness outbreak, it’s important that they can share other information and triangulate quickly the source of contamination. This is where blockchain technology comes in. There are non-permission blockchains, such as Bitcoin where anyone can look at the ledger, and permissioned blockchains, where you need a key to gain access. That’s how a supplier can share some data specific to each retailer — about pricing for instance — and more general shared data with both retailers, such as location of the food outbreak.

We set out to do a small pilot project, looking at one mango supplier outside of the U.S. We were able to reduce the time it took to track a shipment of mangos from over six days to 2.2 seconds and collect a lot more valuable information — all because the participants were sending pertinent data to the blockchain solution we built. Blockchain is not a cure-all, but there are a lot of things it will solve for.”

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When Oliver Meeker ’09 joined IBM in 2014, he was initially building partnerships with organizations around the Watson AI platform, an innovative question-answering platform with broad applications for healthcare, publishing, pharmaceuticals, weather predications, accounting and more. For Meeker, who was on the client-facing side of the Watson venture, “wheeling and dealing” for about two years, that position “was a lot of fun,” but the “excitement and interest and unknown quantities drove me to blockchain — it’s the frontier of new technology,” he says.

Meeker has been driven by that desire to “understand something new and challenging” since he was a student at HWS. One of the liberal arts graduates profiled in a new book by journalist George Anders, You Can Do Anything: The Surprising Power of a ‘Useless’ Liberal Arts Education, Meeker explains that his experiences at HWS “really pushed me to grow. You were pushed to argue and think about problems from multiple perspectives.”

For Anders, Meeker is “a Phi Beta Kappa intellect with a disarming laugh and upbeat personality,” a “bridge builder” that companies like IBM need for “ambitious projects.”

Early in his academic career at HWS, Meeker was planning “to do the lawyer thing” until he met Professor Emeritus of Sociology James L. Spates P’00, P’09, who said, “‘You ought to consider taking my Soc 101 class — it’ll change your life,’ which it did,” Meeker recalls, because it led him on a path to study abroad in Vietnam; to complete an Honors project, “One Viêt Nam — Post War Memories and Future Aspirations,” under the guidance of Professor of Anthropology and Sociology Jack Harris P’02, P’06; and later to return to Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City on a Fulbright research grant.

The Fulbright experience opened the door to a job with the Vietnam Investments Group, where Meeker worked with international investors and eventually helped broker a deal that brought Dairy Queen franchise to the country; today there are more than 20 Dairy Queens operating and growing in number. Meeker, who majored in sociology and is fluent in Vietnamese, is certain that the depth and breadth of his work in Vietnam — successfully negotiating with investors from around the world while adapting to living abroad, understanding the significance of “historical context and cultural cues” in the framework of a client’s business needs — gave him a leg up when he interviewed with IBM.

Now, as a blockchain sales professional at IBM, Meeker is working with clients to explore the range of applications and scalability of this new technology, a role that involves “more analysis and strategic thinking and is pushing me into a new skillset,” he says.

Like arriving in Vietnam, “being out of your comfort zone, dealing in ambiguous situations and managing with what you’ve got, you’re forced to frame things in many different ways,” Meeker says.

But of course, that’s part of the fun. – Andrew Wickenden ’09


Preparing Students to Lead Lives of Consequence.