Alumni Spotlight: Mohammad Zia

Mohammad Zia headshot  Mohammad Zia action shot

Left: Mohammad Zia headshot. Right: Mohammad speaking about basic blockchain concepts at Fabrica de Startups in Rio de Janeiro

Mohammad Zia (J.D. '21) is a graduate of Harvard Law School and currently a Harvard Sinclair-Kennedy Traveling Research Fellow. Mohammad is passionate about cross-cultural exchange and advancing technology-based solutions to challenging problems. He has been living in Brazil and researching emerging technologies such as blockchain, IoT, and the metaverse. In this interview with the DRCLAS Brazil Office, Mohammad shares about his personal journey, his Harvard experience, and his recent work in Brazil and across Latin America.

Mohammad, could you start by telling us a little about your personal journey and how you became so passionate about technology and digital solutions?

I was born in Saudi Arabia to parents of Afghan and Pakistan descent and I spent my childhood in Queens, NY, rural Kentucky, Maryland, and Pakistan. After a long immigration process, I became a US Citizen when I was 20 years old. Over the next decade, I took advantage of the opportunity to travel with a U.S. passport and I visited nearly 50 countries.

Through my travels and childhood experiences, I became fascinated by the way technology can improve quality of life in developing and emerging economies. Through my courses and study abroad experiences in undergrad, I also learned about how entrepreneurs in developing and emerging markets were turning to technology as a tool to improve quality of life. I learned about innovations like M-Pesa that used mobile phones to advance access to finance in Kenya. I also learned about solar, biomass, and wind power technologies that can bring electricity to remote islands in Indonesia. Additionally, I studied technology and economic policy through my MPP degree from the University of Oxford.

How did your interests lead you to Harvard Law School, and how did your time at Harvard shape your current field of research?

After my MPP experience, I decided to pursue a JD to get a deeper understanding of how new technologies can be governed to maximize their socio-economic benefits while minimizing their negative impacts. At Harvard Law School, I dove further into these interests. As a student in the Cyberlaw program, I learned about how privacy law and policy are critical to ensure public trust in technologies that collect a vast amount of personal data. Through the Harvard Law & Entrepreneurship Project, I guided a technology entrepreneur on how to legally incorporate a startup in the U.S. to raise venture capital funding from U.S.-based investors. I also learned from students from diverse international backgrounds by serving as Co-President of LIDS (Law & International Development Society) and as the International Business Chair for HALB (Harvard Association for Law & Business).

My time at Harvard helped me develop the tools and skillsets to advance the positive benefits of technology while thinking critically about its shortfalls. Harvard helped me become surgical in my analysis of the right legal, financial, and policy levers to help technology reach its maximum impact in improving quality of life.

And what brought you to Latin America, and how would you describe your experience so far? How has the Harvard community influenced this new chapter of your life?

After spending time living and working in the Arab World and Southeast Asia, I wanted to learn more about technology issues in Latin America. I also wanted to explore a context that was different from the cultural and linguistic influences I was exposed to as a child. I traveled to Colombia, Mexico, Argentina and Brazil and I dedicated myself first to learning Spanish and later Portuguese. I became fascinated by the region’s startup ecosystem and the growth of technology as a tool to tackle complex social and economic problems. I received funding from the Harvard Human Rights Program to work as a Summer Fellow at Dejusticia, Colombia’s leading human rights NGO. I worked on a project to understand the human rights implications of COVID-19 mandates and I co-authored an article in the Harvard Journal of Law & Technology on the impact of digital mandates on transitional justice. After my time in Colombia, I became more and more interested in Brazil, the region’s largest economy.

I was especially interested in Brazil because it is one of the developing world’s most influential economies and its technology sector has grown significantly in the past few years, so it quickly caught my attention. Since my 3L classes were remote, I was able to travel to Brazil to immerse myself in Portuguese. I also wrote my final paper in my Comparative Data Privacy course on Brazil’s national data privacy frameworks.

My professors at Harvard Law School, Susan Crawford and Urs Gasser, introduced me to ITS Rio, Brazil’s leading technology policy institute. ITS Rio was founded by Harvard Law alums and the institute often collaborates with the Harvard Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society so it seemed like a great fit. I sought ITS Rio’s guidance and applied for the post-graduate Sinclair-Kennedy Traveling Fellowship from the Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.

Many emerging technologies are still relatively unknown for many people, let alone issues regarding regulation of emerging technologies. Is there any initiative regarding explaining some of the key concepts of your research more generally to general audiences?

Alongside other team members at ITS Rio, I co-authored two education briefs for non-experts and I am currently working on two additional briefs. The first two explain the basics of blockchain and NFTs in simple and easy to understand language. We also published both briefs in Spanish, Portuguese, and English to advance understanding in Brazil and across Latin America.

Blockchain is a complex technology but our briefs help deduce the problems it seeks to solve and explain use cases beyond Bitcoin. CBDCs, for example, could drastically reduce a large amount of money lost due to transactional costs when sending remittances abroad. ITS Rio publicizes these materials and in June, I will be working with ITS Rio to teach a short course titled Basics of the Blockchain Economy: Cryptocurrencies, NFTs, DAOs, & CBDCs. I am also planning to deliver a similar version of the course to JD and LLM students at Harvard Law School this upcoming academic year.

Mohammad, you also participate in Blockchain for Social Impact, a project that aims to advance education on blockchain over all Latin America. Could you tell us a bit more about how the project works and the importance these types of programs have on societies that are not so familiarized with these new technologies?

Blockchain for Social Impact is a platform that we launched at ITS Rio to advance the socio-economic potential of blockchain technologies. The platform has three main goals. First, we want to improve access to blockchain education. Second, we want to highlight use cases of blockchain technologies that improve socio-economic outcomes. And, third, we are developing research partnerships to better understand the regulatory process around blockchain technology in Brazil and in comparative contexts.

On the social impact front, I am working with the ITS Rio social media team to highlight use cases of blockchain for social impact. For example, we profiled startups that use blockchain to ensure supply chain sustainability in the coffee industry in Brazil. We are also profiling a startup that uses NFT technology to promote digital ownership and increase capital for protecting critical rainforests in the Amazon. I am also working on a report for the city government of Rio de Janeiro and Medellin, Colombia to provide key strategies for city governments that want to deploy blockchain to improve vaccination tracking in the health sector, prevent corruption in public registries, and maximize local economic development from cash transfer payments. This project also aims to spur cross-cultural exchange and innovation between Brazil and its neighbors in Latin America.

On the regulatory front, I partnered with one of Brazil’s leading cryptocurrency lawyers to co-author an English language brief that details Brazil’s regulatory debates surrounding cryptocurrencies. We covered the Federal Senate, Chamber of Deputies, CVM, RFB, and BCB. Our brief received a lot of positive feedback on social media and it is now one of the top resources for non-Portuguese speakers interested in an overview of how Brazil is regulating cryptocurrency.

More sound regulation around cryptocurrency can help advance the technology's financial inclusion benefits while preventing money laundering and corruption. Moreover, it is critical for policymakers to understand how other countries are approaching regulation so innovative approaches can be studied, adapted, and tested.

Interview conducted by Maria Lidiane Rodrigues, Communications Intern, DRCLAS Brazil Office