Claire Watanabe, FTX high-profile executive in charge of the exchange's business development, has kept a low profile as FTX drama unfolded, and her name is rarely brought up in the context of the company's spectacular collapse and subsequent lawsuits. While most of the employees had no idea what was going on until the very last moment, there are reasons to suspect that Claire was more than aware of FTX's internal woes as a member of Sam Bankman-Fried's inner circle.
Unlike other SBF lieutenants, who already pled guilty and are cooperating with prosecutors, Watanabe went off the radar completely and there's no public information of her being named in FTX court or bankruptcy filings. She also apparently deleted her social media profiles, so any crumbs of information left about her professional background and role at FTX are even more elusive. Still, Coinpaper managed to uncover some details that portray Watanabe's character, though these have not been independently verified due to the scarcity of information.
Who is who in FTX drama?
Sam Bankman-Fried, an MIT graduate and son of two Stanford law professors, wanted to change the world for the better — but instead became known as the mastermind of the multibillion-dollar FTX-Alameda Research fraud, which many deem the equivalent of Lehman Brothers in crypto. Worth $26 billion at the peak of his crypto empire, the ex-crypto poster boy and ex-FTX CEO now scrambles to fund his legal bills that keep piling up as he faces up to 155 years in jail if convicted in all eight criminal counts, which include securities fraud and wire fraud, conspiracy to commit wire fraud and securities fraud, money laundering, and conspiracy to avoid campaign finance regulations.
According to the CoinDesk report, the core business at FTX was run by Sam Bankman-Fried's "cabal of roommates," a closed circle of high-profile executives who lived together in a luxury penthouse in the Bahamas — and dated. Most of them knew SBF since his university years or met him during his quant trading internship at Jane Street, and all shared his penchant for effective altruism, a moral philosophy that urges its adherents to make as much money as possible so they can solve the ills of society by donating to charities.
Influenced by an ideology of effective altruism, Bankman-Fried launched the FTX Foundation, a philanthropic arm of his crypto empire that, according to its now-deleted website, has donated over $190 million so far. However, the lawsuit brought against SBF and other board members of the charity — Caroline Ellison, Alameda Research CEO before its collapse and SBF's ex-girlfriend, Gary Wang, the introverted FTX's CTO, and Nishad Singh, FTX's director of engineering — alleged that the foundation was “a purported charity that served little purpose other than to enhance the public stature” of Bankman-Fried.
At the time of writing, all three board members — who are also believed to be SBF's top lieutenants — pled guilty to criminal charges and agreed to cooperate with prosecutors investigating their former boss. Besides the Ellison-Wang-Singh trio, co-CEO Ryan Salame, who has reportedly been a whistleblower tipping Bahamian regulators onto the suspicious movements of customers' funds from FTX to Alameda, pled guilty to federal campaign finance and money-transmitting crimes tied to his political contributions in his own name when in fact they were made at the behest of Bankman-Fried.
Other senior executives at SBF's empire who, so far, seem to have avoided legal trouble, are Brett Harrison, FTX US CEO who left the company before the collapse due to feuds with SBF, Sam Traubucco, Alameda co-CEO who too left early, Amy Wu, head of FTX Ventures fund, Constance Wang, COO of FTX, Ramnik Arora, the exchange's head of product, and Claire Watanabe herself.
Now that you're familiar with the main players in FTX drama, let's delve deeper into the question: who is Claire Watanabe?
A longtime girlfriend of Nishad Singh
According to Bloomberg, Nishad and Claire met during their time at the University of California at Berkeley, where Singh majored in electrical engineering and computer science. He graduated with the highest honors and took a job at Facebook but left after a couple of months when SBF's brother Gabe told him that Sam had started a quant trading firm, Alameda, and needed engineers.
Watanabe later joined FTX as its head of HR and business development, which prompted some employees at the company to speculate that she owes her position exclusively to a relationship with Singh and not her actual merits. The pair resided in the FTX's $30 million penthouse in the Bahamas with Bankman-Fried, Ellison, and Wang.
An alleged member of SBF's polycule
Details about the romantic life of FTX execs reported by CoinDesk sparked rampant online gossip about FTX being run by a "polycule," a term for a connected network of people who are all somehow involved with each other sexually or romantically.
The rumor was seemingly confirmed by an alleged former FTX employee who reached out to the Twitter account @AutismCapital to share their inside info. According to the anonymous whistleblower, Claire and Constance (FTX COO and SBF's on-again, off-again girlfriend) both ran the show at the company and did whatever they wanted, being granted carte blanche by Bankman-Fried.
"While no employees were aware about FTX's financial situation, what should have been the red flag for everyone is when Sam named Claire as Head of HR along with Constance as COO this spring. In what professional company are the girlfriends — with zero qualifications for these positions running the day to day of a company worth $32b and responsible for the financial safety and livelihoods of so many?" they wrote.
A Berkeley CS alumni and a skilled hacker (?)
While Watanabe's LinkedIn was nowhere to be found and is presumably deleted to avoid public scrutiny, her RocketReach profile lists her as a Berkley 2015 graduate who double-majored in Computer Science and Business Administration.
According to the California Magazine published by Berkley alums, Claire Watanabe took the Beauty and Joy of Computing, a course aimed at underrepresented CompSci students, and decided to double-major in programming after feeling that her newly acquired coding skills allowed her to see a bigger picture of the new technologies.
“You got to dive into programming, but you also got to see the greater points about computing,” she told an interviewer. “If you felt like you wanted to continue, or even if you didn’t want to continue, it at least showed you how important it is in our world.”
Watanabe's ContactOut profile describes her as "an accomplished hacker and has been involved in many hacking groups during her time at UC Berkeley."
"Claire is also proficient in natural language processing and machine learning. Claire's career goals include working in a business, developing artificial intelligence, or exhibiting her expertise in communication science and natural language processing. She is confident that she has the skills and abilities to pursue any career goal she sets for herself," it further reads.
ContactOut also lists San Francisco-based Big Health as Watanabe's current employer, where she is working as a Research Scientist on the company's flagship product, Sleepio, to provide scientifically proven help for sleep and mental health.
A prolific Republican donor
In the summer of 2022, FTX execs Ryan Salame, Claire Watanabe, and Ramnik Arora all maxed out donations to Republican George Santos during his successful campaign for Congress. Besides Santos, Watanabe also donated to three other failed candidates, Karoline Leavitt, the far-right, anti-regulation Republican House candidate and former Trump White House aide, Michelle Bond, Salame’s girlfriend and a vocal crypto proponent, and Carrick Flynn, a fellow effective altruist favored by SBF.
As was already mentioned, Ryan Salame pled guilty to one count of conspiracy to make unlawful political contributions and one count of conspiracy to operate an unlicensed money transmitting business, facing up to 10 years in prison.
Salame admitted that the money he donated to candidates was recorded as loans from Alameda, but he did not intend to pay them back, despite knowing that it was prohibited by campaign finance laws to make contributions in his name with funds that weren't his own. According to former FTX exec, SBF hoped that their political contributions to pro-crypto, anti-regulation candidates would "weed out" anti-crypto Democratic and Republican lawmakers.
At the time of writing, it's unclear whether Watanabe was named in any of the lawsuits tied to Salame's case.
A Taylor Swift fan
According to former employees, Watanabe has been a driving force in trying to put together a $100 million FTX sponsorship deal with Taylor Swift. A fan of her music and a senior executive in FTX’s business development team, Watanabe was likely responsible for the talks with the pop star's management but the deal eventually fell through.
According to FT, Bankman-Fried agreed to drop the talks with Swift after opposition from FTX US president Brett Harrison, who questioned whether the singer would reach FTX's target audience and deliver value for a hefty sum paid. This contradicts earlier reports that it was Swift who walked away from the deal after FTX failed to assure her that the exchange doesn't offer unregistered securities.
Claire Watanabe, a senior executive at FTX, remains a mysterious figure amidst the crypto exchange's dramatic collapse. Her background, role, and connections within the company have raised questions about the scope of her involvement with the exchange's fraudulent activities, but limited public information makes it challenging to draw definitive conclusions about her place in FTX's troubles and subsequent legal issues.
Only time will unveil the full extent of Claire Watanabe's role in the FTX saga, and whether her actions will come to light as the legal proceedings progress. Coinpaper will provide updates as new details emerge in this unfolding story.