What is it like to be the first startup in your industry? The first to disrupt? The first to see the problem and know that you can fix it? I’ll Go First, a podcast from The Globe and Mail, takes us on a journey to find out.
Joseph Emerson: Reading in the textbooks, what they said about the atomic world and thinking that the world just can’t be that way. That makes no sense. It sounds magical. It sounds mysterious. We are now at the dawn of this new era of quantum computing, that’s the era we’re living in and that’s a very exciting time.
[Theme music fades in: Upbeat, digital]
Takara Small: From the Globe and Mail, this is I’ll Go First.
I’m Takara Small, welcome to the show where we find out what it takes to be a real trailblazer, to change the way the world works.
And when we look at things that have truly changed our world... the internet immediately springs straight to mind.
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TS: The internet fundamentally changed global society.
Quantum Computing could be the next internet. The next big tech revolution.
BBC Reporter: Here we have the Google AI twitter feed saying we are excited to announce the results of our Quantum supremacy experiment.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, at a news conference: Regular computer bit is either a 1 or 0 on or off, a quantum state can be much more complex than that because-
Google employee: Technologies are born this way, let’s say the Space-age started with satellite orbiting earth and it was not doing much, it was just beeping.
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TS: Complex computations that would take thousands of years for a traditional computer can be run in seconds on a quantum computer. That could rewrite everything from the defence industry to pharmaceutical research. The possibilities are so mind-blowing in fact, it is difficult to make any kind of prediction about the new tech that could come from this.
But quantum computing relies on quantum physics. Ones and zeroes become an infinite number of something, sort of in-between. Einstein called it “spooky physics”. And all that spookiness makes the process much less predictable.
One of the biggest challenges in creating a viable quantum computer is smoothing out all those errors and keeping the computer on course.
And that’s where our guest comes in.
Joseph Emerson: OK I’m Joseph Emerson. I’m CEO and founder of Quantum Benchmark Inc, a company building critical software for quantum computers.
TS: Joseph Emerson is one of the world’s leading authorities on the subject. His company, Quantum Benchmark works with Google on their quantum computer. They provide that error correction we were talking about.
Think of it this way: if a standard computer is a train travelling along a fixed track from A to B, then a quantum computer is like a rocket ship. It can go to exciting new places, but it needs maneuvering thrusters to stay on course.
Google in fact recently announced they’ve achieved what’s called “quantum supremacy”, a prototype that can perform calculations that a regular computer just can’t practically solve. It’s a real game changer, and IBM and Microsoft are hot on their heels with their own prototypes too.
And that’s where quantum computing is right now - just beginning to move from early testing to actual problem solving, and Joseph Emerson is right there at the bleeding edge.
He’s a rare combination of academic and entrepreneur - straddling the two very different worlds of science and business all at the same time.
As he tells it, that’s not always an easy task. As an academic, he can be more cautious than some entrepreneurs - but as an entrepreneur, he is a little bit more practical than a few other academics.
But if he gets it right, if he manages to do this, Joseph is perfectly positioned to take advantage of the predicted exponential growth in the quantum computing industry.
Commercial: This episode of I’ll Go First is brought to you by National Car Rental, where you can skip the counter and choose any car in the aisle. Keep listening to learn even more ways to stay in the driver’s seat when you’re travelling for business.
TS: What is quantum computing?
JE: The very first thing I would say is that a quantum computer is a new kind of computer reinventing computing from scratch, where we leverage the quantum features of the world to achieve things that can’t be achieved with traditional computers.
TS: Why should the average listener care about the breakthroughs that quantum computing could possibly hold in the future?
JE: Oh, well, that’s easy. there are major challenges we’re facing societally. There’s challenges around, you know, climate change and around, you know, incurable diseases. And what’s exciting about quantum computing is it can help us make progress on those kinds of problems.
TS: Quantum computing and quantum physics always makes me think of science fiction and especially the British author Arthur C. Clarke. Where he said any sufficient advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Do you see overlaps between science fiction and real-world scientific work?
JE: I think there is no better example of that except for quantum physics. I mean, you know, what got me into quantum physics as a younger person, you know, reading in the textbooks, what they said about the atomic world and thinking that the world just can’t be that way. That makes no sense. It sounds magical. It sounds mysterious. How can a scientific textbook be saying these things about the world and just be being very interested in understanding the nuts and bolts of reality and the fact that quantum mechanics challenges our notion, fundamental philosophical notions. I’ve always been interested in philosophy. Is there an objective reality? Can we know what that reality is? You know, is it a shared real objective reality? Can we learn about something without changing its nature? These are deep psychological, sociological, philosophical questions. And the fact that quantum physics was at the heart of these answers was absolutely fascinating to me. So that’s what got me into the field. In fact, I did my PHD studying the foundations of quantum theory, the philosophy of quantum mechanics and then when I went to M.I.T., kind of switched to something a bit more practical with quantum computing and the transition there was easy and natural because what quantum computing offered was a very concrete sense in showcasing the exact ways in which the quantum world could not be reduced to our classical intuitions.
TS: So tell me how you started Quantum Benchmark and really what got it moving?
JE: You know, I think I realized I was at a point in my life where, you know, doing science was going well and the science was having an impact, but the ideas weren’t having the impact I expected. And, you know, that could be one or two things. Either I was overestimating the impact of the ideas, the potential impact, or I wasn’t bringing them to the community in the right way. And ultimately, I think decided and have since validated that it was the latter was the problem. It was these were good ideas. These were good technological possibilities. But unless you kind of experimentalists are busy, they’re smart, you know, they think they know everything. And to come in and say, well, here’s a tool, you can try this right now that will help you. You know, if you read the paper, write the code, all based on the assumption that i haven’t missed something here is it already provided to you as a turnkey solution. All you have to do is, you know, turn the key and then discover if it’s helping you. That ultimately was the hypothesis, that we could do that. We put a lot of like blood, sweat and tears into developing that. And that has ultimately come to be validated that we could do that.
TS: Was it hard for you to go from being an academic and a professor to being the boss of a startup?
JE: Absolutely, that was a big learning curve for me that, you know, in fact, there was some tough love and tough feedback I got from the team, which as an academic, I would have a group of, you know, smart grad students. And I would say, here’s an interesting problem and hope someone would look at it. And at this company, I start doing that as well, like, oh, here’s an interesting thing we could do with the software. Here’s something I think the customers might want and just put it out there and then just hope it would happen. And then I realized I really had to be more affirming of - here is the challenge. I want you to take the lead. I want you to help them with half of your time and the other half of time help this person with this problem and really give more direction, which, you know, I don’t really like bossing people around. And so it was something I was slow to adopt that I just had to do. The other lesson I learned the hard way was you can’t change direction on the team too fast.
TS: So what does that mean?
JE: Well, you know, I’d go see one potential customer, new customer, and find out what their need was. I hadn’t thought of. Okay, Well, I was telling you guys we should build a build this functionality, but in fact, let’s switch this functionality, which I think will be more impactful. And, you know, then, you know, visit another customer two weeks later. But, you know, it turns out maybe this functionality doesn’t work. You know, it’s for me, it’s easy. I’m just like changing my mind. But for them, it’s like resetting their schedules. They’re planning all the things they’re keeping track of in their mind, the piece of code they’re working on and not appreciating how hard it is to pivot with projects and as a product manager, you get like jazzed up about what the most recent thing you heard from a customer was. And you kind of turn all your focus to that rather than having more of a slow steering approach.
TS: How did you find the investment for the business? Because you’re working in quite a new field. Traditional VCs or investors maybe don’t understand the power behind your work.
JE: You’re absolutely right.
TS: Are you like dumbing it down for them or are you pleading?
JE: So that has been a major challenge that, the message around what is the problem we’re solving even. In fact I have two investors and I think I have not overcome that challenge because both investors have PHD in physics.
JE: So I was able to explain the value proposition of the company and it’s critical importance only to people who were able to understand it because they had the background. And so for me, I think I do need to find a better way to connect with investors who are from, you know, more traditional background.
TS: You mentioned that you are quite a small company, but you are based in Waterloo. Why did you decide to stay in Waterloo and maybe not make the trek to Silicon Valley permanent?
JE: Well, first of all, you know, housing rates are much more reasonable. But the main thing is that Canada has been actually at the vanguard of quantum computing, academically. So the Institute for Quantum Computing, where I’ve been a faculty member since 2005, has been one of the top places in the world to study quantum computing because of a big investment, a private investment from Mike Lazaridis of BlackBerry fame. And the vision he brought about this was an exciting area to explore. He had a background in physics and always thought quantum physics was super cool. And when you heard about quantum computing being an application of quantum physics, got very excited and made a charitable donation to set up the Institute for Quantum Computing. So the the the reason for developing the company in Waterloo and for staying in Waterloo is because we have an incredible concentration of expertise in the Waterloo region in quantum computing specifically. And there’s a massive shortage of that expertise around the world. Many of my former students have joined the company and it’s just the right place to be, to kind of have our ear to the ground in terms of developments and working with the best people in the world.
TS: And they’re actually graduates from the institute who are now at the leading tech companies in the world, the Googles, the IBMs who are experts in quantum computing.
JE: Oh, yeah. Well I shouldn’t fail to mention that IBM’s effort is led by J Gambeta, but who’s now a fellow in IBM, research fellow in the V.P. of Quantum there. He was actually my postdoc at Waterloo. He left my group, I think it was around 2011, went to IBM. But it wasn’t until Jay and IBM demonstrated that we can put a quantum computer on the cloud and let you know high school kids access it for free and play around with the technology. That has a huge impact on the way people think about the promise of the technology. It’s there. It’s real, it’s not some ivory tower thing.
TS: Is it just the investment that has produced, all of these experts, or is there something else in Canada that’s also contributed to our leadership role in this space?
JE: Well, you know, Canada’s a great country with highly educated people, so that helps. Waterloo, to give some throw some love to University of Waterloo.
TS: They’re going to love this episode.
JE: Yeah, absolutely. So they have an entrepreneurial spirit at Waterloo. So, you know, because this is actually a podcast around, you know, entrepreneurs, University of Waterloo assigns any IP created by researchers to the researchers.
TS: Is that odd?
JE: That very unusual. So what that means is that as a faculty member, they’re, you know, working with my group members, we create IP, we own the IP. We don’t need University of Waterloo to sign off on how we develop it, how we turned into a product. We can do it entirely on our own. Most other major universities own the IP that their researchers develop. The key piece with startups is you have to be incentivized. The importance of being able to control your destiny. For me, it was very important. I mean, it’s great to control the IP because then you have, you know, economic benefits. But it’s really just the philosophical benefits. I don’t want to build something and then have someone take it over and take it away from me and do something different that I didn’t imagine with it. So the ability to kind of control the process has been really important for me, and that wouldn’t have been, may not have been possible to a different university.
TS: I’m curious, what do you deem as success for your business?
JE: I want it to be used broadly, I want to see quantum computers have the societal impact they can have. I want to see the company be successful and I want us to see the company being successful at making quantum computing have an impact.
TS: How do you see that impact playing out? Let’s just say in your wildest dreams.
JE: Oh, yeah. So wildest dreams would definitely be quantum computers are being used, in the R and D labs of leading companies, finding ways to discover new materials, you know, more efficient drugs for fighting diseases like cancer, a Quantum Computer being a research tool in labs throughout the world, the way conventional computing was 40 years ago. Now conventional computing touches every aspect of our lives. It’s not just a research tool, it’s a communication tool its a social tool. Maybe quantum computing will reach that one day, but that’s way far in the future.
TS: Is there anything that scares you about quantum computing?
JE: So one of the things people used to talk about a long time ago with quantum computing, a driving force behind it is its ability to crack codes. And so there’s an amazing analogy there with the dawn of conventional computing, which has a history around being developed and people knew they could build a computer. But one of the big incentives to build a computer in the 40s was to crack codes.
JE: That was a valuable thing for warfare. And it turns out a quantum computer, one of the things that really got a lot of funding pouring into the field in the 90s was the realization, you know, we could actually use a quantum computer to crack the encryption scheme that we use today, the most widely used public-key cryptography method called RSA. So when your medical records are transmitted from a hospital to your doctor’s office. When your credit card information is transmitted across the Internet, a scheme called public-key cryptography is used. And the robustness of that scheme is based on a mathematical problem that is hard for computers to solve. a quantum computer can crack this encryption scheme efficiently. So if we had a large enough quantum computer and it would have to be a very, very large quantum computer, so the size of a quantum computer to solve that problem is much bigger than the size of a quantum computer we need to do these quantum chemistry calculations, for example. Then it turns out our best encryption scheme would be destroyed, which means governments were very interested in that and are very interested in that because it means finding all the secret information. In fact, information that’s already been broadcast over the Internet, people assumed would be secure for hundreds of years, all of a sudden be exposed.
TS: I’m curious about more about you and your childhood, were your parents, researchers or scientists?
JE: No, no, no. I come from a non-academic background. Neither of my parents went to university and don’t I really know I kind of set on this path completely on my own. I think someone, when I was 10, gave me a biography of Einstein. And I remember reading that and thinking, wow, what a cool way to spend your life and your time as being able to ponder the deepest mysteries of the universe. And, you know, that gave me a sense of excitement and purpose. And I think it was that early on that I thought science is the way for me to go.
TS: So you moved from Cleveland to Montreal as a 10-year-old. How did that impact your career path?
JE: You know in Cleveland, I was in, obviously it was in the United States, English culture, American environment, and moving to Montreal, I was required to go to school in French, which I did not speak. And so I had to quickly learn French, which was, you know, a big push, big challenge. And you know, the funny thing was within two years. You know, I was pretty good at French already. And my mom got me into this private French secondary school called John Brebeuf, and it’s a Jesuit run school. And so, sure enough, by the time I was 12, I was being taught Latin in French. And one of the funnier things was that I’d be given vocabulary lists to learn like all the other students every week in Latin. And there’d be so many words on the list that I wouldn’t know what the word on the other side of the list meant. So I thought. Well, what does that French word mean in English? And then that’s what that is in French. Oh, and that’s what that is in Latin. And so, you know, I’ve often wondered if having to be put through such a gruelling intellectual challenge at such a young age kind of helped stimulate my mind a bit.
TS: And I’m wondering, what did your parents do that preceded the move to Montreal?
JE: Oh, well, that’s not necessarily the happiest of stories. So it was a divorce. And so my parents met in Toronto. My dad’s American, my mom’s French, Canadian. I was brought up in Cleveland. And then when they got divorced, I moved to Montreal with my mother. And, you know, the funny thing is my dad wouldn’t let my mother speak French to us in Cleveland.
JE: So that’s why I went to Montreal at ten and didn’t speak French, just because he wanted us to be, proficient English speakers. And he was worried that that would be an impairment of some sort, if we were speaking French in the house.
TS: You mentioned your philosophical outlook and curiosity, imagination when you’re in university and wondering, is there a religious side to yourself? Do you believe in God or a higher being?
JE: So, you know, that’s something I haven’t thought carefully about in decades, I would say. I was brought up Catholic and I’m sure that a very big impact on my personality. But we won’t go into any Freudian analysis. But, but no, around the age of 16 or so, I asked myself the question like, you know, if I was brought up in a Muslim family, I would probably believe in Islam. And if I was brought up in a Hindu family, I would believe in the Hindu pantheon. And that realization that my religious beliefs were circumstantial was, for me, kind of the ultimate challenge in embracing a specific religious belief and then at some point I just became a very hard nosed scientist and just decided that I’m not going to believe anything that I can’t, you know, confirm or validate, empirically
JE: So that leaves me where I am today as a, you know, something between an atheist and agnostic, I guess.
TS: So do you believe that religion and quantum physics are incompatible?
JE: Ah. Geez, I would take that a step back and just say, you know, religion and science. I mean first of all, I think for science, we need people from all kinds of perspectives to make progress because the main challenge toward scientific progress is creativity. There are lots of smart people that can do math, and I think the great advances come from people who aren’t necessarily the best at math, but come with a new creative perspective, putting ideas together, looking at them from a different point of view. And that’s what takes us to this new insight. There are so many of my colleagues who are just, not diverse number one, mathematically brilliant and tackle these problems, which I think, you know, that’s a really hard problem, but it’s not going to make a difference if you solve it. It’s almost like flexing, like, you know, scientists like to flex in the sense that I solved this really hard math problem. Yeah, like a really hard Sudoku puzzle here. And it’s like, well, why? Well, why are you solving that problem? Why don’t you pick a problem that, maybe requires a creative solution, but not like a mathematically impressive solution. That’s where I think the field is kind of gone a bit of drift. And I would love to see more diverse people coming with more creative solutions.
Another aspect of that, not necessarily in the traditional sense of diversity, but in the sense of interdisciplinary. There’s a lot of great ideas in different fields that don’t cross-pollinate. And so, you know, I’ve seen really big advances in my field when someone comes from a completely different field, makes a career change, and brings tools and ideas from that, that give us new insights and solve solving problems that everyone else is trying the same approach on and kind of, you know, breaking, breaking up against the shore.
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TS: OK. So the next section is called Rapid Fire and it’s pretty simple. You just have to answer the question as fast as you possibly can. Without thinking too much.
JE: Word association.
TS: Exactly. Ok, what do you do for fun?
TS: What motivates you?
TS: What’s your perfect day off?
JE: Playing with my kids.
TS: How many hours do you think you work a week? On average?
JE: Way way too many
TS: How many hours do you sleep a night on average?
JE: Not enough, so actually if I can throw something in there.
JE: The amazing thing is, when I was just a scientist, just a professor.
TS: Just a scientist, just a professor.
JE: I would sleep easily 9 to 10 hours a night.
TS: What changed? Being an entrepreneur?
JE: Became an entrepreneur. Now I sleep five or six hours a night. And it’s not that I don’t try to sleep more. It’s that I just can’t. There’s just too many things on my mind. And I, you know wake up early and I just can’t get back to sleep.
TS: Okay. Back to the Rapid Fire. What’s one word your friends would use to describe you?
TS: What’s your biggest pet peeve?
TS: What is it?
JE: Oh, it’s a term I invented.
TS: What is it?
JE: It’s people who are confident but wrong.
TS: Oh, do you use that in an actual conversation with people?
JS: I say it all the time because there’s so many people out there who are so arrogant, so confident. And, you know they’re wrong. But they have no idea they’re wrong, But they just believe everything 110 percent. And it drives me crazy, as a scientist you get that beaten out of you. Or should at least. Some of them haven’t. But yeah.
TS: So did you encounter that more in the entrepreneurial world than people who haven’t had that rigorous, as you say, beating
JE: Yeah. The rigor. You don’t have the same rigor. There’s a lot. Like it does actually turn me off a bit. That’s the one thing I don’t like is, you know, I’m very cautious in what everything I say and do because of my scientific training. And in business you get so many yahoos out there just overhyping what they can do. They have no idea what the obstacles are. And it’s hard to compete with that.
TS: So have you actually used that word in conversation with people and then had to explain it to them? Cause, that would be quite insulting. No?
JE: Oh, you mean to someone I’m claiming is doing that?
JE: I’ll usually use it in conversation about other people that have aggravated me throughout the day. No. Going to a quantum computing conference and hearing 10 people get up on stage and say things that are absolutely false, is just mind-numbingly frustrating.
TS: We’ve so diverged from Rapid Fire at this point I’m not even gonna pretend we’re on it. So there’s a lot of obviously like false claims online. Do you look that up and then actually argue or counter what some of the B.S. that you’re seeing?
JE: I shouldn’t, but I sometimes do engage with that. So one of my investors gave me a hard time about my style, where I’m just calling, I call people out on, you know, B.S. And it’s great as a scientist, but as an entrepreneur, you’re there to be friendly and likable. And you’re not supposed to be telling people that they don’t know what they’re talking about. So I’m trying to push that down deeper inside myself.
TS: Is that hard?
JE: Yes. My nature is a bit caustic sometimes.
TS: What’s your favorite hobby?
JE: I think board games.
TS: Oh, what is there a particular board game you like?
JE: Oh I just love all board games. Settlers, Agricola.
JE: A friend of mine describes Agricola as not really a game. It’s an optimization strategy, thinly veiled as a game.
TS: I’ve never heard of that game. But I will Google it afterwards.
JE: Oh it’s great. So Agricola, basically, it’s subsistence farming. And and the idea is you can spend your people taking turns, grabbing resources. Then you could build fences and you have to built a farm.
JE: But you only have so many rounds and then you have to feed your people. And it turns out that winning the game is your people not starving to death.
TS: Oh, wow stakes are quite high, Ok. Favourite place in Canada.
TS: Why Vancouver?
JE: Well I did my PHD there and just love it. I mean, the nature is incredible. The mountains, the ocean, the sushi.
TS: Congrats. Rapid fire is done.
TS: You survived.
TS: OK, so the next part is called the Big Three. I’m going to ask you some questions. You can take as much time as you want. But you have to answer them. That’s the only rule.
JE: I can’t pick dare for some of them?
TS: What’s one piece of advice you would tell your younger self?
JE: Oh, that’s a great question. Don’t sweat the small stuff.
TS: It’s good advice. Where do you see yourself in five years?
JE: Growing vegetables in a greenhouse.
JE: Yeah. That’s my dream.
TS: Retiring and growing it or still working?
JE: I still want to you know, do physics and maybe switch back to quantum foundations at some point but, I love gardening. I love the gratification of growing things. I decided that there’s a few things I should do in life, and one of them was propagating a crop. So even though I have a small backyard, I wanted to grow a crop, store it over the winter and grow a bigger crop with the previous year’s crop. Right. Just as like a, maybe it’s my agriculture subsistence farming,
TS: I was going to say it sounds like the board game.
JE: I went with potatoes and it didn’t go so well.
TS: Oh. And why?
JE: Well there’s not enough light in my backyard. So I mean I basically planted, you know, a couple pounds of potatoes, kept them over the winter, all said and done I grew another couple pounds of potatoes. So it’s like a zero-sum game. There was, no one would have survived on my potato crop.
TS: So have you always loved gardening and growing things or is this a new phenomenon?
JE: It’s definitely new. I didn’t even mention. I’m also I’m a huge pickling fan, so I actually.
TS: Are you keeping things from me?
JE: So this is a big piece of my life I didn’t mention. But yeah, pickling is a big part of my August routine, but I don’t know where it came from. I actually don’t know. I think it just came from just something about having your hands in the earth.
TS: Nice, that sounds relaxing. Is there one mistake you’ve made in your past that ultimately helped you grow as a researcher, as a scientist, as an entrepreneur?
JE: My PHD took forever.
TS: What’s forever?
JE: It’s six years. And so there was a few factors there. So I was in Vancouver and, you know, I made a really nice group of friends. We were kind of social activists, got a little bit disillusioned.
TS: Social activist. Let’s not move on too quick. What do you mean a social activist?
JE: Just concerned about social justice, you know, going to protest, that kind of thing.
TS: What were you protesting?
JE: Well, there was this APEC summit in Vancouver. And, you know, all these world leaders who had very questionable human rights records were there. And it was part of a group that was, kind of just contesting economic interaction there. I don’t even know if I knew what I was doing. I certainly was, you know, confident, maybe wrongfident at the time. But I got interested in that and want to do something. And so that was, you know, part of it. Also, just having a good time enjoying life. You know, you’re in your late 20s and, you know, physics was exhausting. It was hard and didn’t feel like I was making much progress. So I got a little disillusioned, little disconnected from my research so I ended up spending six years, which is much longer than I should have spent on my PHD. But the advantage is that ultimately the key opportunity was right at the end, of my PHD advisor from M.I.T. came to give a talk and through a series of random events, end up having lunch with him and telling him what I was working on, which connected really well with the challenges he was facing in the lab. And then in the end, he made me an offer to come work at M.I.T. and which everyone was blown away because, you know, I think I was kind of a creative person, but I was definitely like a mediocre PHD student and everyone was kind of surprised that I was going to MIT but that’s where I kind of blossomed, where my interests aligned. I got very, very focused when I went to Boston. I love Boston, l got very, very focused on research to really to the point of excluding almost everything else in my life. And so I would say that kind of maybe poor professional decision to goof off quite a bit during my PHD ended up really enabling a direction that formed my career.
[End theme fades in]
TS: That was Joseph Emerson, thanks to him for sharing his story.
We are back each week with a new episode from another person who is changing the way our world works.
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