Aurelie Helouis of infinityQ Technology: “Good enough”

Learn when to say something is “good enough” and understand that what you think is perfect may not be necessary for the product to succeed in the end. Engineer mindsets are built to achieve perfection. But to survive you will have to sell what you have even if it is ugly. Our chip right now is […]

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Learn when to say something is “good enough” and understand that what you think is perfect may not be necessary for the product to succeed in the end.

Engineer mindsets are built to achieve perfection. But to survive you will have to sell what you have even if it is ugly. Our chip right now is as big as a shoebox but it will deliver enough computational capabilities to solve complex problems in less than a second.

As a part of our series about strong women leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Aurélie Hélouis.

Aurélie is the founder and CEO of infinityQ, a quantum computing company offering revolutionary computational capabilities that can solve current impossible problems. As a former senior officer with a background in naval aviation engineering, she moved to Montreal to pursue an MBA at McGill University where she discovered her passion for entrepreneurship. It was while she was working at Mila, the Quebec Artificial Intelligence Institute, that she started the infinityQ project in 2019.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

My background is in the sciences, which I have loved since childhood. My backstory is a bit unusual. I spent 16 years in the French Navy, and my specialty was flight support engineering. The Navy taught me a lot about leadership, resilience, hard work, and teamwork. I had the chance to do a world tour on board a helicopter carrier when I was just 20 years old, and it opened up my eyes to many aspects of our world.

Despite my young age, the Navy had entrusted me with major responsibilities, including heading sizeable departments and being in charge of High-Value Assets. Onboard an aircraft carrier, I was the first female CTO of a Rafale squadron, ensuring the operational readiness of the twin-engine combat jet for deployments and exercises, and I became the CIO of the Naval Air Station in Landivisiau, France.

Then I moved to Canada to start a civilian life. When I began my MBA at McGill University, I remember my first meeting with my career services advisor. She asked me what I wanted to do. I was very sure of myself and said that I wanted to be a CEO or a VP, eventually. I remember the look of awe she gave me.

I did my MBA internship at a multinational aircraft engine manufacturer. I could have ended up pursuing my entire career there, but one moment at McGill changed my life. At an entrepreneurship event at the university, a CEO of an incubator was pitching entrepreneurship life, and I got hooked. At the end of the class, he said, “If you want a great tech idea, a tech co-founder, and half a million dollars, send me an email.”

So I sent him an email, and I quit my secure, full-time job to become an entrepreneur. I had found my calling, and although my first experience wasn’t very successful, I learned a lot. A couple of attempts later, and here I am.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

When I arrived at Mila, my manager, Dr. Myriam Côté, invited me to lunch with her and a researcher, Professor Jean-Michel Sellier, who also happened to be starting work at the Institute. And it wasn’t before long that our simple lunchtime conversation turned into a complex discussion about, among other things, quantum mechanics, the Schrödinger cat that can be alive and dead at the same time, new formulations, and how to develop a quantum chip at room temperature!

This eat-and-greet lunch turned out to be, in many respects, the premise of the launch of the infinityQ project. Dr. Kristina Kapanova, aka Krisi, who knew Jean-Michel for many years joined the team shortly thereafter. She has an extraordinary background, and an expert in quantum computing, artificial intelligence, and HPCs (High-Performance Computers), she quickly became our CTO. And with Dr. Rachael Al-Saadon joining us as our Director of Quantum Applications, the core team, composed solely of women, was established.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Mistakes usually are not really funny, but this one is quite hilarious. I had heard a lot of stories about entrepreneurs who were raising money, and I really thought at the beginning of my first round of financing that once you have obtained the signature of a term sheet from someone who agrees to invest, you take the check and you kind of run with it before they change their mind!

Well, in the real world, it is not that simple. I had to learn patience and how to negotiate, and for months, I had to review legal documents. I still laugh when I think of my candor back then.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person whom you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

My partner is always there to help me, with the kind of support I can constantly count on.

I first met him on-board the aircraft carrier when I was the CTO of the Rafale squadron, and he was the Royal Navy Exchange Officer. But at that time, we barely spoke to each other, and we were both married to someone else. Coincidentally, we both moved to Montreal in the same year, and we both separated from our former spouses at roughly the same time. Eventually, it was a common pilot friend of ours, who was also on-board that aircraft carrier, that encouraged us to get together. After several canceled dinners, we finally met, and since then we have been inseparable. Together, we recently had a baby boy, who joins our children from previous partners (my two daughters and his son) to form one big, happy family.

When I have important meetings or commitments, my partner will take care of the kids or offer some sort of solution. I am so grateful of him and his admiration of who I am and what I do. I admire him as well. He is a gifted businessman, a master of negotiation and sales, and a role model from whom I continue to learn. With him, I see every day as a blessing. We make a great team.

OK, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. According to this EY report, only about 20 percent of funded companies have women founders. This reflects great historical progress, but it also shows that more work still has to be done to empower women to create companies. In your opinion and experience what is currently holding back women from founding companies?

I think it’s mainly our society and cultural prejudices that hold back women. A lot of us suffer from good-girl syndrome. For a long time, I really felt I had to please everyone, and I constantly sought external validation. As a founder, however, you need to trust yourself and have the strength to deal with the doubters and downers, who think you have lost your mind. Pretty much every start-up goes through this. Early on, nobody believed infinityQ could work.

And the good-girl syndrome makes it that much more challenging. Everything has to be done by the book, no extravagances allowed. Basically, you have to appear perfect all the time as if doing well was your normal, and failure meant you were a loser. But for entrepreneurs, failure is part of the job. You fail, you learn, you move on. And sometimes even a failure can turn out to be a good opportunity.

I also think women often suffer from imposter syndrome. Sometimes, I am unhappy with myself immediately after meetings that, in reality, went quite well. When this happens, I know that I have to remember that I am successful and that I have no reason to have those lingering feelings of insecurity. Similar to the imposter syndrome and perhaps just as common in women is a lack of self-esteem. For me, it happens when I come across people with more experience, for example. But I need to convince myself that yes, I am not as perfect as this person is, but still I am good at what I do, and this is what matters.

That said, we should also acknowledge that being a mom and a founder comes with a reality of challenges, sacrifices, and constant trade-offs between home and career responsibilities. Surprisingly, the situation with COVID-19 and working from home has in some ways facilitated establishing a good work-life balance.

Can you help articulate a few things that can be done as individuals, as a society, or by the government, to help overcome those obstacles?

As individuals, we need to promote more females who have the skills to do the job. We need to judge their capabilities and give them opportunities. For me, this is an intrinsic company value.

As a society, we need to accept that the roles of men and women are neither as fixed nor as simple to determine upon first glance as they might have been in the past. When I was in the Navy as a young woman managing over 130 technicians, I had to face a lot of pressure, and often, when I met people with my deputy, a 45-year-old man, they would mistake him as the Senior Officer and me as his subordinate, an assumption based on gender and age stereotypes.

I am always happy to observe progress, but it still seems novel to see women in leadership roles. When a woman is being promoted, too often it is an action designed for show, where a box has been checked, giving us the collective green light to sleep well at night. This type of promotion tends towards the idea of successful women as an exception rather than a natural phenomenon. The reality is that there are many women who can shine professionally if given the opportunity. Seeing women as leaders in the workplace, regardless of the domain, should be a regular rather than a rare occurrence. It will take time, but we’ll get there.

We need to continue pushing.

This might be intuitive to you as a woman founder but I think it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you share a few reasons why more women should become founders?

I think women should be founders because they bring a different style of leadership to the table. I don’t want to generalize, but I think women usually tend to give more importance to people. I mean we are or could be mothers. When I interviewed to become a French Navy officer, the male interviewer, a senior officer, asked me a question about women in the navy. I replied that the diversity would bring new points of view. And he told me that we are not here to have different points of view, we are here to be operational.

Another point I would like to highlight, again without wanting to generalize, is that women can usually get the job done without questions tied to a sense of ego that seems more predominant among men. At the end of the day, what we achieve is the proof of our efforts. And as an entrepreneur, being a man or women shouldn’t really matter. Only your mindset and your skills do.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a founder. Can you explain what you mean?

Indeed, there are several myths in need of debunking.

Myth: Entrepreneurship is all about the great technology.

Not always. I remember the CEO of an incubator who came back from the CES (Consumer Electronics Show) in Las Vegas and said, “You know, all these start-ups with deep tech ideas had these little cheap booths, and guess who had the big booth near them? This company that customized phone cases…What’s the point of deep tech?”

One of the mistakes we made at the beginning was talking too much about technology. I remember meetings with investors and potential partners during which Jean-Michel would try to explain the technology of quantum computing in depth. We were so proud of ourselves, and we thought we had the best idea ever to revolutionize the world. But people were totally lost, unable to see the concrete benefits. The lesson here is that rather than focus on the cool factor of our technology, we needed to communicate what it could do and how it could improve business.

Furthermore, launching your business is more than just building stuff, but we should not neglect legal, accounting, finance, marketing, and sales factors. A start-up is not a research centre, it has to be operational and sales oriented.

Myth: You have to be like Steve Jobs to succeed.

Just be yourself! I remember I did this workshop hosted by an incubator, and the first thing we did was study the genius of Steve Jobs and Elon Musk. I mean don’t get me wrong, they are extraordinary entrepreneurs, but please, there are so many different successful entrepreneurs we don’t hear from.

Myth: Entrepreneurs have poor work-life balance.

Well, I won’t lie, if you have a small team and there is a tonne of work to be done, you will work a lot. That said, you won’t really be under the impression you are working, and, you will be surprised at how efficient you become. You will quickly understand priorities, and you will be able to manage family and work. For example, it happens sometimes that I bring my kids to the office, they love it. Dedicating time for my family, playing board games, going snowshoeing all together helps me relax and restore my energy.

Myth: Entrepreneurs have to take unconsidered risks.

Entrepreneurs take risks, but the risks are always calculated. We don’t rely on luck.

I left my full-time job to start a new venture in a new country discovering civilian life with no experience in entrepreneurship. But always in the back of my mind was the idea that everything I learn and the experience I gain would bring me interesting opportunities. I was right.

Myth: Entrepreneurs have a clear idea of what they want.

Yes, destination is the focus, but the path to get there can constantly change during the journey. The clear idea is to constantly improve your products. You refine your idea based on different feedback. You adapt your business to the environment and your product to your customers’ needs. Being flexible and agile is the reality.

COVID-19 was definitely a surprise for many, yet we are managing to work as a team together without meeting in person. In fact, Krisi our CTO got stuck in Europe for months before moving to Canada. She had to build our technology in her bedroom, start-up mode!

Myth: Entrepreneurs are their own boss.

To truly be your own boss, you would not have to be accountable to anyone, which is a nice idea. But as a founder, you are accountable to your customers, your investors, your shareholders, your team, and yourself… so it is a very demanding job, and procrastination is not allowed.

Is everyone cut out to be a founder? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful founder and what type of person should perhaps seek a “regular job” as an employee? Can you explain what you mean?

There is no unique profile. I think being a founder is more than a job, it’s a mindset, and one size doesn’t fit all. It requires passion, accepting living with uncertainty, and a certain amount of stress and risk-taking. You have to be ready to quit your secure job to launch a company that may collapse in six months. I know people who won’t accept this risk and that’s why a regular job can be a better option. But for entrepreneurs, the journey is worth it.

As an entrepreneur, you should embrace autonomy, be able to endorse responsibilities, understand the big picture easily and fast, and make decisions quickly. At the end of the day, you can’t find excuses, things have to be done.

Founders have to be creative. You have to achieve big things with very little at the beginning. So you need to find shortcuts or cheaper ways to do the job. Be resourceful.

Lastly, a founder has to be a team worker and understand that you can’t achieve anything alone. It’s all about the people and the team you build. Your leadership should inspire people to follow you, even if success is not readily apparent. You will show the way, and soon enough it will all make sense.

OK super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

1. Everything always takes more time than expected.

Literally everything. Our first financing round took almost six months. Immigration took forever. COVID-19 didn’t help. We finally set up shop in our office almost a year after we got incorporated.

The result is great, but as we say in French, “Paris ne s’est pas fait en un jour.”

2. Build your team with complementary knowledge and skills.

You will need as many skills as you can to build a great business, the idea is to hire people who can bring value to your team. Think of your team’s combined brainpower as a balance of right (creative) and left (logical) functions. The best teams are composed of eclectic experts in their fields.

Also, it is important to hire someone from whom you and your team members can learn.

3. Your marketing budget is too low.

No one will know your greatness exists unless you promote the products and services you offer.

In the beginning, you may tend to forget marketing totally, but you will learn that it is essential.

4. Learn when to say something is “good enough” and understand that what you think is perfect may not be necessary for the product to succeed in the end.

Engineer mindsets are built to achieve perfection. But to survive you will have to sell what you have even if it is ugly. Our chip right now is as big as a shoebox but it will deliver enough computational capabilities to solve complex problems in less than a second.

5. It’s possible to be a mom and a founder.

It’s all about being organized and prioritizing. I put my children’s appointments in my calendar alongside my own items. I work when they are sleeping as well and usually dedicate my 5 pm — 7 pm block to them.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

I got hooked on quantum computing because I realized the impact that this technology could have on our society. The notion of computing power which is millions of times faster, revolutionize, for example, the pharmaceutical industry, where the processes of simulating new drug interactions, assessing side effects, and discovering new drugs are significantly faster, and consequently more productive for all the stakeholders involved.

Also, I joined the Women in Quantum organization, a community that celebrates women in science. I actively promote women in our company, and we are proudly a girl-core team. I gave a talk at the Women in Quantum Summit because I wanted to demonstrate that you don’t need to be a superwoman to achieve great things. You just need to be your true self.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

I want to promote the idea of a better education for everyone. And when I talk about education, I mean universal wisdom. The more educated people there are, the more successful we will all be in combatting fears and irrational beliefs.

We are very blessed that some very prominent names in business, VC funding, sports, and entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

I would love to meet Gwynne Shotwell, President and COO of SpaceX. She has an impressive career path. I like her leadership style, and I would be interested in discussing with her how quantum computing could improve her business in a number of ways.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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