Canada's Role in Web3 with Tracy Leparulo
From helping launch Ethereum to founding Canada's largest blockchain event
GM. It's been a while but, you too were living through what felt like the Busiest Summer Ever.
I spoke with Tracy Leparulo, the founder of Canada's largest blockchain event, the Blockchain Futurist Conference. In addition to her background in Web3, we talked about her view of government regulation in the industry.
Today's newsletter is 2600 words or a 15-minute read.
Erin Gee: Tell me about how you came to work in Web3.
Tracy Leparulo: Where do we start? I got involved in cryptocurrency in 2012. I actually went to Kenya and started a microfinance program funding women entrepreneurs in Western Kenya, and I would teach financial literacy across 23 villages. When I came back to Canada, I quickly realized that it was really hard to send money over borders, especially microloans. With a $100 microloan, it was like a $30 fee through Western Union. I was at Ryerson University at the time, and I learned that there are better ways to send money over borders, which is how I fell upon Bitcoin. In Toronto, there's a place called Decentral — it was about a minute and a half away from my condo — which is where Ethereum started.
At Decentral, the founders of Ethereum hired me to work on a project, pre-Ethereum, called CryptoKit and later to help launch Ethereum. At the time that they wanted to run a big event in Canada called the Bitcoin Expo. I was a volunteer and they said, "Does anybody want to run this event?" I was the only female in the room, and I put my hand up and said, “Sure, I'll run this big expo for us.” It was the largest in the world at the time: 800 people back in 2014. So that's how I got into crypto. It fell upon me really early days and I got a little bit fortunate being in Toronto with Ethereum.
EG: I started covering crypto from the Vancouver lens early this year, and so I hadn't realized that Ethereum was founded in Toronto, so I think that you being the ground floor of that opportunity is just very unique.
TL: Absolutely. Toronto is like the grandfather of a lot of the crypto projects. A lot of big projects came out of here, so we were very early on and slipping a little bit now.
EG: So how did getting in so early lead to Untraceable and the Blockchain Futurist Conference?
TL: I ran the first Bitcoin Expo in Canada and the first Ethereum hackathon, and from there I created my company, I used to do events called Traceable, so when I went full crypto I called it Untraceable; I made the flip. From there I started being asked to do events all around the world. I did another hackathon for Blockgeeks in 2016, and then I ran ETHWaterloo, which was the first ETH hackathon, part of this whole ETH global series, and was where CryptoKitties launched out of, which was really great. We started seeing really cool technologies coming out of Canada, and then I would work on multiple projects around the world. We did events in Bahamas, Barbados, Australia, Chicago. I traveled around the world, helping brands and helping companies engage their community.
EG: So, right now do you work more in the engagement and event space or are you still doing the advising and startup-y type things?
TL: It's definitely a bit of both. My bread and butter is events and bringing community together. COVID-19 changed the whole business model in some sense, so I definitely help companies with their marketing. I've been head of marketing for quite a few companies as well. I also advise them, really connect people and bring the community together in whatever projects that I think are going to change the space coming out.
EG: I know that Twitter and Discord are very much the online communities for Web3, and so I assume that you’ve been using those spaces over the past couple of years.
TL: Absolutely. It's about a hybrid. It's like, how do you transfer the physical to the virtual? When I was the head of marketing at Polymath, we opened up Telegram. I got 70,000 people in our groups. Telegram actually had to change their permissions for all of Telegram because of the group that I was part of. So we had an influx of people come there. Discord seems to be the new game that everyone is on. Online communities are important, but that’s what I think makes events even more valuable: it's so anonymous online. You don't know who to trust. Is it a real team? Are you getting scammed? There are so many different things to be worried about online and that's why these in-person events are important because you can see who the founder is, that they have a real development team. I'm happy to see physical events back in person.
EG: I absolutely agree and I think it's an interesting point because the whole ethos of Web3 and using the blockchain is that in theory, you can trace it back to individual users, but ultimately, you don't know who that user is. So you have their wallet and all of this information about them and all the purchases they've made, but you don't actually know who that person is. I guess people who aren't participating in Web3 can criticize and say that those things are meant to create trust, coupled with the fact that there's been an influx of scams over the past few months. So does that change that inherent principle in what Web3 is supposed to be?
TL: Absolutely. That's honestly such a good discussion point. There's such confusion. A lot of people think it's anonymous, that it's untraceable when it's the complete opposite. It's fully traceable. But to the point, should everything also be traced? We had a good discussion at Futurist, ‘to know or not to know, that is the question,’ that discussed privacy. We had a lot of companies this year talk about privacy because in some sense, should everything be transparent? Should I be able to follow any wallet and see how much they have in it? At the same time, the whole point of this is it's a trustless system, it's this open ledger. I think we're moving towards the right steps and having permissions and who can see what and at what point. But yeah, it's a great topic of discussion, without a doubt, and I think more and more things are becoming more untraceable, but I don't know…it has to do with regulation by government as well.
EG: I know that Michelle Rempel Garner was speaking at your conference about her Bill, C-249. As someone who has been in this space for a decade or so, what are your thoughts on that? Especially because I come at this from the policy side, so I'm interested in hearing your side as the user and the historic side.
TL: Consulting with the community is definitely the approach to go. I feel like the Canadian government doesn't have a really great understanding of blockchain technology. It's very unfortunate how we were leading the charge in the world: Ethereum came out of Canada; CryptoKitties came out of Canada; CryptoPunks came out of here; Cosmos came out of here. We brought the major leaders of the world here and now Canada has fallen behind. Dubai is everywhere, they are so supportive. They have government officials everywhere. Dubai is funding events in Canada to push its innovation. Barbados is another country that's just completely all over the world. Yet, Canada can't even find their way to make their way to an event.
We were so fortunate to have Michelle come and she's one of just very few people. But even just to get some of the mayors out or local government out to show them how much small business is being produced. Look how many jobs are being created. Look how much innovation is literally leaving our country. They're still not taking notice. It's so unfortunate right now, what's going on in Canada. And I think when we even talk about Central Bank Digital Currencies (CBDC), Canada is going to the States to consult on it. We have the innovation here. We have the talent here. How do we foster it and how do we fund projects, fund events, and just fund community in Canada instead of having these other countries come in and take it from us?
EG: What are your thoughts on a CBDC?
TL: Listen, I think it's happening. So we just have to get on the bandwagon and be one of the best countries to do it. I think there is a conversation about privacy that needs to be discussed and surveillance, but I think ultimately the country that's going to do the best is going to be intentional in how they implement it and how they bring it to real life. What we do at Futurist and at all Untraceable events is bring crypto to real life. We enable every single cryptocurrency. Our food trucks, our marketplaces, our helicopter rides. We ensure that whether you're an individual with autism or your child comes to an event or you're a senior, you have access to education with an expert booth. We're able to get people on a wallet and learn how to send and receive it.
We even launched our own token at this year's event so people could actually use cryptocurrency, not have to spend their Bitcoin, and have fun at the event with it. I think the country that's going to do the best is how they figure out how to make this inclusive to everybody because I think that's a big hurdle no one is talking about. We're talking about the digital currency side of it, which on the technical side actually isn't that hard. I think what's hard is how do you get somebody, no matter what age they are, to actually learn how to use a wallet and how to keep your keys. I think Canada should start talking to Canadians to figure out how can we make this real life.
EG: I feel right now there's this divide between the general public and those who are early adopters and it feels like there is a need to figure out how to create critical mass. So I'm increasingly seeing projects that are straddling the Web2, Web3 spaces and call into something called Web2.5; whether or not someone's bought an NFT and then you get a physical object or you can pay with fiat versus Bitcoin, it's still on the blockchain at some point. So I wonder if maybe that’s the avenue to pursue in the short term in order to raise awareness and create a little bit more intrigue and critical mass before going all in.
TL: It's a really valid point. It's going to be really hard to transition everyone through and there's definitely a gray area in between that we have to figure out. I wonder, in today's day and age, how many people still don't use email maybe, or don't even use e-transfer, and how hard that is just for the general public. So it's going to take some learning curves for sure. I think things like gaming, things that are more in people's daily lives will make the transition easier, but the goal of blockchain is that you don't actually know that it's on the blockchain. I always thought the way to get to mass adoption is through loyalty points. I actually think loyalty points, like Canadian Tire money, are the original tokens, the original alternative currency that we've created in our system. Right now, people can use Scene points and Aeroplan to purchase things, which is very similar to using a certain type of cryptocurrency. But how do you just make it on blockchain now? So you'd hope one day you can open up your phone and your Apple Pay and you don't even know it's on the blockchain. You just see it as it's a different currency or a different point or something like that.
EG: Well, in that scenario would your bank account be on the blockchain, or would there be just a seamless transition between your crypto wallet and your fiat bank account?
TL: Yeah. I don't know. I guess ideally through your bank account. Barbados created its own CBDC. China has theirs. So we're going to learn what the best route is, but ideally, I think people still intrinsically feel safe with banks. It's unfortunate that some banks are moving everything online; I still think people need a physical place to ask questions, a physical place to get tech support. And that's what we do at our events. No matter what you do online, we still have to have a booth somewhere that someone could walk up to and how they do something.
EG: Even in tax the big question is how millions is spent focusing on those who file their taxes on paper, but it’s because there are seniors, remote communities, et cetera, who can't file online. So, even though a small percentage is actually filed by paper, the budget is bigger than is preferred.
TL: You’ve got to make it inclusive. I'm happy that there's still the physical. I'm all about bringing people back together. It might cost a little bit more, but…
EG: It's been the summer of conferences and bringing people together to share ideas. I think that's the challenge right now with this hybrid work environment; there's value in being at home and being more productive, but there's also another value in meeting in person and sharing ideas, either in the office or at a conference.
TL: That's why I think events are going to be bigger than ever because people won't be at the workplace every day and these bigger events could be a reason to bring people
EG: Do you know of any projects that have come about as the result of attending Futurist or other events of yours?
TL: Yeah. In our first Ethereum hackathon, we had Dark Market which got funding from Andreessen Horowitz. CryptoKitties came out of one of my 2017 events. They came really excited to launch their CryptoKitties NFT which sparked the NFT movement.
EG: I also cover the Vancouver tech scene and the thing I hear the most about from the tech community in Vancouver, in particular the Web3 community, is that everyone forgets about them. And they're just like, we have so much talent here. We have so many projects. We have all of these things, but Toronto is the center of the universe. So is there any interest in Untraceable looking at events out there?
TL: Vancouver is something we've always been interested in doing, going out there. COVID really stopped everything; we were on a trajectory of taking it across Canada. I would love to do Ottawa because I think we need to engage government more and I think the time is now because we're really falling behind at this point. So I would love to. We got to make unite Canada. We're such a big country that we do need to find a way to unite us better.