Part of Inc.'s 2021 Best Industries report.
Diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives are an integral part of corporate strategy for companies big and small, but the question remains: Do DEI consultants, workshops, and online training actually work?
It's not always easy to tell. E-learning programs can track how much time an employee spent on a module and what they clicked, but not much else. Workshop-style training is more interactive, but harder to scale, especially when people work remotely. Employees can report whether they found a given session to be useful, but collecting this information won't necessarily help bosses decide what to do next.
The founders of Praxis Labs, a New York City-based DEI training startup, think there's a better way: train people in virtual reality. In the nascent field of VR skills training, Praxis is one of a new crop of startups aiming to tackle thorny workplace problems with immersive learning. The company promises both to help individuals become more empathetic and to help companies overhaul their cultures.
"Up until now, we really haven't been able to identify not only 'Are learners learning?' but 'Are we actually taking in, as organizations, the data, and insights to be able to change structures, systems, policies, and practices that will help increase inclusion and belonging?'" says Elise Smith, Praxis Labs' co-founder and CEO.
Enterprise VR learning has been on the verge of taking off for years, but the pandemic has brought the industry to an inflection point, says Kyle Jackson, co-founder and CEO of Talespin, a VR training company in Culver City, California. Headsets have gotten more affordable, in-person training is no longer feasible for many companies, and there's more published research showing that immersive learning really works. For example, a 2020 study of VR soft-skills training by the global consulting firm PwC's U.S. emerging technology group found that people learn four times faster on average in VR than in a traditional classroom, and are more confident to act on what they learned. The study also concluded that, at scale, VR training can be less expensive.
"It's taken a while to be able to show stats, and, of course, if you're looking at corporations, they always want to look at stats," says Raffaella Camera, who ran consulting firm Accenture's AR/VR operation as the global head of innovation and strategy until 2020. Praxis Labs knows this very well. "We've realized the importance of using research and having the research back our curriculum and our learning journeys," says Heather Shen, the company's co-founder and chief product officer.
Smith, 30, met Shen, 24, when they were both graduate students at Stanford University in 2018. Smith, who is Black, was pursuing one master's degree in business administration and another in education. She had worked in product development and sales at IBM's Watson Group and coached DEI-oriented entrepreneurs at a nonprofit that invests in education companies. Shen, the daughter of Chinese immigrants, was studying electrical engineering after stints at NASA and at Microsoft, where she worked on the second generation of the HoloLens mixed reality headset. The two bonded over their similar experiences as women of color and their interest in using technology for learning. They started hashing out the business idea and launched Praxis Labs the following year.
Scraping together cash from grants, student fellowships, and pitch competitions, Smith and Shen developed pairs of 10-minute simulations that allow the learner to "pivot" between two perspectives: that of a person experiencing bias and that of a bystander. The topics are linked to "representation, resources, and respect"--three things a person needs to thrive in the workplace, Smith says. In one scenario, a learner takes the perspective of a Black woman whose co-worker disrespects her by touching her hair without asking. The learner practices responding and then goes through a guided reflection on the incident. The whole module takes about 30 minutes. A month later, they experience the same scenario from an outsider's point of view. Between modules, learners receive email reminders with readings and activities to help them practice what they learned in real life, Smith says.
When Praxis started beta testing--landing clients including Amazon, Google, and Target--the founders learned that companies wanted to be able to track their progress through the training at the organizational level. So they developed a dashboard that shows aggregated data on employees' progress and engagement. Praxis also asks each learner to identify areas where their company can improve with regard to diversity, equity, and inclusion. It uses this information to identify "hotspots" in a company's culture--an unfriendly attitude toward parental leave, for example, or a lack of reporting channels for incidents of bias--and recommends ways to address them.
The road to product launch hasn't been entirely smooth. "Covid definitely threw us for a loop for a moment," Shen says. "People don't necessarily want to put headsets on their face during this time." But when it came time to raise money, the founders' early hustle paid off. On February 22, Praxis Labs announced its $3.2 million seed round--raised from SoftBank's SB Opportunity Fund and Laurene Powell Jobs's Emerson Collective, among other investors--and the launch of its flagship curriculum, Pivotal Experiences. Companies can sign up for a six- or 12-month "learning journey," with modules that can take place via VR headset or web browser, and pay per employee. Praxis's founders declined to disclose the company's revenue, but say they've already signed up clients. The company has eight full-time employees.
For the next year, Praxis Labs' founders plan to focus on learning from their initial clients and improving their product. "One of the great things about being a startup is that we can iterate so quickly and get feedback from some of these top-tier companies," says Shen. Building a startup that deals with such heavy subjects, however, can be draining, especially for two young women of color.
"We are trying to solve a challenge that is tied to systems of inequity and White supremacy--all of the systems and structures that have created the inequities we see and experience in workplaces and society writ large," says Smith. "It's a hard, complex, nuanced challenge."
Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the timing of Praxis Labs' partnership with Uber. The company began its partnership with Praxis Labs in 2021. The article also misstated the number of employees at Praxis Labs. The company has eight full-time employees.