June 10, 2021

Meet The Founder Who Raised $3.2M To Tackle Corporate Bias With Virtual Reality

Elise Smith is leading the way in developing more conscious leaders in the workplace. She is the co-founder of Praxis Labs, a company that has created a virtual-reality-based platform that allows users to take on identities of different racial and gender backgrounds.  Their mission, to help employees and leaders to change their perspectives over time by virtually stepping into the shoes of others. Elise joins the small list of Black women in the U.S to have raised more than $1 million for a venture-backed business. 

We had the pleasure of chatting with Elise about her journey to entrepreneurship, her passion for DE&I and the use of VR as a learning tool for Corporate America. 

Tell us a bit about yourself?

My name is Elise. I’m the co-founder and CEO of Praxis Labs and originally from Chicago. From as long as I can remember, I have cared deeply about creating, scaling access and opportunity, as well as creating impact. I went to Dartmouth College for my undergrad. I was heavily involved on campus. For me, it was important to lean into topics around diversity, equity, inclusion and justice. I led our student diversity committee and worked in the Office of Institutional Diversity and Equity, working on the strategic five-year plan around recruitment and retention of faculty and staff of color. 

How did college prepare you for your entrepreneurial journey?

For me, college was such an eye-opening experience. It led me to see technology as a potential tool that could be used and should be used for good. Tech shouldn’t just reproduce systems of oppression, but instead we should use tech in a way to mitigate some of the inequities we see. 

While at Dartmouth, I worked in the Education Lab, looking at how socioeconomic status affects learning -researching interventions to support all students’ equitable outcomes in the classrooms. My time in the lab is likely why I am so drawn to using research, evidence, data, and measurement. I learned so much from that experience. As a Geography major, I was focused on studying human geography, culture, and social inequity through the lens of places, space, and time.

How did you dive deeper into the field?

After I graduated from Dartmouth, I went to IBM Watson. I saw the applicability to education and how machine learning specifically could be used to understand the best pedagogy methods, curriculum design and pair insights with student data. I saw an opportunity to truly democratize a high-quality learning experience.

What about your work experience led to Praxis Labs?

Most recently, I was at  NewSchools Venture Fund, a philanthropic fund that invests in innovation in learning. One of my biggest takeaways from my time there was that we as a field could do more to apply the rigor of learning science to topics of JEDI (justice, equity, diversity, inclusion). While at NewSchools, I was exploring emerging technology for learning and started looking at VR. I was so compelled, not only by the research showing how these experiences impacted folks going through them but also by the nature of an immersive experience. Leveraging the tool to build empathy through perspective, taking to practice decisions, interventions, making mistakes, and measuring and understanding everything a learner does in that environment are the foundational blocks of Praxis Labs. 

I went to Stanford, where I graduated with an MBA and a Master’s in Education. It was while in school that I started exploring this idea and ever since meeting my co-founder, Heather, we have been on this ride that is Praxis Labs since! 

What is the mission behind Praxis Labs?

At Praxis, we believe through our theory of change that we can help make society more equitable. We target workforces because that’s where we believe we’ll reach the most people. We create impactful learning experiences and pair them with actionable insights for learners. We recently launched our flagship learning journey, ‘Pivotal Experiences’, a year-long learning journey that combines immersive learning experience and reflection, helping folks build empathy, identify factors of inequity,  and take informed action.

We partner with companies and organizations that want to have a genuinely diverse and inclusive workforce and want to be held accountable for making their workplace more equitable. We work with partners who want to make their workplace more inclusive, not only for their employees but for their clients and customers. We want to help employers create policies, practices, products and services that produce equitable outcomes and advance inclusion and belonging within their teams and ultimately within the organization. We believe that building equitable workplaces will permeate the outside spaces that you and I frequent every day.

What inspired the idea to use VR as a learning tool?

Using VR is an incredibly unique tool to use for this type of learning. I was inspired by the work of so many- from Nonny de la Peña to Jeremy Bailenson, to Dr. Courtney Cogburn and more. The Virtual Human Interaction Lab (VHIL) at Stanford University, led by Jeremy Bailenson, was doing a lot of work around VR and empathy. Their research experiences exploring race, the environment, and homelessness were powerful examples of how we could harness this medium for these thorny topics. I was deep in a rabbit hole of VR for empathy experiences. Another that stands out is Carne y arena, where you become an immigrant to the US, crossing the US Mexico border in search of economic and political security. So the use of VR to build empathy and understanding for the experiences of others isn’t new. However, using VR as an explicit learning tool and providing a learning platform with actionable data and insight, that combination was differentiated.

What’s your advice to senior leadership within Corporate America?

What we know to be true is that more diverse teams are more innovative, more creative and deliver better (more effective) products and services. Leadership is about building teams that can work together, which means folks have to be included. They have to belong. When I think about what it means to be committed to diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice, it means investing in training and doing the work and identifying where you can make fundamental shifts in policies, practices, systems and structures —the work of not reproduce systems of oppression and instead of looking towards liberation. To the folks in senior leadership, if you actually want to have the best product out there, build diverse teams, identify barriers to equity, and take informed action. 

Keisha Morant

A freelance writer with a passion for telling impactful tech stories online.

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