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Could virtual reality help us build a more inclusive and equitable workplace?

Work isn’t just the place where we … work. It’s also the place where we meet people who are different from us, making the office a great place to start building a more empathetic world.

Imagine you’re at work, but, well, you’re not yourself. You are, instead, someone else. You are Ify Achebe, a Black woman and senior-level copywriter talking with a friend in the office restroom at a large advertising agency. You’re standing with a friend, getting amped up to share your ideas in a big presentation that’s about to begin. But suddenly, a coworker whom you don’t know well emerges from a restroom stall and begins examining and fawning over your new braids. Before you know it, this coworker has grabbed your hair, studying you like a foreign object.

Here’s a different scenario. Now, you are Carlos Rodriguez, a Puerto Rican data engineer going through the final round of interviews for a senior-level position at a tech company. After walking through a lobby, you enter a conference room and meet three white men who are wearing T-shirts and hooded sweatshirts. After commenting on the tie that you’re wearing, one of the men explains that this interview will be “casual” and that “culture fit” is key for them. The interviewers proceed to make awkward remarks about the college you went to and how you must “love” baseball. When one of them asks where you’re from and when you reply, “New York,” they look at you as if you didn’t hear the question properly: “No, but where are you really from?”

    • Virtual Reality image of 3 women in a virtual room

      A virtual reality scenario produced by Praxis Labs that allows employees to take on the perspectives of a variety of intersectional identities in workplace environments.

    These scenarios are just two of a collection of virtual reality experiences designed by Praxis Labs, a New York City-based startup that is creating diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice (DEIJ) training that helps workers take on new perspectives to build empathy and drive equitable and inclusive behavior change. Praxis Labs’ Pivotal Experiences library, a collection of 30-minute learning modules, enables employees of clients — which include Google, Merck, Amazon, and ServiceNow — to take on the perspectives of a variety of intersectional identities in workplace environments, including bystanders and perpetrators of bias.

    From this vantage point, learners practice showing up as allies and repairing moments of harm in the workplace: “Christina,” an Asian woman in HR who can help make make hiring more inclusive; “Andrew,” a gay white man who can advance more equitable promotion; “Marvin” an older Black man who can support workplace belonging by using correct gender pronouns. Each module in Praxis’ learning journey is designed to build empathy for other people’s experiences, to help employees identify problematic situations, and most importantly, allow employees to practice behaviors and interventions they can use when these pivotal moments happen in real life.

    “DEIJ training has traditionally been one and done—you have a one-hour, or three-hour, or six-hour session where you sit down and someone talks at you,” says Elise Smith, an Emerson Collective Dial Fellow, who is CEO and co-founder of Praxis Labs. “A lot of things are framed as DEIJ training, but it’s actually anti-harassment or bullying training. And you’re not actually learning or getting to apply that learning, you’re just clicking through to check the box that you are done.”

    Praxis Labs’ vision is different, framing DEIJ training as a long-term journey where people gain insight with each perspective they take and each opportunity to learn and practice. “We believe that all learning should be evidence-based, continuous and reinforced, and drive towards efficacy,” says Smith. “That's how we learn anything. Why would DEIJ learning be any different?”

    A virtual-reality entrepreneur explains how VR can help organizations create more diverse and inclusive workplaces.

    As a child growing up in a predominantly white suburb of Chicago, Smith felt the impact of her identity. “I tried to blend in and to ensure that my Blackness wouldn’t differentiate me,” she remembers. “I saw my ability to do that as a strength. I bought into the myth that it was required.”

    While Smith was an undergrad at Dartmouth College, she formed relationships with BIPOC, first generation, and LGBTQ+ students and began to question her previous attitudes. “I learned how the white-dominant, affluent, heteronormative culture enforced itself on all of us, and saw the disparate outcomes it created,” she explains. This sparked her interest in leading the student diversity committee and her work for Dartmouth’s Office of Institutional Diversity and Equity, at which she helped build a five-year strategic plan around recruiting and retaining faculty and staff of color. The topic of diversity, equity, and inclusion became a focus for her career after undergrad, as she landed roles in the education technology sector, working at IBM Watson Group and NewSchools Venture Fund.

    While at NewSchools, Smith was doing a project on emerging technology for learning and encountered Stanford Virtual Human Interaction Lab’s 1,000 Cut Journey, a virtual reality experience that blew her mind.“I was just shook by how visceral it was,” says Smith of the piece, which puts you in the perspective of a Black man growing up in America, experiencing discrimination in school, at work, and with the police.

    Soon after, Smith sought out Carne y Arena, filmmaker Alejandro Iñárritu’s award-winning immersive VR experience that turns viewers into refugees. During screenings, viewers “experience” crossing the U.S.-Mexico border with a people smuggler, or “coyote,” and getting picked up by border patrol agents. “I remember being in the experience and ducking at one point, screaming, being really within it,” Smith recalls of Carne y Arena, which is based on true accounts. “Each VR experience really stuck with me in a way that other things didn’t.”

    After these experiences, while pursuing her dual MBA and Masters in Education at Stanford University, Smith was inspired to explore the potential for immersive learning to expand the capacities of traditional DEIJ training, by letting people experience others’ perspectives, practice behaviors, make mistakes, continue learning, measure the the learning, and provide actionable insights. Together with Heather Shen, who is now Praxis’ chief product officer, she started Praxis Labs. In 2021, they raised $15.5 million in their Series A funding round.

    “Our mission is lofty—we want to make society more equitable,” Smith says. “When we thought about how to reach the most people, the lever of change we landed on was the workplace—that’s where you can have that catalytic impact. It's where we spend the overwhelming amount of our time. Whether a person is in the workforce or not, they’re in stores, restaurants, health centers, schools, hotels all throughout their day-to-day life.”

    “When we thought about how to reach the most people, the lever of change we landed on was the workplace—that’s where you can have that catalytic impact.”

    Elise Smith

    Today, Praxis Labs is a B2B SaaS company with 45 employees and functional areas that span animation, narrative and curriculum design, in addition to go-to-market teams.

    Its flagship product offers courses on “Active Allyship” and “Repairing Harm,” paired with actionable insights that inform leadership on how to embed DEIJ principles in company-wide policies, practices, products, and services. It offers more specific learning experiences that map onto key milestones in employee- and talent-development lifecycles, too, focused on inclusive hiring and recruitment, employee onboarding, new manager training, and equitable performance reviews. Some clients purchase high-quality VR headsets for the programs, while others experience their learning journey on demand via their web browsers.

    “Modules typically release at the same time for a specific cohort of employees,” explains Smith. “And then a lot of our clients do discussion sessions within teams or pods, where they're bringing folks together or leveraging preexisting team time to debrief the module they just went through and apply their learning to their workplace.”

    These pivotal experiences intentionally layer perspectives, having employees experience a situation first as someone who’s encountering a barrier to equity, then again as someone who’s either a bystander or complicit in the incident. “You’re building the muscle, not just to self-advocate, but to advocate on behalf of others and practice repairing after you’ve made a mistake, since we’ll all be in that position,” Smith says.

      • Virtual reality rendering of a team of workers sitting around a conference room table with a white board in the background.

        A virtual reality scenario produced by Praxis Labs that allows employees to take on the perspectives of a variety of intersectional identities in workplace environments.

      Individual employee growth is, clearly, a key component. But Praxis Labs also aims to drive organizational change. As employees finish VR interludes, they’re asked to reflect on their own workplace and give feedback on how it could be more equitable and inclusive. These recommendations, as well as data on their performance, are de-identified and aggregated through an administrative-insights dashboard.

      “When we think about impact measurement, we think about the learner individually as well as the organization overall. Are our learners engaging, completing and persisting through the learning journeys? Are they growing on the key competencies or the key learning outcomes? And are they changing behaviors?” says Smith. “We also look at all of the employee feedback and all of the employee experience insights that we get. We're able to identify what we've sometimes called ‘hotspots’ or areas that employees are recommending their company focus on.”

      For some organizations, a hotspot might emerge around mentorship. For others, pay equity is the key issue employees are concerned about. For others, racial microaggressions may be reported widely in specific demographic subsets, suggesting an area where the organization can focus future resourcing. “When you look at that data overall, when you disentangle it, it really highlights what people are experiencing at every kind of intersectional identity,” says Smith.

      As a result, Smith hopes to help build companies, organizations, educational institutions and healthcare providers that are more open, inclusive, and welcoming to every kind of employee. And that, as a result, offer products and services to clients and customers that no longer reproduce systems of oppression, but actively promote equitable outcomes.

      “The impact of that would be a society that looks and feels incredibly different,” she says.