Elise Smith, Co-Founder & CEO, Praxis Labs
Photo credit: Brandon Appleton
In the wake of massive political shifts and cultural unrest, business leaders have been put on notice. A significant number of employees are not happy with how they’re often viewed in the workplace. As we enter into the new year, Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DE&I) initiatives are skyrocketing. But with little evidence to support the efficacy of the one-off lectures and yearly self-guided trainings that most companies have invested in, long-term commitment and ongoing learning seem to be the answer. Elise Smith, Cofounder and CEO of Praxis Labs, is bringing that opportunity to corporate America, allowing employees and leaders to change their perspectives over time by virtually stepping into the shoes of those feeling the sting of stigma.
Smith and Cofounder Heather Shen formed Praxis Labs with the purpose of bringing research-backed, immersive learning experiences to the forefront of DE&I training. “Giving a one-hour talk isn’t going to make a big difference,” mentioned Smith of their advisors’ most prominent complaints to clients. Using research from learning science, the Praxis team observed that a one-time learning environment is not enough. Their platform and flagship curriculum, Pivotal Experiences™, carries learners much longer than what most other DE&I solutions offer and further differentiates itself by using VR to create immersive experiences that simulate first-hand incidents of bias and discrimination in the workplace.
Creating A Learning Journey For Conscious Leaders
“For us, it was really important that we created a learning journey,” said Smith of the 6 – 12 month long curriculum. Through multiple modalities, learners experience a specific scenario that presents a barrier to equity, either happening to them directly or realized as a bystander who is complicit in the encounter. Concepts explored in the experience are then explained to the learner, giving them time to reflect on the presented barriers and their own feelings toward them. Learners are then asked if they see any of those barriers in their workplace and guided to provide anonymous feedback that can be turned into actionable insights for the client. From there, the learner is encouraged to make commitments toward practicing those behaviors that increase equity and inclusion, ultimately playing a central role in eliminating those barriers.
Although they view the learning journey as a lifelong process, Smith stated that the Praxis team believes their curriculum is a great start to building on the content and cultivating the next generation of conscious leaders, regardless of industry and workplace. “It’s the type of person who can understand the perspectives of others, build empathy for the perspectives of others, identify those behavioral or interpersonal, as well as systemic and structural barriers to equity, and then they can take informed actions,” Smith said of the individuals they hope to help develop and grow.
Inspired by her parents’ fight for educational equity, Smith has remained dedicated to scaling access and opportunity with the goal of creating a more equitable society. Prior to co-founding Praxis Labs, Smith invested in and coached entrepreneurs developing diversity and inclusion solutions at NewSchools Venture Fund. It was there that she was introduced to the power of VR’s perspective-taking ability and how it could more effectively measure learning. Teaming up with Shen – a daughter of immigrants who’d worked at NASA dealing in augmented reality pilot training, and later Microsoft, helping to build their second-generation Hololens—as they both pursued advanced degrees, the duo began ideating a company with the power to change how we all worked, across differences.
Heather Shen, Co-Founder & CPO
Photo Credit: Carey Wagner
For nearly two years, Smith and Shen took Praxis through rigorous research and iteration phases. Using surveys and interviews, the team gathered insights from over 150 leaders in DE&I before developing a single thing, carefully analyzing what challenges they witnessed in their own workplaces. From there, the team began understanding how people responded to different perspectives, then moved on to a series of pilots with partners. eBay, Amazon, Google, Uber, and Target are among the companies to complete beta testing. Smith states these initial clients mostly come from cold emails and building genuine relationships with people who wanted to achieve the same end goal of fostering more equitable outcomes for employees as well as products and services.
Funding A Uniquely Impactful Solution
In conjunction with its launch, the founders announced Praxis Labs had raised $3.2 million in seed funding, making Smith one of 93 Black women to have raised more than $1 million for a venture-backed business as of August 2020, according to ProjectDiane. Fundraising with the help of a diverse group of investors, including SoftBank Group’s SB Opportunity Fund, Emerson Collective, and Ulu Ventures – who have also invested in SoFi and Ellevest, Praxis has proved they are looking forward to building with money meant to put people first.
“We were extremely scrappy for a very long time,” started Smith, explaining how difficult it had been to create without proper capital. “Being scrappy, you can’t dream as big. You can’t do as much as you would like.” Using student fellowship grants and modest pitch competition winnings to build their first pilots, the additional funding received allowed Praxis to bring together their core team of eight employees meant to build their perfect product. With the team of experts in place, they were then free to invest in the future growth of their organization, endowing them with the ability to realize their impact faster.
“It’s disappointing that there has been and there continues to be barriers to access capital,” stated Smith, speaking to the systems of inequity that still exist within venture in business. “Very lucky” to have had access to the networks in which most of Praxis’ funding came from, Smith pitched largely to people she’d interacted with while she earned her Master’s in Education from Stanford University. “Some of my professors were funders and it was still extremely challenging,” she declared.
Recounting her own experiences when some funders only thought of Praxis Labs as a kind gesture instead of a game-changing solution to the challenge within DE&I, Smith held onto the belief that her company also had the potential to be incredibly profitable. “There are folks who won’t understand what you want to do or the change or impact you want to have, and that doesn’t always mean that you’re wrong,” advised Smith of getting through the many heartbreaking no’s inevitably involved with the pursuit of VC funding.
“It really only takes that one funder, that one connection that opens doors for you,” she emphasized. “Keep putting your one foot in front of the other, taking the no’s in strides, seeing the feedback you can pick out of them, but then go back to that zoom call or that conference room and telling your story again and again,” she said. “It gets easier with time,” Smith advises entrepreneurs to be thoughtful about who they bring to the table as these are the partners who will partake in the wealth generation your company will eventually create.
Shaping The Future Of Business
Understanding the daunting task of first-time pitching, Smith urges those seeking funding to find partners who believe in you and your mission. They should make you feel comfortable enough to share both good news and bad, and connected enough to send late-night texts or early morning calls if you have questions or feedback requests. “It was important that we had a diversity of [industry] backgrounds in funds and firms types; people behind us who could help us think differently about what we were doing,” shared Smith, who says Praxis is grateful for partners like Softbank Group. Stacy Brown-Philpot, a member of the SB Opportunity Fund’s Leadership and Investment Committee, says the feeling is mutual.
“We’re so excited about what Elise is doing,” stated Brown-Philpot in our recent interview. Emphasizing SoftBank’s commitment to providing valuable access to resources for Black, Latinx, and Native American visionaries, Brown-Philpot shared that SoftBank Group is looking to empower founders dedicated to creating companies that will have a significant impact on our society. “We really want to see wealth creation more equally distributed in our society and if this is one small part in making that happen, I would be very proud,” concluded Brown-Philpot.
By targeting workforces, Smith has made it her mission to make society more equitable and has already begun to see the results of her efforts. Through her work with Praxis, Smith was named as one of Forbes’ Next 1000. “We’ve had folks who have said, ‘I’ve gone through so many D&I trainings and this is the only one that made me feel something.’ It’s not only that they’re training, they’re showing up differently in their workplace, with their families, with their children. To me, that is the real impact.”