More CEOs named Joan than John? How VR may tip the balance
Posted on January 25, 2018
3 min read
There’s a reason why the Remarkable Accelerator has such a bold name. In part it’s the Remarkable ideas behind each of the program’s tech4good startups. But mostly, it’s the Remarkable people making these ideas a reality. With applications closing soon for the 2018 program, we want to share these Remarkable Stories. This is Annie’s.
Annie Harper isn’t someone you could easily forget. In Silicon Valley, she was known as the blue-haired hacker (not to mention a feisty cage fighter). Now based in Sydney, she’s a surfing, salsa dancing, rock-climbing tech entrepreneur.
But there are one or two times even Annie has felt invisible.
“I remember sitting in an audience last year while our co-founder Brennan was presenting on our startup Equal Reality,” Annie explained. “During the presentation, Brennan pointed me out in the crowd as his co-founder while talking about my virtual reality graphic animation.”
“Straight after the presentation, a man came bounding up and shook the hand of the man next me – congratulating him on his work and wanting to learn more. It hadn’t occurred to him that it was the 5’5″ blonde girl to his right who was the animator,” Annie laughed.
It’s ironic that this was exactly the type of unconscious bias experiences that had inspired the 32-year-old alongside partners Brennan Hatton and Rick Martin to create Equal Reality – the world’s first interactive diversity and inclusion training using high-end virtual reality (VR) technology.
Annie met Brennan three years ago while both working in Silicon Valley. She’d taught herself to code and was at Intel’s RealSense lab building brain-computer interface prototypes. At the same time Brennan was pioneering augmented reality (AR) technology, creating virtual worlds and communities, and founding his own companies in AR and VR.
The pair connected through their passion for adventure and the outdoors – on weekends you’ll find them canyoning, rock-climbing or even abseiling from bridges. But there was something deeper that brought them together. They both possessed a niggling feeling that they could use technology and their skills for social change. And it was a feeling they couldn’t let go of.
“When I first said to Brennan that sexism exists in our industry, he was surprised – he hadn’t seen it,” Annie said. “We talked about the unconscious biases people don’t even realise they bring to the workplace, stereotyping various groups of people, such as people with disabilities or those from different ethnicities, and yes, male-to-female biases.”
“We know these biases lead to discrimination, but how do you prevent them? How do you prevent something that people don’t even know that they do? We realised that VR technology was the perfect way to make an impact.”
There’s no doubt understanding personal unconscious biases can be hard through a PowerPoint presentation or corporate seminar. But through the immersive experience of VR, Equal Reality allows users to step into someone else’s shoes and feel the impacts of unconscious bias.
“We want to help companies shape their culture through high-end VR technology and experiential learning,” Annie said. “Equal Reality gives people the lived experience of different ethnicities, ages and physical impairments, helping them to understand their own prejudices through the eyes of others.”
“If a picture is worth a thousand words, an experience is worth a thousand pictures.”
Diversity training is just good business – by the numbers
Diversity and inclusion training is not just the right thing to do – it’s good business, according to Equal Reality. Their research found that inclusive and diverse organisations are 170% better at innovation and generate 1.4 times more revenue than those with non-diverse workforces.
“Did you know that in Australia there are more top CEOs named John than female CEOs,” Annie said. “That statistic is also true for CEOs named David, as well as Peter. Imagine if you looked at the statistics for people with disabilities, or from ethnic minorities?”
“My highest aspiration is that Equal Reality will have an impact, and that we impact the highest parts of corporate companies.”
Annie’s motivation comes from many directions, none mightier than her mother who was one of United Airlines’ first female pilots. However it was the experiences of female colleagues working in Silicon Valley she used to create Equal Reality’s first module, which challenges unconscious gender biases.
“I knew a really talented woman who was the lead for a tech project at a well-known company,” Annie said. “She called a meeting, and despite being the person who was running the meeting and the project lead, she was still asked to get the coffee by a member of the all-male group.”
This experience has been recreated in Equal Reality’s gender scenario where men are placed in an office environment as a 5”5 female. The early reactions have been nothing short of extraordinary, according to Annie.
This is especially the case for tall Australian men who just can’t get used to having to look up to people for the first time – let alone having people talk over them or ignore their ideas in a meeting.
Equal Reality has a range of scenarios allowing users to experience disability exclusion, cultural exclusion, sexual harassment and even bullying.
It was the potential impact for people with disabilities that earned Annie, Brennan and Rick a place in the Remarkable program – Australia’s first inclusive startup accelerator.
A partnership between the Telstra Foundation and Cerebral Palsy Alliance, the 16-week program has been tailored for early stage startups looking to build sustainable enterprises that have a big social impact. It does so by connecting them with the tools, skills and networks they need to succeed.