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A Conversation with Elise Smith

A Conversation with Elise Smith

The responsible development of XR technology requires a diverse community of voices to help build it. To celebrate the limitless number of perspectives in the XR industry, the XR Association sat down with Elise Smith, Co-Founder and CEO of Praxis Labs. Praxis Labs is an immersive learning company that equips learners of all levels with core leadership skills which foster more equitable, inclusive, and valuable companies.

Below is an excerpt of the interview with Smith, which has been edited slightly for brevity and clarity. 


1. Let’s first talk about your XR story. What sparked your interest in working on XR? 

My XR story really begins on a journey to make learning on ‘soft’ skills measurable and impactful. [Before Praxis Labs] I was at a philanthropic fund that invests in innovation and learning. I noticed a clear need to leverage evidence-based learning solutions and to create opportunities for self-directed learning and user agency within learning environments. 

These curiosities re-emerged when I had my [first interaction with XR] at Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab with Dr. Courtney Cogburn and Dr. Jeremy Bailenson who were partnering on a research experience. They gave me the opportunity to go through one of their VR simulations where you take on the perspective of a Black boy experiencing discrimination in America. I felt the perspective-taking, empathy-building piece was quite powerful. 

But even more so, I was compelled by the research behind it. I saw immense potential in the opportunity for this medium to help powerful and impactful learning happen at scale, and not only change individual behaviors, but the systems and societies we live in. 

When my co-founder, Heather Shen, and I were first building Praxis Labs, we initially sought to connect these threads of curiosity. We found that there weren’t many solutions out there that meaningfully engaged and inspired action among learners. And even more, there weren’t clear ways to connect learning to real outcomes. 


2. What sparked your interest in working in this industry? What was your point of entry?

I think what’s powerful about XR is tied to where we are as a society. What we’re hearing from our clients is that workplaces are missing human connection, especially in a globally distributed or hybrid workplace. There is a need to move beyond transactional trust, and to set a new social contract in the workplace that deepens our human experience and our appreciation of perspectives different from our own.  What’s powerful about XR is its ability to help us return and elevate our humanity, to build human skills in a technologically based environment. 

What we’ve found with our learners and our clients is that by using XR, they’re able to build empathy, practice behaviors and difficult conversations, and learn how to foster office environments that are more equitable and inclusive. [When people are] able to do their best work, they create more innovative products and services that allow companies to speak to and serve their stakeholders in equitable ways. 


3. How do you feel that your background and your identity have shaped your ability to do your job and to be a leader in this industry?

When I think about being a person of color, a Black woman, in not just entrepreneurship and leadership, but also in the tech space, I recognize that there are qualities and experiences that I’ve had that many of my other peers have not. 

It’s this idea of having to be persistent, and having to overcome barriers, whether they are interpersonal or systemic. These experiences have shaped my ability to do my job in this space and to be resilient.  It’s the scrappiness and the having to do more with less, having to be twice as good, that I think is a part of my full lived experience — not just my work experience — but it’s without a doubt helped me keep pushing forward. 


4. Do you have any specific proud moments or what has been some of your proudest moments with Praxis Labs?

I feel most proud when I hear learner stories. [For example], one of our learners on our platform lives in middle America and is not surrounded by significant diversity in their workplace. Quite frankly, this learner hasn’t had the opportunity to think through how people of other intersectional identities — like race, gender, and sexuality — experience the world. 

This learner went through one of our learning journeys and had an eye-opening experience around the privileges and disadvantages that many folks encounter in the workplace. They ended up reaching out to a friend outside of work, who is a Black woman, to apologize for the ways in which they hadn’t shown up as an ally in the past and share their commitment to doing more as an ally moving forward. 

Those stories are what make me proud. They also speak to the strength and impact of our Praxis Labs team. We’ve built an incredibly diverse team with individuals who share their lived experiences and perspectives, and are at the helm of creating these experiences that really move not just hearts, but also minds and ultimately behaviors [among our users.]


5. We know that people with different gender identities and socio-economic backgrounds tend to experience hurdles at different career inflection points. How do you tackle this in the products and services that Praxis Labs works on?

This is the bread and butter of what we do here at Praxis Labs. We work with our clients and partners to create workplaces where everyone can do their best work and can contribute to creating the most innovative and impactful products and services. 

Our content library is called Pivotal Experiences because it’s about those pivotal moments that we all encounter throughout the employee lifecycle, from hiring, to onboarding, to advancement, performance reviews, mentorship, sponsorship, and everything in between. Our simulations are based on catalytic and relevant real-world workplace scenarios — pivotal moments. Through these encounters in our immersive experiences, learners are able to practice how they might respond in real life, whether that’s advocating on behalf of themselves, showing up as a bystander for others, or even apologizing for causing any harm. 

I think what’s powerful about going through these scenarios is learners are getting to build a repertoire of responses and have opportunities to practice. So when they have to give feedback or they need to de-escalate a tense situation in a meeting or when they have to make a decision on a company-wide policy, they know how to lead with equity and inclusion. 


6. So now we’re going to raise some of the deeper dive questions starting with, in your opinion, what does the XR industry need right now?

I fully believe XR is embedded in the future of how we’re going to learn, communicate, and engage with each other moving forward. Because of that, I think it’s so important that there is more diversity within the XR space. Not just in the makeup of users or builders, but in the folks who get to make decisions around what’s built. 

My hope for this space is that we continue to bring in more folks under this umbrella so we can build better experiences, better outcomes, and better products and services. 


7. Are there any strategies you found that help combat burnout?

That’s such a great question. I think for me, and our team at Praxis Labs, we’ve been focused not just on what we do at work, but on how we do it. Our hope is that by living our values, we can create a culture where people can have real conversations about what they need to succeed in their careers. It starts with “being human” and seeing each other. 

The key behaviors tied to that are asking how someone is doing and taking the space to really listen and to hear and see them be vulnerable and real. And to create those moments in every meeting of real connection. Asking, for example, how are you doing? What do you need? How can I fully see you? 

We also focus on our value of “being brave” by embracing opportunities to learn from mistakes. Building a culture where people can take risks, where they feel they have agency, and they can have ownership over their work is our goal — it’s our client’s goal. It’s critical to empathize with our learners and clients and help them achieve this, to be a champion for equity and inclusion. 

When we practice our key behaviors, the hope is that we build trust, we feel connected, we feel we belong, we’re engaged, and we’re able to do our best work. It’s important to be vocal about when we can’t do something, or when we need more space. And it’s our hope is that in practicing this, we can also share what’s working and what’s not with our clients, with our learners, and with the rest of our community.


8. At XRA we like to say the XR industry has a limitless future. What does that mean to you?

My hope, when we talk about a limitless future, is that we’re building XR to be better for all of us. To use technology to remind us of what makes us most human. I hope that we’re being thoughtful about how we do this in a way that brings all perspectives, all backgrounds, and all walks of life into the fold. And if we do that, we really do have unlimited opportunities to drive more connection, more trust, more inclusion, and more value for us all.