Here’s how Elise Smith is remodeling behavior through virtual reality

BY Preta Peace Namasaba November 11, 2023 4:15 PM EDT
Elise Smith. Photo credit: Elise Smith

Elise Smith is the co-founder and CEO of Praxis Labs, a learning and development company. The company uses immersive learning experiences to increase empathy, reduce bias, and remodel sustained behavior change for individuals and organizations. Smith has raised over $18 million in funding for the virtual reality platform.

“Our society is more segregated than ever, and the workplace is often the most diverse space we enter – where we encounter differences of backgrounds and perspectives. We want to help employees better work across those differences – to advance inclusion and belonging in their teams  through policies, practices, products, and services that produce equitable outcomes.”

Elise Smith in Praxis Labs

Smith has cared about creating access, opportunity, and access from an early age. She worked in the Office of Institutional Diversity and Equity and led the student diversity committee while at Dartmouth College. She also worked in the education lab where she saw the effects of socioeconomic status on students’ equitable outcomes in the classrooms. Her involvement with diversity, equity, inclusion and justice initiatives opened up Smith to the potential of technology as a tool for good.

She received her undergraduate degree in 2013 and was a recipient of the Dean’s Prize Award. She went on to work in the leadership development program at IBM Watson Group, and later worked as a cross industry transformations consultant, new markets business development & partner relationship manager, and education lead business development & partnerships. This close involvement with machine learning exposed Smith to a means of standardizing high-quality learning experiences.

Smith was a visiting fellow at Education Pioneers and part of the diverse leaders team NewSchools Venture Fund. She began exploring emerging technology for learning and discovered the capabilities of virtual reality. While simultaneously pursuing an MBA and a Masters in Education at Stanford, Smith came up with the idea to create scalable solutions to enhance diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace. She was inspired to develop technology that bridges differences based on her experiences as a Black woman in the workplace.

In 2018, Smith co-founded Praxis Labs, an end-to-end immersive learning platform focused on driving equity, inclusion, and value for its clients. They spoke to over 150 chief diversity officers, learning and development practitioners, and immersive learning specialists in the buildup of the startup. The company was initially self-funded through student grants and pitch competitions. It was already working with clients when it started raising venture capital. Praxis Labs initially raised $3.2 million in seed funding and $15.5 million in an oversubscribed Series A.

Praxis Labs integrates immersive DEI learning experiences with virtual and mixed reality. The practice and insights garnered results for increased individual behavioral change that systematically shifts organizations. The company has designed Pivotal Experiences, its flagship curriculum and virtual reality-based diversity and inclusion learning platform. The platform simulates first-hand incidents from the perspectives of an employee or coworker encountering or being complicit in workplace discrimination.

“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.”

Elise Smith in The XR Association

The company partners with companies and organizations interested in creating a genuinely more diverse and inclusive workforce. Praxis Labs provides 30-minute learning modules in 6-month and 12-month program packages which guide employees through building empathy and creating sustained behavior change. It has so far partnered with organizations such as eBay, Amazon, Google and Uber.