“Be adaptive and creative.” With Douglas Brown & Robin S Rosenberg

Another lesson I’ve learned is the importance of being adaptive and creative. Our program was developed to be used in the Oculus virtual reality headset. But with many employees working from home once the pandemic hit, we had to come up with a different way to provide the virtual reality experience to employees. After many […]

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Another lesson I’ve learned is the importance of being adaptive and creative. Our program was developed to be used in the Oculus virtual reality headset. But with many employees working from home once the pandemic hit, we had to come up with a different way to provide the virtual reality experience to employees. After many sleepless nights thinking about how the company, featuring virtual reality content, could launch during a pandemic, I decided that we should retool and offer mobile VR viewing (via a mobile VR headset for people’s phones) and immersive video.

As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women Leaders in Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Robin S. Rosenberg, CEO and Founder of Live in Their World, a company that uses virtual reality to address issues of bias and incivility in the workplace. Robin is a clinical psychologist, author, and executive coach, and has taught psychology courses at Lesley University and Harvard University. She has combined her interest in immersive technologies with her coaching and clinical experiences to foster in employees a deeper understanding of how and why other people are or may feel disrespected (which undermines engagement, productivity, and creativity), and how to approach such interactions differently.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I’ve always been interested in different people’s perspectives, and as a clinical psychologist, I spent a lot of time learning about different people’s worlds. After Trayvon Martin was murdered and Black Lives Matter came to prominence, I’d heard interviews with some white people who said “all lives matter” and “white lives matter.” Although I don’t presume to know the lived experience of being Black in the U.S., I hypothesized that if those white people could “walk in the shoes” of a Black person, they would understand the phrase Black Lives Matter. I thought that virtual reality could be a tool to bring about that understanding.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?

It was in the very early days of the company, when we were doing our proof-of-concept research. I was at Newark airport, and my flight was delayed by hours. I was sitting near the gate doing data analysis on my laptop, and asked my husband, travelling with me, how to do an analytic technique in Google Sheets. He didn’t know, but a man nearby said he knew how and told me how to do it. We got to talking and he was interested in our virtual reality experience. I whipped out a VR headset from my luggage. Our flight began boarding, so I had to stop his experience, but he was intrigued. It turned out that he’s CEO of his company and we ended up using his company as one testing sites for our proof-of-concept research. And in a small world way, I discovered a year later that he knew my son (who has a different last name).

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I had arrived at a company to give a demo of our virtual reality experience, and was setting up the virtual reality headsets. I was having a problem getting two of them to work (because I was doing something wrong, but I didn’t realize it at the time), and was racing against the clock trying to figure out how to fix it. (It’s a good thing I was wearing a jacket over my blouse!) I wasn’t able to get them fixed in time, but the folks I was meeting with were very understanding; they did the demo in groups, one group after the other, instead of all at one time. I learned two lessons: always arrive early when doing demos, and “memorize” the troubleshooting manual for the headsets. Both lessons have served me in good stead. I try to learn from my mistakes and take them seriously, so I can’t think of a funny mistake.

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?

As with any startup, there have been times when I’ve thought about throwing in the towel — closing down the company. The most challenging one was when many people began working from home because of COVID. Our company was about to launch publicly, but our program was designed so that people would do the virtual reality modules at their offices, in an Oculus headset. We didn’t have a model about how to administer the program with people working from home. Moreover, it was hard to envision companies being interested in issues of civility, inclusion, and addressing bias when there was a pandemic spreading in the country.

After mulling things over for a couple of weeks, I thought that we could provide the virtual reality experience for people working from home via mobile VR headsets (which use people’s phones) and via immersive video on their computers. So our engineers got working on that. I was able to find a light in the tunnel, I think, because of the feedback we’ve gotten about our program. Other people’s responses and belief in our program helped me reclaim my belief about the importance of the work and how we can help make the workplace a more civil, engaging, and inclusive place — even when we’re working remotely.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

My husband of 38 years is my biggest and best supporter. I feel very lucky that he’s in my life. I am, without doubt, a better person because of him. When our proof-of-concept results showed that what we’d built was effective, I was torn about next steps — should I quit my “day job” as a coach and psychotherapist to head a startup? Although I believed in the potential of Live in Their World, reorienting my life to bring it to fruition was a daunting idea. My husband has reoriented his professional life several times during his career, and he shared with him what has helped him through each shift, and how he’d help me in any way he could.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Understanding “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” I think my interest in psychology at a very young age was because I intuitively wanted to learn how to get past book covers to see what was in the pages.

Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. We’d love to learn a bit about your company. What is the pain point that your company is helping to address?

In the workplace, we’re all unintentionally disrespectful and uncivil to others, which not only lessens productivity and creativity and increases the likelihood of lawsuits, it also leads people to be disengaged with their work. This problem occurs in part because we don’t always understand the impact of our actions and inactions on others and in part because of biases we have. This is a serious and expensive problem; solving it is not a “nice to have” but rather a “need to have.” Let’s consider why incivility in the workplace (i.e., disrespect, insensitivity, belittling), when it occurs, has a high cost. Such behavior leads to:

  • potential legal concerns because of the perception of a hostile environment unfriendly to different groups,
  • decreased productivity (intentional work slowdowns directed toward the uncivil person, distraction as people mull over in uncivil actions),
  • retention issues as people find other jobs,
  • financial costs and lost time (minimize contact with or avoid the uncivil person, manager’s time addressing coworker issues, employee turnover),
  • heartache for all concerned, including poor morale.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

My background as a practicing psychologist and coach, I think, makes our program stand out. It informs each aspect of our program, including the importance of distributed learning — learning in small chunks over time — rather than a one-off training that is the typical type of training in this area. Developing a respectful, engaged workplace means, in part, changing employee habits. Our program was developed to help keep new learnings more in the forefront of people’s minds, over time.

A highlight for me is when a number of Black men took the Black man track of our program — which really gives users a sense of the lived experience of being a Black man at work — and they told me not only how accurate and moving the experience was, but that it also helped them articulate what they’ve experienced and didn’t know how to put into words. Similarly, I’ve had men take the white woman and Black woman tracks and tell me how they had thought they understood the experience of women in the workplace, but realized after our program that they hadn’t really understood.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people? Based on our research and the feedback we’ve received from users, the answer is a resounding yes.

Let’s zoom out a bit and talk in more broad terms. Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in Tech? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?

Unfortunately, the issues for women of any color in tech are still there, although some people, and some companies are worse than others. The recent experiences of Françoise Brougher, who was COO of Pinterest, highlight issues of both inequity, and the bias that contributes to it and to inappropriate workplace behavior.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?

I think there are several challenges that are intertwined: inequity based on gender, the ways that unconscious biases about women play out, and outright discrimination against women. On inequity, there are ample data that women in tech (and other sectors) are paid less than men, controlling for the same training, experience, job, and performance. Women of color are paid even less than white women.

Women in tech are likely to have to “prove themselves” many times over, compared to their male counterparts. Female entrepreneurs in tech are less likely to receive funding than their male counterparts. All the classic obstacles for women in the workplace seem to be worse for women in tech. (As with other stats, people of color of a given gender face more hurdles than their white counterparts of that gender.)

To address inequity, transparency in compensation is key, as is company-wide equity reviews to make sure that people are paid fairly. Similarly, companies should be continually monitoring for different treatment in the performance and promotion processes, and how challenging and high status work is assigned.

To address the ways that gender bias can play out in the workplace, it’s important to help people see why it’s important to address, and how each person can make a difference. Changes start at the top. But deputizing each person on a team to make a difference and hold each other accountable is very powerful. (Live in Their World’s training program is perfect for this!)

For outright discrimination, leaders and managers should be clear about the type of behavior they expect — and won’t tolerate — from their employees. I’m not talking about creating thought police. I’m talking about behaving respectfully and fairly to colleagues, simply because they’re people.

What would you advise to another tech leader who initially went through years of successive growth, but has now reached a standstill. From your experience do you have any general advice about how to boost growth or sales and “restart their engines”?

Sometimes it’s helpful to do something a bit different for a while — to change your perspective or frame of reference. Perhaps that person can shuffle some responsibilities to others and take on some new ones, or some old ones that is no longer part of the job. Even taking some time to “be a client” of the company can help recharge people about the work they’re doing and how they can make a difference.

Do you have any advice about how companies can create very high performing sales teams?

Not at this time — I’m working on that problem myself, right now… so if you know anyone who could give me advice, I’m all ears!

In your specific industry what methods have you found to be most effective in order to find and attract the right customers? Can you share any stories or examples?

In our industry, relationships matter, as does creating trust. After all, we are providing content and guidance on topics that can be emotionally charged. I understand that and try to approach each relationship with integrity, not “overselling” our program.

Based on your experience, can you share 3 or 4 strategies to give your customers the best possible user experience and customer service?

I have only one strategy, which is to listen carefully to what the customer wants to deliver it at an even higher level of quality than they seem to want.

As you likely know, this HBR article demonstrates that studies have shown that retaining customers can be far more lucrative than finding new ones. Do you use any specific initiatives to limit customer attrition or customer churn? Can you share some of your advice from your experience about how to limit customer churn?

It helps to know what the competition is offering, and to be sure to satisfy the same needs that they do. But this isn’t enough: You need to keep listening and keep delivering what they really want — and to exceed their expectations in what you deliver.

Here is the main question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a very successful tech company? Please share a story or an example for each.

Among the lessons I’ve learned is the importance of relationships. I’m an introvert, and in my previous job I did not have daily contact with colleagues or collaborators. I feel incredibly fortunate that the path to launching this company has connected me to wonderful people who gave me their time and wisdom, and with whom I’ve had the fortune to develop personal relationships. Their support and counsel has enriched my life.

Another lesson I’ve learned is the importance of being adaptive and creative. Our program was developed to be used in the Oculus virtual reality headset. But with many employees working from home once the pandemic hit, we had to come up with a different way to provide the virtual reality experience to employees. After many sleepless nights thinking about how the company, featuring virtual reality content, could launch during a pandemic, I decided that we should retool and offer mobile VR viewing (via a mobile VR headset for people’s phones) and immersive video.

In addition, I knew from my experience coaching founders, and from living in San Francisco, which is filled with people working at startups, that hanging in there — persevering — is a crucial quality. That said, it’s not about rigidly persevering. Rather, it’s a general, continual focus on the mission of the company, and adapting the product or service as you get new information. Of course the tricky thing is deciding where and when to adapt. For us, with work-from-home during the pandemic, to persevere with the company’s mission, we had to adapt the virtual reality delivery model.

People have talked about the emotional roller coaster of founding a startup, and is that ever true! One of my lessons is learning my signals about when I need to shut off thinking about the company. For me, this is most likely to happen when the roller coaster is at its lowest point — when there are specific challenges that have no easy or quick solution. I’ve had to learn when to recharge myself with other aspects of life. During the pandemic, that’s been particularly difficult, since there are so few opportunities to meet with friends and family in person, or have a “different” re-charging experience that would have been possible pre-COVID.

My last point is about the power of chance. It was chance that I was doing virtual reality research around the time some white people were saying “white lives matter,” and so the power of virtual reality was forefront in my mind. It was the power of chance that I happened to mention the idea to a venture capitalist I socialized with. It was chance that the events of the MeToo movement reminded him of my idea and he offered to fund me. How often is someone offered money to start a company to test an idea — when I wasn’t even asking for funding and had no thought of starting a company? By the same token, right as we are about to launch, COVID hit. So that’s a case of chance creating adversity. You can’t plan for chance, but you can plan to be alert to noticing when chance produces an opportunity, and to be ready to seize the moment when you see an opportunity.

Wonderful. We are nearly done. Here are the final “meaty” questions of our discussion. You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

No pressure, right? The movement would be for people to understand, deeply, that everyone is coming from their own perspective and situation, and if we take the time to listen to each other with respect, and be open to considering and taking seriously what others say, it would be easier to find common ground and ways forward that are win-win.

We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

Mark Zuckerberg. I think that many aspects of Facebook have been detrimental to society as a whole (though perhaps benefitting the individual user in certain ways). I’d want to understand his perspective — why he privileges certain types of Facebook interactions and not others — and how doing so helps him achieve his goals despite the costs to society. How he reconciles his goals with the actual negative consequences.

Thank you so much for this. This was very inspirational, and we wish you only continued success!

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