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Cortney Harding of Friends with Holograms: “Get geared up for a social second shift”

Get geared up for a social second shift. Because the industry is so small, a lot of work gets done through connections. Set aside time every week for events, Zoom socials, posting in group chats, researching and meeting with people, and relationship management. The chances of someone getting a job in VR but just applying […]

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Get geared up for a social second shift. Because the industry is so small, a lot of work gets done through connections. Set aside time every week for events, Zoom socials, posting in group chats, researching and meeting with people, and relationship management. The chances of someone getting a job in VR but just applying are slim to none. You have to build a very strong personal brand and then manage across all relationship verticals.


The Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality & Mixed Reality Industries are so exciting. What is coming around the corner? How will these improve our lives? What are the concerns we should keep an eye out for? Aside from entertainment, how can VR or AR help work or other parts of life? To address this, as a part of our interview series called “Women Leading The VR, AR & Mixed Reality Industries”, we had the pleasure of interviewingCortney Harding.

Cortney Harding is the founder and CEO of Friends With Holograms, a transformational VR/AR agency focused on creating innovative, powerful, and effective experiences for training. Clients include Walmart, Verizon, Accenture, PWC, Coca-Cola, and Eunoe Health. Cortney is also the winner of multiple awards, including “Best VR/AR” at Mobile World Congress, SXSW Innovation Award Finalist, and Top HR product by HR Executive.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit about your backstory and how you grew up?

I was born and raised in Portland, Oregon. In high school, I discovered local indie rock and riot grrl, and that was really foundational for me. I did a lot of activism, running voter registration tables at local all ages shows and putting on benefit concerts for women’s rights organizations and writing about local bands for an alt-weekly. I majored in political science at Wellesley and worked in local politics, and went to NYU to get a Masters in Public Policy before becoming a music journalist and a staff writer and editor at Billboard. From there, I started working with music tech companies before pivoting to VR in 2016.

Is there a particular book, film, or podcast that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

An incomplete list of foundational content for me: Susan Faludi’s “Backlash,” Sassy magazine; everything Anthony Bourdain ever did; the Jonathan Gold documentary “City of Gold;” the Geraldine Fibbers “Lost Somewhere Between the Earth and My Home;” pretty much everything David Bowie has ever done; pretty much everything Patti Smith as ever done; the aesthetics of Rick Owens, Michelle Lamy, and Ann Demeulemeester. The common threads are honesty, integrity, iconoclasm, and an ethic rooted in punk even if the content itself isn’t “punk.”

Is there a particular story that inspired you to pursue a career in the X Reality industry? We’d love to hear it.

My foundational VR experience was seeing EMA’s “I Wanna Destroy” experience at MoMA PS1 in January of 2015. It remains one of the best experiences I’ve had and absolutely smashed my mind wide open when it came to the possibilities of VR for storytelling and music and group performance. She was so far ahead of the curve it blew me away. My absolute dream would be to work on a project like that.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began this fascinating career?

Here’s a weird one: In October of 2019 I flew to Bentonville, Arkansas to speak at a conference and meet with Walmart about doing VR work for them. The night before my big meeting, I woke up in the middle of the night to blaring sirens and what looked like the end of the world happening outside my window. A quick Twitter search revealed that it was a tornado, which I had never experienced before. I was alone in an Airbnb with no basement so I wound up sitting in the bathtub sobbing because… I couldn’t get swept away in a tornado before I met with Walmart! I should add all my tornado knowledge comes from the Wizard of Oz. Anyway, the tornado passed, I slept for a few hours, and walked out of my meeting that afternoon with a deal.

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?

When you work in an emerging tech field, you tend to encounter a lot of “lookie-lou’s” — people who want to pick your brain but ultimately won’t ever pay you for work. At the start, I gave away FAR too much of my time chasing down these leads that would never go anywhere. As we’ve grown, I’ve learned to be far more judicious and ask the hard questions about budget and interest up front. We are happy to do workshops, but there is a charge. I’m also constantly publishing pieces and working on a book, out later this year, and people are totally free to use those as resources. But I have learned that my expertise is valuable and I should be compensated for it fairly.

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 colleague Pamela Jaber came in right after we closed our first deal and worked an insane amount of magic to pull it off, and she’s been crushing it ever since. She’s a great balance for me because I tend to be very big picture and she is really detail oriented and has an extensive knowledge of the production process. We talk almost daily and collaborate on pretty much everything.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

Yes! We have two current projects, one on how to have effective conversations about mental health and one on racial bias. We are still in the scripting phase on both so I can’t say a ton, but I’m really excited for them to come out and people to see them. We’re always looking for new partners as well, so if anyone out there is looking to build VR training about diversity, equity, and inclusion, let me know.

Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. The VR, AR and MR industries seem so exciting right now. What are the 3 things in particular that most excite you about the industry? Can you explain or give an example?

The first thing that excites me is that headsets are getting lighter, faster, and cheaper, which is huge. When I first started a headset was either a cheap thing you had to insert a smartphone into or an expensive thing that required a high powered gaming computer to run. You can buy a great headset for 300 dollars now, which will do a lot to get the technology into the mainstream.

The second is that people are thinking more about applications beyond gaming. Don’t get me wrong, gaming in VR is great and it’s a big part of the industry, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Training, which is our specialty, is growing, as is entertainment, documentary, and storytelling.

The third is a more fundamental paradigm shift in terms of how we relate to content. For many years, we have consumed content, whether by reading or watching, and VR allows you to experience content. When we think about training, this is a massive shift. Previously, you could only experience by actually doing something, and in many cases that wasn’t possible. VR allows users to experience at scale.

What are the 3 things that concern you about the VR, AR and MR industries? Can you explain? What can be done to address those concerns?

Headsets have gotten better and cheaper but they’re still not as widely used as they need to be. Facebook and other headset makers need to take a page from the Apple playbook and treat them as loss leaders for the time being. If Facebook gave every high school student in the US an Oculus Quest, or even just funded headset labs in schools, that would accelerate growth exponentially.

The second is that it is still difficult to get content funded. We have been fortunate to partner with great clients who understand the need to create great content, but those folks are still rare. There are very few channels for funding other types of VR content versus the amount of money available for film and TV. The lack of content means that people are likely to abandon their headsets once they run out of new things to consume and experience.

The third is that the industry will become just another Silicon Valley boys club. There are lots of amazing women and BIPOC folks working in VR but the huge raises are still going to male teams based in California for the most part.

I think the entertainment aspects of VR, AR and MR are apparent. Can you share with our readers how these industries can help us at work?

Yes, because that is literally all I have thought about for the last three years! There is a ton of data about the impact of VR training — it leads to a 75% increase in learning quality and retention; 40% reductions in training time; and 70% performance improvement. A piece we built for child welfare workers resulted in a 31% decrease in employee turnover and a 75% reduction in training costs.

I’m honestly at a loss as to why more folks aren’t investing in it given the numbers. It’s not like this is fringe technology any more — Walmart, Amazon, Lowe’s, Verizon, and many others are all using it. But what shocks me is that people are seeing their competitors use it and have great results and then just shrugging in response. If I were a Walmart competitor, for example, I’d be investing in VR training like crazy, but I’ve seen very little if anything from any of the other players in their space.

Are there other ways that VR, AR and MR can improve our lives? Can you explain?

We worked on a fascinating project last year around mental health and self talk in VR. It was a departure for us to build but we had a great client and so far the clinical trials are going well. So definitely self-care and meditation in VR.

We don’t do as much work in the AR space but I’m really excited for heads up glasses that mean I won’t have to look at my phone all the time. I’d love glasses with directions and great contextual info that allow me to stay connected in a really seamless way. The North Focals were a great start and based on all the rumors Apple is going to come out with something in the near future.

Let’s zoom out a bit and talk in broader terms. Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in STEM? If not, what specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?

Nope.

The tech industry is still really male dominated and very sexist. Girls Who Code initiatives are great, but if those girls are then going to be unable to get jobs or have to deal with hostile work environments, then it’s kind of useless. We need really deep systemic changes from the top, including more VCs who fund female and BIPOC founders and a big shift in culture around work and values.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about working in your industry? Can you explain what you mean?

A few years ago, a lot of people rushed into VR because they thought it would be the next big thing. Luckily most of those people are now yelling about Bitcoin and NFTs. VR is amazing but it’s not the hot sexy new thing and if you want to make a quick buck, you’ll have a hard time.

It’s still a very small industry and it does encourage some group think. You tend to see the same handful of speakers at all the conferences, and no offense to any of them, but it can get boring after a while. The industry as a whole needs to be better about showcasing women and BIPOC and indie voices and not just stick the same set of white guys from big companies up on stage again and again.

What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience as a Woman in Tech” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. Get geared up for a social second shift. Because the industry is so small, a lot of work gets done through connections. Set aside time every week for events, Zoom socials, posting in group chats, researching and meeting with people, and relationship management. The chances of someone getting a job in VR but just applying are slim to none. You have to build a very strong personal brand and then manage across all relationship verticals.
  2. Women always have to be ten times better than men. I’ve had men I worked with yell at clients, blow off work, and totally fall apart and blow deadlines, and it doesn’t seem to have a huge impact on them — but it would end a woman’s career. Just be prepared and get ready to go to battle every day.
  3. Be prepared to hang out with mansplainers, and their brothers, the “I read an article” guys. I was at dinner with a friend of my husband’s a few months ago and he basically explained VR and AR to me because he read an article in Wired, without ever bothering to stop and ask my opinion on the thing I have done full time for years and won awards doing. Fighting with them isn’t worth it. I usually just dissociate and think about a really good meal I had in Paris or a funny thing my dog did.
  4. Find out what people want from their work and try to help them achieve it. This seems shockingly simple but relatively few jobs I’ve ever had have actually done this. When I was at Billboard, I told my editor at the time I wanted to advance and become the music editor, and he mentored me and gave me opportunities, and I am loyal to him for life. Contrast that with another job I had, where I came in with tons of great sales and evangelism experience and a track record of closing deals — and was immediately sidelined and wound up doing project management. I bailed out of there as quickly as I could because they took zero interest in helping me advance. In my own management roles, I’ve always at least made a good faith effort to help people get ahead.
  5. Don’t be a jerk. I’m not perfect and I have bad days and lose my cool, but I am pretty decent most of the time and my team knows I care about them. A good rule of thumb is “would this behavior lead to someone telling Ronan Farrow about me?” Because he’s a great reporter, and if he calls you, you know your goose is cooked.

You are a person of great 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. 🙂

VR training for social good. We have an opportunity right now to center training around workers and making their lives better, and that starts with good training. Whether that’s for job skills that help low wage workers do their jobs more safely or management training that prevents incidents that Ronan Farrow will write about, VR can be used for everything.

We have an opportunity to fundamentally alter the way we hire and train people and make it more inclusive. We also have the opportunity to bring in people who have been left out because they are experiential learners into the workforce. I talk a lot about diversity, equality, and inclusion, but that doesn’t work unless your organization’s training methods are welcoming to all learner styles — and VR helps solve that.

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 like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

I’d love to talk to Andy Jassy, who is about to take over at Amazon. He has promised to do more DE&I training, and in the wake of the suit from my fellow Wellesley alum Charlotte Newman, he needs to step it up. I’d love to tell him how VR can accomplish this and how my diverse (50/50 male/female, 50/50 non-white) team can accomplish this.

Thank you so much for these excellent stories and insights. We wish you continued success on your great work!

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