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Sly Lee of Emerge: “Stick to your guns and own your path”

We, at Emerge, are empowering people to build more meaningful bonds across distance and time by bringing touch and emotion to their communications and connecting those who are separated in a way that was never before possible. Our goal is to create the technology that will become the new standard for shared digital experiences, enabling […]

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We, at Emerge, are empowering people to build more meaningful bonds across distance and time by bringing touch and emotion to their communications and connecting those who are separated in a way that was never before possible.

Our goal is to create the technology that will become the new standard for shared digital experiences, enabling us to build and strengthen our relationships with one another. Our first step towards this vision is focused on touch, with a product that allows users to physically feel, interact, and share immersive content with their bare hands. Unlike today’s video calls, messaging, and social media platforms, Emerge allows you to physically connect with those you care about in a richer and more intimate way.


The telephone totally revolutionized the way we could communicate with people all over the world. But then came email and took it to the next level. And then came text messaging. And then came video calls. And so on…What’s next? What’s just around the corner?

In this interview series, called ‘The Future Of Communication Technology’ we are interviewing leaders of tech or telecom companies who are helping to develop emerging communication technologies and the next generation of how we communicate and connect with each other.

As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sly Lee. He is a first-generation American entrepreneur whose journey is influenced by his Deep South upbringing, passion for design, and obsession with status-quo stretching tech. He is co-founder & CEO of Emerge, which exists to create bold products that empower people to build meaningful bonds across distance and time. Emerge’s first product aims to create a new standard for digital communication that incorporates sight, sound, and touch (imagine a virtual high five). He is a Forbes 30 Under 30 class of 2018 recipient, World Economic Forum Global Future Council Member for AR/VR, and can be found surfing the coast of SoCal some mornings.


Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

I was born in Mississippi to parents who left the rest of their family in Singapore and immigrated to the United States in hopes of creating a better life for their children. Despite the distance, our family is very close and I’ve always felt the pain of distance from loved ones more than my peers which I believe helped fueled my passion to help bring the next wave of connectivity and communication.

A pivotal moment in my journey was when I met my two co-founders Isaac and Mauricio in 2015 at a NASA/Google sponsored incubator. They both had the vision to create a company to built paradigm-shifting products around communication, so when we found flow together, we quit everything we were doing, and moved into a small 1bdrm together (actually coincidentally turned out to be Zuckerberg’s 2nd house in Los Altos)

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

I’m not usually the type of person who gets starstruck, but this experience really blew me away. A few years ago, my cofounders and I were able to visit Richard Branson’s island and pitch him Emerge. What made the experience truly memorable was how humble and present he was in our conversation. He didn’t end up investing then (though he did sign my ukulele) but we did cross paths again. Richard Branson is an investor in M13, who did invest in Emerge. They say don’t meet your heroes, but I was so amazed that he is a genuinely kind person. I think he’s a fantastic template of how one can be massively successful and still a good human. I strive to be like that.

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

“To achieve great things, two things are needed: a plan, and not quite enough time.” — Leonard Bernstein.

I love this quote because it encompasses how I view work and my own limited time on this planet (fingers crossed on biotech advancements within my lifetime). I feel this is so relevant in not only big picture endeavors like what Emerge is doing and building a moonshot company, but also the tactical aspects of rallying a team around a near-term goal.

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?

I’m so grateful to have many people who positively impacted my journey. My father was an entrepreneur/tinkerer who instilled the ‘builder’ mentality in me from a young age. He always did things himself- co-built our house, built a massive water UV filtration system in our garage. I grew up learning things like soldering around 10 years old. My first project- a meticulously drawn led solder heart on a metal plate for my mom for Valentine’s day. He empowered me with the confidence to form my own opinions and believe I could build or do anything with the arsenal of ‘Macguiver’ skills he passed on to me.

Another person who’s impacted me greatly is my adopted grandma from Mississippi who encouraged me to be a movement creator. A little white-haired lady, she is one of the few female chemists in her time, and a strong personality in the community who led many social justice efforts, including race integrations in schools and churches. Thanks to her, I grew up with the passion and interest to activate change within my local community- first in Mississippi, then Hawaii, then SF, then LA.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I love this question because, as founders, we are often so singularly focused on achieving the traditional measure of business success for our company that we forget about the society that we exist in.

In honor of my grandma, I try to stay involved in both local and global communities that are focused on social impact. I’m an active member of the World Economic Forum- currently on the Global Future Council for AR/VR, I am involved with the Honors college at my alma matter, and more recently gotten involved with mental health initiatives like Stepup.org and incarcerated individuals who are aspiring entrepreneurs through Defyventures.org. I’ve learned through my own startup adventure that creating and building a business is not an individual task- it takes a community. In an effort to pass learnings and opportunities forward, I find that i really enjoy mentoring and supporting early-stage startup founders on their journey to build their company.

I’m also proud to say my first entrepreneurial endeavor, The Hydrous (www.thehydro.us), continues to impact both locally in California and across the world by educating people about our oceans and climate change. The work Dr. Erika Woolsey, the CEO and National Geographic Explorer, is doing is arming people with the knowledge to create meaningful impact that, combined with other efforts, are driving change on a global scale.

Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. Can you tell us about the cutting-edge communication tech that you are working on? How do you think that will help people?

We, at Emerge, are empowering people to build more meaningful bonds across distance and time by bringing touch and emotion to their communications and connecting those who are separated in a way that was never before possible.

Our goal is to create the technology that will become the new standard for shared digital experiences, enabling us to build and strengthen our relationships with one another. Our first step towards this vision is focused on touch, with a product that allows users to physically feel, interact, and share immersive content with their bare hands. Unlike today’s video calls, messaging, and social media platforms, Emerge allows you to physically connect with those you care about in a richer and more intimate way.

How do you think this might change the world?

What we’re doing at Emerge is, in essence, recreating a new standard for how we communicate with each other through technology. Today screens have limited us to visual and audio connection but in five years from now, instead of picking up a phone and video chatting, you could interact with a hologram that allows you to share physical touch, like a hug.

Keeping “Black Mirror” in mind can you see any potential drawbacks about this technology that people should think more deeply about?

I loved the Black Mirror series because it helps me reinforce the importance of design. While I do believe that technology in the purest sense is inherently neutral, products are not. It’s important for us, especially those helping to create a wave with innovative technology, to remember that technology was designed to benefit the user. For example, at Emerge we’re making sure we’re being extremely careful with user privacy and data because our product is generating new types of data that laws and individuals have not thought about yet.

Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this breakthrough? Can you tell us that story?

Actually, our story is more like the rice farmer- many years ago my cofounders and i realized that this type of product needed to be built and that there would be many other paradigms of communication past our first product. Over time we have insights at various stages — first the tech breakthrough- the product works, then the timing breakthrough on 2 fronts- the silver lining of the pandemic caused an acceleration of the social tech market- ppl willing to try new types of products in the space, and the immersive tech market- oculus quest having 2M MAUs (unconfirmed source)-

What do you need to lead this technology to widespread adoption?

We mentally created a sort of checklist for the factors that would need to be in place for widespread adoption of our technology. First, and most importantly, we needed to surround ourselves with amazing people who would help continue to build our vision into a physical product. Next, we’d need social momentum to help spark the passion for people to want to adopt our solution (we’re seeing this accelerated due to the pandemic). Finally, we need enabling technologies to be in place for our product to make sense (we’re seeing this now w the adoption of AR/VR tech, which we are using as a stepping stone). We are now identifying the first users who not just wants, but needs our product. From here we’re racing towards creating impactful first product experiences in the market that will provide the foundation to grow product awareness and its reputation off of.

The pandemic has changed so many things about the way we behave. One of them, of course, is how we work and how we communicate in our work. How do you think your innovation might be able to address the new needs that have arisen as a result of the pandemic?

The product we’ve created also turns out to have many potential use cases within and beyond communication. For example, two artists on opposite sides of the world can co-create a sculpted object and both see and feel it. In the more traditional virtual office, coworkers can incorporate tactile examples into brainstorming sessions. We’re planning to focus first on the communication aspect but are excited to see how others will take our technology and discover new ways to incorporate it.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why?

  1. Stick to your guns and own your path. As my co-founders and I began to translate Emerge from a mission into a business focused on human connection, it was easy to see hundreds of options and opportunities. Knowing we have a strong vision has helped keep us from getting distracted by other shiny objects. We’ve gone through many GTM strategies- from enterprise training, to retail, to education, but in the end, we always come back to our core passion of human connection and that’s what we’re focusing on now, the mission which originally excited us all and brought us together.
  2. Bring on at least one advisor who is a former founder that has taken a product from 0 to 1 ASAP. You learn a lot through experience and finding another founder that has been what you are going through can help provide insight and understanding to avoid missteps. In building a company, it’s important to consider each board member as a deeper extension of your core team, helping to drive you on the right path.
  3. Read as much as you can before you start. One of the greatest things about having 7 billion people in the world and thousands of years worth of recorded history is that a great number of important lessons have been learned. By studying what has been done and outcomes can help you better position yourself for success. Great resources are: first-round articles, hard things about hard things, zero to one, how google works, startup boards, tipping point, originals, the house that jack built, shoe dog, let me people surf, give and take, connecting the dots, mindset, exponential organizations, the advantage, trillion-dollar coach, just to name a few. I err on the side of action over contemplation, so I’ve been trying to read more and understand what learnings I can glean from past successes and failures. The failures are just as important as the successes because they offer insight into a path taken, it just happened to be the wrong one.
  4. Find a mentor CEO or executive coach ASAP. People strategy can be one of the hardest things but also the most rewarding activities within a company. Having a great team will make all the difference- especially during the hard times. Leading and managing are very different skills and most young founders aren’t great managers out of the gate. I spend a significant amount of time empowering my team, supporting them, and talking with prospective team members to get insight on how we can continue to improve from within.
  5. Make sure to make your personal relationships and time with loved ones just as sacred as your time building your company. It is so easy to become singularly focused on delivering on the promises you’ve made to investors and push all other relationships to the side. I’m lucky to have a wife who not only supports me but also teaches me. She’s been incredibly empathetic and patient with me as I learn and grow on my journey. People often forget that the path you’re on is just as important to the final destination. It’s easy to want to focus solely on the pressures coming from investors but, at the end of the day, you have to be true to yourself and your mission. The legacy I want to leave aligns back to the main mission of Emerge- building better ways to connect and bond with loved ones.

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.

I truly believe that the mission that would bring around the most good is what we’re doing now at Emerge- the movement of creating a new paradigm of human connection. We’re on a path to foster empathy and a better understanding of one another. When we think about the many challenges we face today as a society, I think almost all of them stem from a misunderstanding or judgment of “other”. What if we could all understand and empathize w the experiences of ppl around the world?

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Sign up at www.emerge.io where we will be sharing more tangible updates soon!

Thank you so much for the time you spent doing this interview. This was very inspirational, and we wish you continued success.


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