Left to Right: Parth N, Mickey S, Myra L, Michael B
Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DEI) training is becoming a significant investment for companies, commanding an $8B annual spend in the US alone. And yet the traditional methods for conducting these trainings have often been proven to do more harm than good, putting participants on the defensive and solidifying biases rather than dismantling them.
Recognizing that many people absorb more through experiences than lectures, Myra LalDin is working on a platform called Perspectives that leverages Virtual Reality (VR) technology to help people experience the biases and behaviors that impact underrepresented populations.
I had the opportunity to talk with Myra about the innovative work that she is doing.
Rebekah Bastian: How did you become interested in working in the DEI space?
Myra LalDin: Growing up in multiple countries with different cultures was an early catalyst to my interest in this space. I attended an international boarding school in Pakistan from the age of six. As one of its few domestic students I found myself balancing western culture’s norms with my own. Cognitive dissonance was a central part of my upbringing, as I sometimes felt like an immigrant in my own backyard. At my school, I observed some people talking in a way that seemed to carry a sense of superiority, casting their western beliefs on others and appearing to belittle the very culture and people they came to help.
In addition to the psychological impacts of coming from a nondominant worldview, I have experienced individuals and groups trying to harm others based on difference. Because of that, I’m driven to create equity by helping people question everyday biases to which they may have become accustomed. I want to reveal how bias impacts decisions and how social and emotional intelligence can lead to cultural change.
I studied cross-cultural management and later cognitive science at Harvard. From there I consulted in organizational behavior through a global competency and inclusion lens. The DEI space allowed me to support organizations in creating an environment where differences can be embraced instead of feared and attacked.
Bastian: What led you to explore using Virtual Reality to address corporate DEI needs?
LalDin: I cofounded a company called VECTRE, which provides training solutions in immersive VR environments. We leverage our expertise in software, cognitive science, and behavior theory to architect enterprise solutions across multiple industries. Our virtual environments allow our clients to create, test, and train significantly faster and more effectively than they could using traditional methods.
Through this platform, we saw an opportunity to use our expertise to address current gaps in DEI learning & development in the corporate sector. People are becoming more familiar with concepts like inclusive leadership, psychological safety, microaggressions, bias, etc. We’re building on that understanding and working to optimize training. More effective and immersive experiences are needed in order to understand such complex topics, with an eye towards experiential learning and behavioral change. That is what VECTRE is providing through this new platform called Perspectives.
Bastian: How does the Perspectives platform work?
LalDin: It allows users to virtually experience what someone from an underrepresented identity might experience in the workplace. For example, we virtually put you in the position of Sue, the lead character in our gender-bias scenario, and let you live through her perspective within the corporate world. You make decisions for her, control her hands, choose what she says; you have agency. We created Sue based off of research and anecdotal bias scenarios. These immersive experiences help users understand, at emotional and behavioral levels, how microaggressions can impact work life. The Perspectives platform was designed to house many scenarios that clients can choose and download.
Bastian: How do you think VR helps people absorb DEI concepts differently than traditional learning methods?
LalDin: People are starting to experience diversity fatigue, and DEI training can often times feel punitive. Perspectives does not impart rules or tell participants what not to do; they construct their own learning by experiencing situations from someone else’s vantage point. Between these interactive experiences and facilitated discussions, teams practice how to identify bias and how to address it. Being able to live and feel Sue’s experience in the VR world provides behavioral and cognitive learning that is more effective in retention and that increases pro-social behaviors more than both classroom and eLearning. The shared, participatory experience in sessions also helps improve team dynamics.
Bastian: The experience that users get through Perspectives seems to highlight the behaviors that an underrepresented population might experience, such as microaggressions, more than the biases or intentions behind those behaviors. What reactions are you observing from this approach?
LalDin: A senior leader of a Fortune 15 company recently participated and got viscerally upset about the way male peers were treating him during the scenario. When he finished, he turned to a female colleague and said, “that was infuriating - but this doesn’t actually happen, right?” The reality is, it does.
Women who participate often share how they have faced similar situations. An employee from another major company emerged feeling empowered, sharing that “going through this, I started to realize I actually go through these types of microaggressions on a daily basis. I have somehow just come to think it’s normal. Being able to make choices in the experience made me realize that I can make these choices for myself too.”
One male DEI advocate removed his headset teary-eyed, saying that he knew the experience was going to be impactful but didn't realize it would be so emotional for him. For the past three weeks his girlfriend had been telling him how much bias she was facing at her new job, which upset him, but to go through it firsthand hit him hard. We can understand from a cerebral level at the outset, but the emotional experience provides a deeper level of comprehension.
We process epiphanies like these in our group debriefs. The discussions and learning are often transformative. We focus on specific actions and prompt reflection on underlying beliefs. Habits and behaviors shape our identities—who we are is influenced by what we do. This level of reflection helps teams foster change, going from intention to actionable behavior, and allows them to recognize and create inclusive cultures.
Bastian: What types of organizations do you think Perspectives will be most effective for?
LalDin: Perspectives is a dynamic experience that can be effective for any organization. It is critical that top-level leadership or the C-suite believes in DEI as a business strategy and goes through our modules first. Our work is most effective with organizations who already see value in building thoughtful and conscientious work ecosystems and seek the next level of training. It provides an experience that goes beyond the cognitive learning of watching a video or a lecture. It is a visceral experience with emotional realism at its core that allows people to go beyond storytelling into story living.