Sarah Hill is an entrepreneur, storyteller and former journalist creating products with virtual reality, augmented reality and neurofeedback. She is the Founder and Chief Storyteller at StoryUP XR, which recently released the world’s first brain-computer interface product for mobile VR which makes people more self-aware of their emotions.
Andy Fidel (AF): In general, how would you describe the current state of XR VC funding?
Sarah Hill (SH): I've learned a lot and for that, I'm grateful. I've been embraced by a welcoming community of women and men.
My experience has been extremely positive. Because it’s such a new community, you’re all swimming together in the deep end and you have to lock arms with each other to stay afloat. The great thing about the XR community is that not only do fellow female founders lift each other up, but male technologists, founders and VC’s also recognize the lack of representation and find ways to use their influence to build bridges to resources, funding, customers, revenue-generating strategies and partnerships. It’s not only females helping females, people of other genders are stepping up as well.
We're coming out of what some in the industry called the 'VR Winter' where you saw a democratization of XR content creation with tools that made it accessible to more people. Now with hardware prices coming down and new standalone headsets, the winter is thawing for VR platform companies as the barriers to consumer entry for XR are lowering. I would hope the VC investment community is noticing the shift and taking advantage of new products that just a year earlier looked out of reach.
AF: As a female founder, have you ever considered the thought, “should I have a male partner?”
SH: Honestly yes, it’s crossed my mind because of something called “unconscious bias”. Unconscious bias in all genders exists because, in our DNA, we may have preferences to do business, collaborate, form partnerships and invest in people with similar traits. These pattern recognitions are hard-coded into our brains. I have unconscious bias. I have to work on it.
AF: What challenges have you faced as a female founder?
SH: Some VCs or angel groups don’t take investment inquiries from outside their spheres of influence. Some firms even state this fact on their websites. You have to know someone at the firm to give you a warm introduction. Female founders don’t always have those connections as they aren’t in that particular sphere of influence, to begin with.
My company is based in Columbia, MO in the Midwest so access to capital there is competitive. We had about $200K revenue in our first year, IP, 30K downloads of our beta, and blue-chip, billion-dollar companies as customers but early on struggled with getting past screening committees. At least in our neck of the woods, in my opinion, female founders struggle to get through screening committees. It takes us significantly longer to get opportunities to pitch, longer to find someone who will be your deal lead, and we end up raising lesser amounts on the local and state levels. I would love for someone to research this and see if my assumptions are backed by data...or perhaps it’s just my unconscious bias.
AF: In your experience, what is the attitude towards VC funding of XR startups in general? Do you believe there are preferences or other differences as it relates to funding between male and female-led XR companies?
SH: I'm a data-driven person. I would have to know whether there's research on the funding levels of male vs female XR founders specifically. My assumption and perhaps my unconscious bias would lead me to believe that male XR companies are being funded more but that might be due to the fact that there are more male XR founders seeking funding. I'd really like to see the data to know whether my assumptions are correct. It might just be my own unconscious bias.
AF: Why do you believe immersive technology is becoming an inclusive industry?
SH: It’s more inclusive because of programs like WXR and the Women in VR/AR Facebook groups that women like Jenn Duong and Julie Young have pioneered. It’s also more inclusive because men are stepping up and calling out major tech conferences for their lack of inclusivity on keynotes, workshops, and panels. The support from males in tech has been tremendous.
AF: Furthering thoughts on the mentorship program?
SH: Amy LaMeyer is the phenomenal individual with whom I was paired. Every day, I opened up an email from her and she had another piece of insight I hadn’t thought about. She’s a season-veteran in the VR community. She’s been incredibly helpful to me in product development, pitch feedback, and warm introductions to help us move the needle.
What these women are doing is donating their valuable time. When you’re a founder at the bottom of a cliff and you’re trying to scale that cliff with a boulder on your back, the simple fact that someone is reaching down to give you an arm to help you up is a monumental gesture and an immense source of relief and support. What would be amazing is if all successful CEOs would take opportunities to reach down to a start-up that’s struggling up the hill and make warm introductions. Lift them up. Answer their emails. Invite them into your sphere of influence.
We’re all in the deep end in the XR industry and the only way you stay afloat is by locking arms with others and keep kicking…. keep learning. A lot of the information we need in XR isn’t something you can just Google, you have to pull knowledge from your relationships to find out what’s worked.
Community is incredibly important for all founders and having that mentorship could be the difference between a company succeeding and failing. My mentors were my C-suite before I had employees. Some of the best advice I’ve gotten from my mentors is to just keep going. Sounds really simple but they will text me at random times of the day and say: “keep going.” Those few extra steps forward can be giant leaps as sometimes the founder doesn’t realize how very close they are to a breakthrough milestone.
AF: Do you foresee this situation changing?
SH: Yes, I see this changing because of the important work of groups like WXR. The way the industry moves the needle on funding for female founders in XR...is to actually fund female founders in XR. I would also challenge more female entrepreneurs, specifically in the Midwest where access to capital is scarce, to have active voices in their own local angel screening committees so they can ensure more women have the opportunity to pitch.
AF: How important are organizations and initiatives like Women in XR to improving the state of venture funding?
SH: Crucial. WXR is leading the charge and opening doors for all of us.
AF: What type of action should be taken to improve this situation? What can XR leaders do to create more equal opportunities in the emerging industries?
SH: Encourage more female entrepreneurs to be a part of local angel or VC screening committees. Fund more female founders. Pair them with mentors. Give them warm intros to other investors. Invite them into your sphere of influence.
Women in XR Series is an effort to highlight a conversation surrounding the current state of venture capital funding for female-led VR and AR companies. According to Greenlight Insights, VR and AR companies raised a record-breaking $2 billion in VC investment in 2017, but only about 8% of deals were for companies with a female CEO. Click here to download the free white paper by Greenlight Insights and The WXR Venture Fund.
Andy Fidel is a guest writer and a WXR Venture Fund fellow. She is a consultant in social media strategy, a visual media creator, and independent journalist. Fidel supports entrepreneurs in their quests for social impact as digital literacy instructor in Montréal, Québec.