Morgan Mercer is the founder of Vantage Point, an immersive, sexual harassment training program experienced in Virtual Reality. Founded in 2017, Vantage Point focuses on combating sexual harassment and assault in the corporate and collegiate worlds while educating users on how to respond to real-life situations within a safe and simulated environment.
Mercer has since organized the VR Fest panel on Empathy-to-Action, spoken at numerous panels including Women in Film, Boost VC Tribe 11, 1st Cohort of Women in XR amongst others.
Andy Fidel (AF): In general, how would you describe the current state of XR VC funding?
Morgan Mercer (MM): I love the industry as a whole and I feel very passionate about the XR/VR space. Although everyone in it is very welcoming, there is this kind of mental barrier that you need to step over to be in the space as a female. It’s awkward walking into a room and not seeing other people who look like you. You have to get used to being the only female in the room.
Given everything women have had to through in a society that tells them they don’t deserve to be there, it’s a huge obstacle to overcome. We need to be conscious of it and focus on investing in female-founded companies. Let’s make sure women are sitting at the table.
Preparation is the most important thing you can do. I’d say startups in VR, in general, are hard.
Fundraising and looking for investors is brutal and so is getting your company off the ground. If you’re a male, it’s going to be hard to get VC funding. If you’re a female, both in the XR community and outside of it, it may be twice as tough.
AF: How would you compare the marketing industry with the XR industry?
MM: In the marketing industry, it’s common to find women in leadership-level positions because historically speaking, it has always been a female-led industry. On the other hand, when you think of the finance world, you think of men.
As far the XR industry goes, I do feel like it is more equally balanced. There are several female content creators and even more prominent female producers. Moreover, I am surrounded by more men in the XR space than I was in my previous marketing role. However, here is where the gender balance “appearance” becomes misleading. Although XR is a more equally-balanced industry, women are still not occupying leadership roles within institutions.
For instance, it is incredibly rare to find a female-founded company. So even though XR is generally a more equal space than, let’s say, marketing or finance, women are still battling to advance into director-level positions. This must be acknowledged and addressed sooner rather than later so the industry transitions into a space of equal, merit-based opportunities.
AF: Do you see a disparity between the number of female and male-led XR companies in the industry? In your experience, would you say there is a lack of funding for female-led XR companies?
MM: People tell me to not get my hopes up until the money is in the bank. Investors will pull out last minute, sometimes even on signing day. They will always ask for one more thing to be proven or demonstrated. And then, they tell you it’s still not enough. If an investor tells you to do something, consider incorporating it, but if it doesn’t align with your long-term goals and roadmaps, then don’t allocate your time to prove it to them. Run ahead regardless. If somebody wants to be part of the movement you’re creating, they’ll sign on.
I’ve heard it’s like dating, in a sense. You’re trying to get them to say no as soon as possible so you can move on or continue the conversation as long as possible to form a relationship. It’s always best to focus on product, not funding. Your product will bring the funding and attract the investors.
There is one thing I am very adamant about in regards to investment and VC funding. I review all contracts very closely and will not allow things such as transferability of shares. For instance, I am extremely sensitive about the board of director seats. The statistics reveal that 45% of founders are replaced within the first 18 months of raising VC funding. That is a generalized statistic. However, as a young female, I have two things working against me and I am very careful about who I surround myself with.
A common theme to remember is that not all money is good money. You don’t have to take an investment if your company is going to be fine without it. Be careful about who you let in. because investors have their own equity in your company. Not only do they possess control over your potential replacement, but they can also influence the values of your company and its path. The company can go on, with or without you.
AF: Do you foresee this situation improving?
MM: I do see the situation improving. For example, 10 years ago, it was rare to see a female-led VC/investment firm. The WXR Venture Fund is an amazing example of that. Those are allies who got together and said that we need to change this.
I wish there were more people passionate about solving the gender inequality problems. We need gender parity as well as parity in investment. This is what will give women an opportunity to change the status quo and build their own companies in a world where they may have been discounted for their gender. Not only does this change the number of women who can employ other females and help them develop professionally, but it will also create a continuous cycle of progress as more and more women will continue to grow in their careers and pass on even greater opportunities to future generations.
Because there aren’t many active working women in the finance world, there is nobody to hold accountable. There are the Ellen Pao’s of the world who can invest in whatever they want, but the truth is, the majority of women are not in her position as they do not work in venture capital funds. This where I feel like men can step up and take an active stance in supporting female-led companies.
What makes VR an immersive platform is the ability to embody someone other than yourself. Experiencing someone else’s perspective broadens people’s own ideas of the world and impacts their mental framework. It also has the power to make them more open-minded, empathetic and compassionate.
In the same light, one of the biggest things that attract people to immersive content is the ability to explore new worlds, mental states, and spaces that allow them to engage with their emotional spectrum in a way they never have before. That’s the beauty of virtual and mixed reality. As for the professionals delving into the field of virtual reality, the most exciting part for them is creating the rules and grammar of an emerging language. Because the industry as a whole is still finding its footing within the world, it’s the perfect time for women and men to write the fabric of the future of this industry together.
AF: How important are organizations and initiatives like Women in XR to improving the state of venture funding?
MM: Incredibly important. It’s imperative to move the space forward and fund female-led companies. It’s an opportunity for women and allies to step up to the plate. We have so many female programmers and developers, so why aren’t there many female CTO’s? If you are truly searching for a future based in equality and gender parity, then you must impact the ecosystem of every industry by enabling women to lead their own companies.
AF: How important is it to find individuals with the same value system?
MM: I am very straightforward and to the point. I don’t appreciate people who put on a face and don’t live up to the name they create or what they say they will do. I like people who take action. If you say you’re supportive of women and I look at your company, and it’s 95% men? Or I overhear you saying something that’s not respectful…
It’s like I say in the training programs I am creating. It’s not enough to not be part of the problem. You have to be an active part of the solution. You can’t live in an individualistic society. You need to step outside of your individual level of accountability and take action that represents your beliefs and reshape an existing ecosystem into an environment that also aligns with your beliefs.
Anyone you are taking money from, hiring or bringing into your team has the opportunity to shape the tone of the company and how welcoming and supportive it is to women. These people will shape your policies, regulations and the future of your company. You must make sure that everybody, especially your investors, has similar values and are willing to stand behind you in your efforts to support women.
The mental barrier of walking into a room and feeling like you don’t belong is the biggest challenge we must overcome as an industry. In order to create equality in this space, women must have the same sense of belonging as men. This will only be possible if we all join forces and step up to address the current status quo and create a more positive future. A future of equality.
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.