How the ‘Godmother of Virtual Reality’ Pioneered a Field in the Face of Adversity

After Nonny de la Peña graduated high school in California, she moved out East to attend Harvard. She excelled in a coding class, but saw a future where she’d perpetually be the only woman in the room.

De la Peña’s decision to shift course would set her  on a pioneering career trajectory. In a keynote speech Tuesday at the South by Southwest conference in Austin, she retraced that path and recounted the adversity she faced along the way.

After graduation de la Peña established herself as a journalist, working for Time and Newsweek, among other publications, before working on documentary films and television projects. By 2007, a grant from the MacArthur Foundation and the Bay Area Video Coalition allowed her to expand a project investigating the Guantanamo Bay detention camp. She opted to create a detention center in the online virtual environment Second Life, replete with an information “black hole” through which users’ (or, more precisely, their avatars’) requests for due process were denied.

Around this time, de la Peña said, she became determined to augment her programming abilities, and again enrolled in a coding class. She was met by a room full of more than 30 men. She stayed in it, jokingly admitting later that it might not have been that fun for the men, either. She said one remarked at the time, to another: “Hey, dude, you have to come to my party tonight! There’s going to be real girls there.”

Armed with more technical prowess, de la Peña paired it with her narrative storytelling work, and created a innovative virtual reality short that was featured at the Sundance Film Festival, in which viewers could immerse themselves into a scene of a Los Angeles street. (De la Peña and her team needed to create their own headsets so festival-goers could experience it.) A soup pantry line is in their view, and within moments, a diabetic man in the line collapses. Real audio from a reporter is paired with the reconstructed scene.  

Also along the way de la Peña founded a narrative virtual reality studio, Emblematic, which has developed an immersive film with PBS Frontline documenting glacial melting in Greenland, and a project commissioned by the World Economic Forum called “Project Syria,” documenting bombings and bloodshed there.

Now established in her field, she related, she was invited to a meeting of entrepreneurs in Britain, which took them to an event with British royalty. At a dinner, she was ushered to a seat near former Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt and other tech luminaries, all men. Seated across from her would be Prince William. She shied away–and instead took a seat at the end of the table.

“I used to blame myself for being a coward,” she said. But then she cited some discouraging numbers, including that just 2 percent of venture capital funding goes to female founders. It all leads to the feeling, she said, that “you don’t feel like you should be sitting across from Prince William.”

Since that time though, de la Pena has received validation in the form of a vast array of awards and praise. Forbes dubbed her the “godmother of virtual reality,” Fast Company named her one of its most creative people, and for 2018 she was named a New America Fellow. While she did not mention the phrase “inclusion rider” in her talk, she did mention her latest battle in confronting the worlds of film and technology. It’s a common one–seeking funding–but one that due to her gender, as she noted, puts her in a small minority.

Meet the 4 Female Founders Behind Tech’s Most Exciting Inventions

A cadre of female entrepreneurs are behind the companies driving some of the most exciting developments in hardware. From drones to modeling kits, here are four women-led companies whose innovative products are shaking up the tech world:

CREDIT: Katie Thompson

Ayah Bdeir

LittleBits Electronics

Bdeir’s company has raised $60 million for its award-winning kits of pre-assembled electronics components that are color-coded and snap easily together with tiny magnets. Used by educators, hobbyists, kids, and companies prototyping new products, they are also in the permanent collection of New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

CREDIT: Bryan Derballa

Jessica Matthews

Uncharted Power

Matthews, a dual citizen of Nigeria and the United States, makes energy-generating technology that can be embedded in everyday objects that are often in motion, such as strollers and toys, to provide power in developing countries and anywhere without a reliable grid. The profitable company has 15 patents, and its investors include Kapor Capital.

CREDIT: Getty Images

Limor Fried

Adafruit Industries

Ladyada–as she’s known to her fans–founded Adafruit Industries, an electronics design and manufacturing company. She is a vocal advocate for open-source hardware; her company designs and sells kits and electronics parts with the goal of teaching people to become makers.

CREDIT: Julie Jamora

Helen Greiner

CyPhy Works

Greiner is best known as the co-founder of iRobot, the company that brought us the Roomba. Now she’s the founder and CTO of CyPhy Works, which has raised $35 million to make small drones for consumer, industrial, and military use. Last September, CyPhy started working with the UPS Foundation and the American Red Cross to test the use of drones in disaster relief efforts.

How an Entrepreneur’s Post-Election Facebook Rant Led to the Women’s March

Just over a year ago, Bob Bland, the New York-based designer and founder of the fashion incubator Manufacture New York, took to Facebook to air her grievances over the surprise victory of Donald J. Trump in the U.S. election. Little did she know that one small group on social media would rapidly blossom into an international movement and annual event, the Women’s March, which last weekend drew some 2 million attendees nationwide across cities including Las Vegas, San Francisco, Chicago and New York, according to the most recent available data. 

“The Women’s March has been the startup of a lifetime,” says Bland, who soon after posting that fateful day in November teamed up with co-founders Tamika Mallory, Carmen Perez, and Lindsa Sarsour to launch the non-profit organization in late 2016. Although many thought that the Women’s March would be gone and forgotten over the course of Trump’s presidency, Bland insists it has only gained steam since last January.

In fact, early research suggests that the events of 2018–a veritable watershed moment for women across the public and private sectors–drew even more attendees in select cities than last year, although Bland notes that the focus is different this time around. While the Women’s March remains conceptually a worldwide protest in favor of women’s rights, racial equality, healthcare reform and reproductive rights, the organization is now focused on getting as many people as possible to vote in the upcoming mid-term elections; Bland and her co-founders last week launched their “Power to the Polls” initiative to raise awareness for the importance of casting a vote. “This is non-partisan,” Bland explains. “We need to challenge anyone who is not standing up for marginalized communities, including women, people of color, and those who have been incarcerated. We need to make sure that it’s possible to see a reflection [of those views] in leadership.”

Lessons in ethical business

Bland identifies first and foremost as an entrepreneur, and rather than detracting from her business acumen, she says that participating in the Women’s March has made her a more effective leader. “I’ve spent the last year training myself through this work to look at my industry [fashion] through a gender as well as a racial lens,” Bland tells Inc. “Now, I clearly see that we cannot separate work around systemic dysfunction in the fashion industry, for example, from issues like white supremacy and mistreatment of women.”

Bland says that Manufacture New York–which occupies more than 160,000 square feet in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park neighborhood and has helped to launch more than 90 brands since inception in 2012–has taken the back seat since the Women’s March went viral last year. However, she is making a more concerted effort to bring more women and people of color into the business of fashion, such that her leadership better reflects the customer base: In the coming months, she plans on launching a philanthropic arm called the Manufacture Foundation, to support more women and minorities in the manufacturing industry.

In the meantime, her incubator has pivoted to support more textiles “of the resistance,” from makers of ‘Nasty Woman’ t-shirts to ‘RESIST’ sweat pants (with some proceeds of the latter going to the American Civil Liberties Union.) Bland now partners with designers such as The Outrage, The Amplifier and Royal Apparel, including men and women who identify as gay, straight, bisexual, queer, black, white, brown, and everything in-between.

Purpose-driven fashion

With New York Fashion Week kicking off next month, Bland is also quick to point out that many traditional retailers did little to support minority communities in the wake of the presidential election. “The fashion industry reacted as if the resistance and the Women’s March was just a cool trend,” Bland says. “But what would it actually mean to take the unity principles of those movements to fashion manufacturing? That’s an example of something that I look forward to digging into in 2018.”

It’s no small task–especially as Bland continues to work with the Women’s March full time, shepherding 35 state coordinators and some 5,500 micro-communities across the country. But it’s work that she has found to be more than gratifying, and which has challenged her views about what may or may not be ‘normal’ in the business of fashion. 

“As a white woman, this has allowed me to reflect both on the extreme misogyny and sexism I experienced at the hands of venture capitalists and real estate developers,” she adds, referring to the early days of building her business. “It’s powerful actually being able to name that, where I felt completely silenced before.”

The Surprisingly Personal Reason Google’s CEO Doesn’t Regret Firing James Damore

Sundar Pichai doesn’t regret the decision to fire James Damore, a former Google employee and the author of an anti-diversity memo that highlighted fundamental, so-called biological differences between men and women. In fact, the tech giant CEO sees it as a step in the right direction where workplace inclusion is concerned.

“As a company, we support freedom of speech. But you have to understand that in the context of the workplace, the representation of women is very, very low,” said Pichai, speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland on Wednesday morning. “It is a moral imperative that we create an environ that is more supportive of women,” he added.

In conversation with the conference founder, Klaus Schwab, Pichai went on to explain that his stance on the issue comes from a deeply personal, as well as a professional place. He reflected back on meeting his wife, Anjali, when they were both students at the India Institute of Technology in Kharagpur. She was one of only 20 female students, he recalls, out of a class of roughly 100. “I saw first hand how hard it is to function in an environment like that,” Pichai said.

To be sure, diversity in technology–and the overall treatment of women at work–is an issue that is top of mind for many in Davos. The annual gathering of more than 2,500 executives, politicians and journalists this year comes on the heels of a watershed moment for women in technology and beyond, as myriad allegations of sexual discrimination, harassment and assault have landed across the public and private sectors, from entertainment to capitol hill and sports. Other speakers this week include Salesforce’s Marc Benioff, Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi, as well as heads of state such as Germany’s Angela Merkel and U.S. President Donald Trump.

Although the meeting has drawn criticism from many, including Trump himself, for being overly ‘globalist’ in mindset, the many topics under discussion fall under the thematic umbrella of “creating a shared future in a fractured world.”

Google deserves some credit for having been among the first wave of tech companies to publish its internal diversity statistics back in 2014. Since that time, however, an  updated memo reveals that little has changed: Overall, women still comprise just 17 percent of the global tech workforce, and just 21 percent of leadership roles. And last year, the company was accused of ‘extreme’ gender pay discrimination by the Department of Labor, and in July was ordered to hand over records on women’s pay.

Even so, when Damore’s memo was made publicly available in August of 2017, it drummed up considerable support from conservative and men’s rights groups across the country, with Damore soon appearing in an interview with the Canadian, self-proclaimed “anti-feminist” Stefan Molyneux. And earlier this month, Damore filed a class action lawsuit against his former employer alleging discrimination against white men and conservatives.

That hasn’t deterred Pichai from speaking publicly on the subject, and by all indications, the CEO hasn’t wavered. “We are trying to create an inclusive culture for all Googlers, and I’m glad there has been a public debate,” he continued on Wednesday in Davos. “You definitely see the tide is turning [for women,] but there is a lot of work left to do.”

How Bladder Control Issues Helped This African American Woman Founder Grow Her Startup by 400% in 10 Months

Crystal Etienne never expected to be grateful for having issues with bladder control. But three years into her blossoming business focused on helping people with incontinence, PantyProp, she’s exactly that. These days the New York-based founder may also be grateful that her biggest competition recently saw its reputation tarnished. 

That company, Thinx, which was founded in 2014 and bills itself as the “period proof” panty maker, recently parted ways with its star founder and former CEO, Miki Agrawal, after she was accused of sexual harassment and fostering a toxic work environment in 2017. While the company is reportedly now on sounder footing, as the new CEO this week told Racked, the PR crisis that ensued has no doubt given founders like Etienne room to stretch within the increasingly crowded absorbent underwear market. 

“We have more options [than Thinx,]” says Etienne, describing how PantyProp sets itself apart from the competition with its lines of swimsuits, panties and sleep pants. Plus, she notes that as the CEO, she takes a different type of approach: “There are no gimmicks in our marketing. We just tell you what our product is, what it will help you with it, and we’re straight to the point.” 

Worry-Free Undies

Of course, Etienne didn’t wait for Agrawal’s fall before dreaming up her business idea. Just weeks after giving birth to her first child, the entrepreneur became a statistic: Etienne is one of the roughly 200 million people globally who experiences urinary incontinence, but like many of them, she was too mortified to seek help.

“I would laugh or sneeze, and realize I had no control,” Etienne says. “But who in their 20s wants to wear an adult diaper?”

It wasn’t until more than a decade later, when her daughter felt ashamed of her own period–fearing that others would notice her blood-soaked swimsuit and laugh–that Etienne took matters into her own hands. In 2015, she launched the New York-based e-commerce seller of liquid-absorbent swimwear, activewear, shorts and undergarments. Unlike traditional sanitary pads, which are often infused with polyethylene and polypropylene, Etienne says her patent-pending linings are completely chemical-free. “Right now, there are a lot of people shifting away from sanitary pads,” she tells Inc. “We are a health leisure brand that you can just wear, and not have to worry about.”

CREDIT: Courtesy PantyProp

Customers seem to agree. Last year, the company more than doubled its revenue, notching $1 million in sales, up from just $300,000 in 2016. Heading into 2018, PantyProp is preparing to launch a wholesale arm, and it recently scored distribution at select Macy’s locations. What’s more, Etienne insists that PantyProp–which to this point has been entirely bootstrapped–is profitable.

Despite the competitive landscape for period-proof undies, Etienne insists that hers is a different type of company: Whereas Thinx is uncompromisingly feminist in tone–and launched as a menstrual underwear brand, specifically–PantyProp targets both men and women, feminine care and incontinence alike. She notes that men currently account for roughly 5 percent of the customer base. PantyProp also offers a wider array of products including leggings, swimsuits, pajama pants and more.

Unique challenges

The competition aside, there are other challenges that Etienne sees as unique to her company, and particularly as an African American founder. When pitching venture capitalists she says she experienced outright discrimination. “Investors [said] they loved me, they loved the company and the solution, but they couldn’t give me a straight answer about why they wouldn’t invest,” she explains. “It goes back to, they’re not comfortable with an African American woman running the show on [her] own.” Ultimately, Etienne has needed to keep to a shoestring budget, and to that end has spent nothing on marketing to date: “We only spent exactly where it was needed,” she adds, referring to manufacturing in particular. 

Of course, it’s still early days for PantyProp. Etienne may need to raise capital eventually, especially as she continues to ink partnerships with big box retailers. Her projections, which include lassoing $25 million in sales over the next two years, should help. And though Etienne continues to distance her company from the competition, she remains self-assured. “I’ve always believed women can do anything,” she adds.