Employees are taught how to deal with unconscious bias through a 360-degree virtual reality experience.
London CNN Business  — 

If you were at work and one of your colleagues made a racist remark, would you challenge it or let it pass?

This scenario is one of the many that US startup Vantage Point provides in its training program to tackle racial discrimination in the workplace.

Founded in Los Angeles in 2017, the company offers courses on diversity, inclusion and unconscious bias. Using virtual reality (VR) headsets, employees are immersed in scenarios based on real events, where they watch a scene of discrimination unfold and are asked how they would respond.

Morgan Mercer, the company’s founder, is a biracial woman who has been subjected to both racism and sexism in the workplace. She wants people who haven’t had these experiences to understand how it feels, and she believes VR technology is invaluable in getting the message across.

“I realized how effective it is in truly putting you in a person’s shoes,” she tells CNN Business. “Giving you a first person experience of what it’s like for somebody to flinch every time you walk by them, or what it’s like for somebody to yell words at you on the street, or what it’s like for somebody to stand a little bit too close.”

Morgan Mercer founded Vantage Point in 2017.

On average, nearly a third of adults surveyed in the United States, United Kingdom, France and Germany have experienced or witnessed racism in the workplace, according to research from job and recruitment website Glassdoor. That kind of environment can make it harder to retain staff from ethnic minorities.

What’s more, diversity is good for the bottom line. According to a 2020 McKinsey report, companies with a more diverse workforce are likely to be more successful. Surveying 1,000 companies in 15 countries, it found businesses in the top quartile for ethnic diversity were 36% more profitable than those in the bottom quartile. Companies with more than 30% women executives tended to outperform those with fewer.

In someone else’s shoes

Initially, Vantage Point focused on providing anti-sexual harassment training for companies, but now it covers all kinds of bias, from gender inequality to bullying based on sexual orientation or race. This summer, it launched a course covering systemic racism and the issues raised by the Black Lives Matter movement.

The startup has raised almost $4 million in funding, and has worked with companies across the United States, United Kingdom, Ireland and France. Clients include US telecommunications giant Comcast, international law firm Latham and Watkins, and data analytics firm Looker, which was acquired by Google in February for $2.6 billion.

Now a diversity business partner for Google Cloud, Cornell Verdeja-Woodson was Looker’s global head of diversity, equity and inclusion in 2019, when the company enrolled roughly 200 employees globally in Vantage Point’s training.

“Like most organizations, we were focusing on how to diversify our workforce,” he tells CNN Business.

Verdeja-Woodson wanted to go beyond traditional training methods to educate employees about unconscious bias in the recruiting process. “We can sit in training and have slide decks and talk about it, but people want to see it,” he says. “It’s not until they are in the experience that they go ‘Whoa, this makes more sense to me now.’”

While he admits it’s difficult to quantify the training’s direct impact, Verdeja-Woodson says feedback from employees was overwhelmingly positive. There was increased awareness around the topic of unconscious bias and increased confidence in tackling the problem.

Mercer says companies measure success in different ways, including looking at improvements in staff retention.

“It’s incredibly important to be bringing varied perspectives to the table, because that’s where you’re truly going to have the mixture,” she says. “The vibrant perspectives and ideas that will truly create the learning, the education, the innovation, and the inspiration that companies strive so hard to foster internally.”