How the Founder and CEO of Embodied Labs Broke the “Tech Bro” Mold, Won $50,000 from the DOE, and Turned Childhood Pain into the Next Wave of Virtual Reality
By Justine Moore Luparello
Carrie Shaw is an unassuming, soft-spoken woman who exudes kindness. In a startup world recently rocked by sexist scandals fostered by the “Tech Bro” culture, Shaw uses technology to try to erase the lines of race, age, and ego to create insight into the lives of others. After earning the Creative Startups’ $25,000 investment in 2016, Embodied Labs has gone on to win numerous tech competitions—most recently being named one of five finalists in the Federal Department of Education’s EdSimChallenge. For that top position they won $50,000 and a chance to compete for $430,000 this fall. Calling from her new home in Los Angeles, Carrie talked with me and shared the secret to her fortitude, the importance of diversity, and how Creative Startups helped to launch it all.
Tell me about becoming a finalist in the EdSimChallenge:
It’s really exciting to be part of creating something innovative for the upcoming generation of learners. Also, this last award gave us enough financial security to where we can now really focus on product and stop actively fundraising until the fall—which is a huge help—so now all my time can go towards the business.
What do you think about the possibility of winning the $430,000?
One of the five teams will be chosen and if it were us—that would be huge. We’re all just working hard and crossing our fingers as much as we can!
What’s Embodied Labs working on now?
We’re doing a couple things. We’ve shot two documentaries that we are now in post-production with and then we’re creating an “embodied” experience, kinda like the one we made as our proof of concept. We have customers in a few different groups: In higher education we have customers that are using The Alfred Lab, our first module, in their geriatric education curriculum for health science programs. We’ve also been working with a long-term care facility in Chicago and they’re implementing our software as a required staff training. Just yesterday, Erin and I did a ‘train the trainers’ course so that we could certify all their lead nurses, art therapists, HR and operations staff to know how to use VR tech and our software so that 100% of their staff can go through different modules every quarter.
How has this helped the disabled community?
One of our documentaries followed 3 different people with macular-degeneration and hearing loss and we’ve been putting that together to be an immersive, interactive teaching tool. I think we’ve really been able to connect with the disability community and include them and their voices in this and hopefully there will be people in that community who will be able to come back and say that it changed their care.
Biggest surprise about starting a company?
Understanding that what it takes to run a business is a process, not an event. I can almost compare it to growing up; there’s a lot of awkward stages. It’s a surprise how much I’m always learning and that knowledge has to take place over time and has to come with experience.
Dreams for the future:
I really like combining science and art and interactive media as an education tool. Probably honing in on some of the things that I love the most about developing this company but that I haven’t been able to develop because of time and needing to focus. I’ve also become very excited about being able to be involved in eventually mentoring founders, especially women and minority founders, to help promote diversity in the tech startup base. I’ve definitely seen a need.
What’s it like to be a woman in tech?
Being a woman with a woman-lead business, I have felt the dominating group being white men that either are the ones that own the majority of tech companies, or are also funding them, and I’ve seen why that can be a challenge for other groups besides white men to really get into the space and thrive.
Why do you think this happens?
I think it’s easier to work with someone who is similar to you—I even find myself—I love working with women leaders because we really do speak languages based around the things that we have in common. You don’t know the things that you don’t know, right? Even me as a white woman with access to the resources I’ve had, I’m not really able to see through the eyes of someone who is different than me. I think it's hard for people to see their bias. You don’t have insight into something that you just don’t know exists.
Give me an example?
Sense of humor—there’s been a lot of times I’ve been in rooms where I was the only woman. And just having the “Bro Culture” and talking about sports or joking about things that are not gonna resonate with women. This one time, I was at a VC pitch night, this guy was pitching a soap for the millennial woman and their secondary audience was the millennial woman’s mother. I was the only woman in a room of 65 plus men and at some point they started joking that sex drive changes as women get older and they felt comfortable making jokes and laughing about that because, except for me, they were in a room with only men. But it made me really uncomfortable.
But I also talked on a panel about women investing in women and I had never been in a room of all females before—especially all women in the business space—and I think we had a bunch of humor that would not resonate with men. So…
The strength of diversity:
Because Embodied Labs co-founding team is half women, half men—having that balance lets us really be able to communicate with lots of different people. Tech fields are really male-dominated, but the people that can benefit from the technology we’re making—that’s not gender specific. I think that’s partly why we’ve been so successful, because of our diversity. Erin has a couple of kids who are biracial, and she’s a young Gen Xer, versus Tom and Ryan and I who are millenials; Ryan is half Puerto Rican. And then our life experiences and culture and upbringing are all really different and that helps us to be successful.
What did you get from Creative Startups?
The support network of having a whole program behind us that wants us to be successful. Our first outside investor was a Creative Startups mentor and we were able to develop a track record across eight months before she decided to invest in our first fund-raising round. Also, we all really needed a lot of acceleration on what we knew about business. None of us had started a business before or had come from business backgrounds. We all needed to come in and work on that foundational knowledge.
One of the best things about the CS Accelerator?
For me some of the lasting things that came from Creative Startups were in the Deep Dive; especially where we got to connect in person with all these people we had met virtually. I was able to say: Here are people that resonate with our business as another founder, or a mentor, or a future investor. We took those things away and said how can we continue to work together to make the company stronger? An accelerator is important but it’s not just about the information you get—the things that outlast the accelerator, to continue supporting your company, are really helpful.
Warning to other startups:
I’ve had a couple surprising experiences that have made me pretty on guard against investors that are bad people with bad motives; needing to be very protective and skeptical and get to know your investors well. You don’t want someone to become an investor that you realize doesn’t have good character or is not in the correct alignment with your company mission.
When things get hard, what keeps you going?
The reason why we started this business in the first place: to bring a voice and education to vulnerable populations. That was inspired by my mom’s struggle with early onset Alzheimer’s disease. I definitely think about her a lot and how this is bringing something positive to the world after going through something that was hard and sad for our family and for her. And our investors—I see them as part of our team and our success is their success. That’s very motivating to me.
What’s the one thing you would tell a young entrepreneur out there?
Welcome failure. Never be afraid of failure. Don’t let the possibility of something not working the way you want stop you from trying something new. The majority of what we do, sure we’ve won some awards, but the majority of what we’ve done is have lots of small and medium and even bigger failures. We’ve learned from our mistakes and that’s the only way we’ve been able to have the successful things happen. And to always tackle ideas with a team of people that do things differently and think about things differently than you do because nothing is ever solved by one individual.
The Creative Startups Accelerator is the leading business development program for the Creative Economy. Since 2014, our nonprofit has hosted 41 startups that have gone on to raise $9 million in private investment and generate $11 million in new revenues. Most impressively, 90% of our alumni companies are still going strong. Funded by the National Science Foundation and the Kauffman Foundation, Creative Startups' rigorous 8-week ONLINE course with 1-week Deep Dive in New Mexico, was designed by current and former Stanford educators. We also provide world-class mentors, access to angel and venture investors, and a pitch competition where the top three startups split a pool of $50,000 in seed-stage investment.
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