At the Harvard Innovation Labs, we are always striving for greater representation in our ecosystem. In celebration of Pride Month, we invited LGBTQ+ founders in the Harvard community to talk with us about the problems they are trying to tackle with their ventures. Given the significant challenges that LGBTQ+ entrepreneurs continue to face, we also asked our founders to share their views on the barriers and opportunities ahead for this community. We will continue to share LGBTQ+ founders’ stories as part of our commitment to increasing visibility into our diverse community of Harvard student and alumni entrepreneurs.
How did you get started with Meridian Treehouse?
In spring 2020, I was a guest lecturer at the Harvard Extension School for a graduate design thinking course. There, I connected with HBS student Jason Haggart, co-founder of an immersive strategy incubator where we could discover and solve immersive learning problems and apply them beyond that initial incubator. Meridian Treehouse is an initial contributor of the incubator and we joined the i-lab’s venture program. It was so great to receive guidance from mentors in the tech space. Both of us fell in love with the problem, not the solution.
I’m also a recovering – sometimes relapsing – TV producer who had the crazy notion to jump into the very calm and stable world of live event production and immersive experience innovation! Being a queer founder has allowed me to think differently in every aspect of my life. We kind of have no rules, so it’s a fun place to be.
As a queer founder, what barriers exist for LGBTQ+ entrepreneurs?
A major one is feeling like you don’t belong. That can be hard to overcome when you’re starting a company. If someone pierces your armor along the way, it can cut a lot deeper, I think, if you’re queer than if you’re not. I may have it easier because I’m in an extremely creative field.
Would it be different if I were in a less creative industry? Possibly. I know so many queer folks who have had to switch their pronouns, butch up, “pass,” or dim their light – for very real reasons. Being forced to hide yourself wastes energy. Why spend it on passing instead of learning how to be successful? That wasted energy holds all of us back.
I will also say I would not be the queer person I am now if not for a professor I had at American University who taught an LGBTQ+ documentary course. It’s because of him that I know my history. We lost an entire generation before me. We lost creators, teachers, educators, leaders, elders. I think we’re learning from that now as a community of LGBTQ+ entrepreneurs; we’re willing to be that resource for those coming after us. It’s important that we share our wins and losses and lessons with younger generations to break down barriers.
And what are the opportunities?
Being a cisgender male who identifies as a gay man or, more recently, as queer comes with some privileges and benefits that I must be conscious of. While the queer community has its issues (misogyny and racism, for example), I do think identifying on the LGBTQ+ spectrum means that as entrepreneurs, we have a whole other network of people that we would normally never interact with. It blurs racial boundaries and sexualities and is something that connects us across socioeconomic differences often separated by systemic design and realities. It’s been helpful because I’ve been able to connect with people from many different communities because of that common LGBTQ+ thread.
As an LGBTQ+ founder, you’re hopefully a little more open and understanding. You’ve had the world show you its colors, good and bad. You can adapt. Many LGBTQ+ people have had trials that have tested us and made us develop an internal strength and armor as we chart our own course. Being an entrepreneur means you have to have faith in yourself, push toward goals you want, and find the places where you fit. Then you find a group of people as crazy as you are who are just as scared and creative and excited. There’s incredible community lift in that.
I’ve also gained a new perspective being not only queer, but queer and disabled. It’s changed how I think. I have a new understanding of how we don’t have forever. I’m more present. My morality is more present, my hubris is more in check, I have a new willingness to take risks. Being aware of your intersectionality is helpful. And it’s important to think about who you’re bringing along with you (or not).
What problems are you looking to solve with Meridian Treehouse?
We’re in immersive learning and nonfiction storytelling, two industries going under massive upheavals. Our name says a lot about what we do. The Meridian line is important in geography – it’s a center point, an anchor, and a guide. When we were kids, a treehouse (if we had one) was that place we could go to think and escape from the world into our imaginations. So, Meridian Treehouse is creativity and imagination with a purpose, a guiding line. We’re answering questions like: How does extended reality actually help people in the classroom? How do we use XR to get people to want to learn, to be curious?
For example, we led the development and creation of an amazing piece in partnership with Meta Immersive Learning. Using 7,000 photos that the Apollo astronauts took, we created a 360-degree experience of the lunar landings that became the core of a Smithsonian exhibit. You literally stand on the moon among the pictures that Neil Armstrong took, and when you look down, your shadow is Armstrong’s. That’s where I see the most potential and a problem. How can technology break barriers, reimagine existing assets, and add new layers of richness to an experience we think we all already know? Unfortunately, not every historical moment or story has the traditional media to be fully re-imagined, which is both a problem and opportunity to get creative.
We do immersive education and work with other media, too. We’re working on something called a Multimodal Immersive Learning Experience System (MILES). It brings the delivery system, the ability to do guided group learning and instruction, and the supportive scaffolding and pedagogy around immersive (video, text, handwriting, games, and so on) together for learning guides and educators.
A lot of what we know we learned on the ground. Whether it’s 450 headsets that my team and I created when we worked for National Geographic or the 160 headsets we brought to the University of Oregon to create a unique experience at the School of Journalism and Communication’s Ruhl Lecture, or just pushing forward completely different ways of thinking about immersive, [it’s been wonderful]. We want people to understand XR as tools versus gimmicks or panaceas that somehow can fix everything that doesn’t work in education.
What’s next for Meridian Treehouse?
It feels like everyone in the XR world is running straight for something, that next new thing, but they don’t know what it is. If we all stop and look back, there are a lot of people who don’t understand XR, which creates a divide between innovators and practitioners. If we don’t bridge that divide and bring people along with us, how can we expect others to know that XR can do incredible things – and, just as important, that it can do really bad things, too? How can we help people know how to spot the difference and tip that scale towards its incredible potential and power for good?
At Meridian Treehouse, we want XR to be accessible for everyone. When it’s done right, XR enables people who think, move, and process differently to engage… to do new things.
Meridian Treehouse is a META immersive learning strategic partner. We’re continuing to create a platform that makes fully integrated materials possible as a resource and access point for educators, formal and informal, to provide an effective tool for guided lessons. We want to think differently, we want people to engage with us, and we want to collaborate.
Any final thoughts?
The day before my 34th birthday, I was diagnosed with early onset Parkinson’s disease. I’ve traveled the world and had a very exceptional career: I’ve taken hot air balloon rides over the Serengeti, blown up explosives in the New Mexico deserts, and had access to experts that have changed our world, all in the name of science communication. My goal was always to bring back those stories and share them far and wide. I can still do that, but in a different capacity, and to be honest with myself, for a much shorter time than I ever thought.
My drive to push this industry further, to create experiences that make things accessible, is supercharged now. I’m also about to put my body where my mouth is and have brain surgery soon. My unique procedure will push medical science forward and add new tools to the existing movement disorder treatment strategies. I mean, I’m going to be a cyborg who is trying to help people learn in immersive reality – it’s a Star Trek lover’s dream come true. Of course, my goal is to be more like Data and Seven of Nine than Lore.
It’s a good story, I can’t lie! But if things are bad, how do I make good? That’s the question I ask myself.
Tell us about your venture.
I’m founder and CEO at Growbie, which aims to unlock career success for first generation immigrants. This has been my passion project for the past eight years since I was an undergraduate at Boston University. One of my goals coming to Harvard Business School was to incorporate and scale Growbie. We are transforming what we call growth-mindset newbie immigrants and recent graduates into power connectors. Our primary goal is to help international talent find jobs overseas.
We use a three-step model. First, we focus on helping immigrants learn critical soft skills such as networking, communication, and cultural competence to boost employability. Second, we connect international students with like-minded peers to help them build community. Third, we place recent grads into corporations that need diverse talent.
What are the barriers and opportunities you see for LGBTQ+ entrepreneurs right now?
We are happy to see that there has been new traction with diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives, and in many places in America, our identities are celebrated. This trend of supporting diverse founders can be beneficial and help set us apart. For founders, leaning into your identity can attract people and opportunities to help build your company, serve as your advisors, or even, invest. I know it can be risky and scary to put yourself out there but trust your “chi” will attract the right people to join forces with you.
On the flip side, there is still a long way to go. There are fewer role models for me to look up to, fewer investors, fewer support networks, and fewer accelerators dedicated to supporting LGBTQ+ founders. Many people think supporting DEI – by investing in diverse founders or hiring diverse employees – is more of a PR play. I hold a totally opposite view: You are tapping into an underserved and overlooked market with lots of potential. Representation at scale really matters. There still just aren’t enough of us. I aspire to be a trailblazer and help uplift this community by supporting other LGBTQ+ founders.
What problems do you want to solve with Growbie?
We are solving one of world’s greatest challenges: talent shortage. Here in America, 2.5 million STEM jobs will be unfilled by 2025, based on a recent report from Deloitte. The labor shortage is most severe in the most critical sectors, such as healthcare, technology, and manufacturing. On the other hand, there are one million talented, motivated, diverse high-skill international students in the U.S. There is a shortage, and there is a group of people who can do the job… Why not bridge the gap?
We work with new immigrants as they build their careers, starting with students and young professionals from China. This is a group I come from, a segment that I empathize with, and a community that is dear to my heart. Too often, we feel like outsiders, face tremendous cultural differences, and are far away from our support networks. All these struggles are so real and unique due to our educational system, cultural values, and social context.
How are you applying your own experience as an international student to solve this problem?
There are four big challenges that I experience firsthand as an international student:
1) We need a paradigm shift where we stop equating academic success with career readiness. Growing up in China’s educational system, I spent every single waking second studying. I applied the same academic-focused mindset when attending college in the U.S. But even though I had a 3.7 GPA, I struggled to get an internship. Career readiness goes beyond academic success. There were other key skills, particularly soft skills, that I needed to work on.
2) Lack of networks. I came to the U.S. at 16 by myself, and I barely knew anyone in this foreign land. In planning my career, I had to navigate and struggle on my own. Eventually, I realized one of my biggest networks is Boston University alumni. During my freshman year summer, I sent out 500 cold emails to alums that led to 50+ trips from Boston to New York. Hundreds of cups of coffee later, I landed a banking internship at my dream company Goldman Sachs. That was a BIG aha moment – the best way to land a job in the U.S. was through networking, especially when coming from a less privileged background and attending a non-target school.
3) Cultural differences. If networking is the secret sauce to progressing in your career and in life, why doesn’t everyone do it? Networking is especially difficult for many East Asians. In our culture, we are heavily influenced by Confucius whose values are obedience, modesty, and collectivism. Networking, on the other hand, is about self-promotion. As a result, it took me a while to understand that this is the way to go in America, and it was extremely difficult for me in the beginning because I felt like I was going against the culture that I was raised in. At Growbie, we help international students and first-gen immigrants break down this psychological barrier.
4) Regulatory challenges. For international students to stay in the U.S., companies need to sponsor their work visa. It’s cumbersome, costly, and restrictive (e.g. H1B visa cap).
These four challenges can make landing a job very difficult for international students. Growbie’s approach is to solve these pain points on both the B2C and B2B sides through training, community, and placement.
What’s next for Growbie?
Right now, we’re starting with networking bootcamps. We take our students on a transformational journey to develop networking skills and start building a network. Our 10-day bootcamp takes a newbie on a step-by-step process in networking with live classes, peer learning, and instructor feedback.
On the B2B side, we’re focused on job placement. We’re partnering with employers that are looking for diverse, motivated STEM talent and connecting them to candidates for internships and full-time opportunities.
Please reach out to me at email@example.com if you’d like to collaborate – either to help international students develop their career readiness, or hire them into your companies.