Profiles in Leadership: Jodi Schiller

WITI News Staff

January 28, 2020

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By Nancy Wolford

Today we do a wide ranging interview with Jodi Schiller, trail-blazing feminist and serial entrepreneur in software development, cryptocurrencies, marketing and PR. In addition to a substantial educational pedigree, Jodi has marked out the eclectic and successful career path that often comes with the territory of driven, curious and creative executives. Jodi was brought to our attention by some people who knew her work in San Francisco with ARVR Women and also with her own company, New Reality Arts. She was described with words like,"courageous", "bold", "outspoken", "brilliant", "hard working", "intensely creative", "trustworthy" and "caring". Many of the people we spoke with commented that the augmented and virtual reality industry, now rife with female CEO's and female creators, had Jodi to thank for laying a strong foundation early in the industry's infancy through the creation of a thriving ecosystem and community with intelligent, inclusive,and targeted event and social media programming in the midst of a deeply misogynistic "bro" culture, breaking down the many closed doors for ARVR female entrepreneurs and female ARVR creators.

Nancy: Jodi, you were brought to our attention for your founding and leadership of ARVR Women in San Francisco, an advocacy group for women in the field of augmented and virtual reality. We were told you played a large part in its early growth and that you encountered significant misogyny and systemic oppression along the way. Can you tell us how this began?

Jodi: Yes, sure. When I first fell in love with augmented and virtual reality and started going to the professional meetups in the area, I noticed there were very few women in attendance. I had started doing business development for an augmented reality company and was also interested in starting my own development company, I had a lot of ideas. I also strongly felt that with its combination of creativity and tech and its healing capacity that this would be a tech women would love to dive into. I guess I also wanted more women doing this work with me. I was thinking about my daughter and her interests and all the traditional barriers to women in tech. I thought now was a good time, and this was a great technology to start breaking down the barriers. I started speaking to various men and women in the industry and many of them encouraged me. They agreed that there was a need for a supportive female community in the industry. I was invited to attend a meetup as a "luminary" with a lot of other female powerhouses in the field. I was utterly inspired by them and by the immense energy and focus of the women in attendance, how passionate we all felt about the potential of this technology to change the world for the better. It was so exciting, fresh,and futuristic.

Everything seemed pretty positive at that point. I hadn't noticed much misogyny except for one minor strange incident and one comment. As I launched our Meetup, I got a message through Meetup from a "man's emancipation" group threatening to sue us if we didn't let men come to the meetup. Since, of course, we wanted men at our meetup, I just ignored them. But it was weird, no preamble, just an aggressive cease and desist letter. Also, one of the other women launching this with me told me this horrifying story about how an unethical couple of guys hacked her email account, stole her data, and used it to launch their own media/event startup in ARVR. I can't go into the details, there was legal action involved, but we decided we would be wary of them.

Other than that though, we had a lot of men and women at our meetups right from the beginning gung-ho about getting more women interested and engaged in the field. Also, our Meetup hosts, Thoughtworks, were amazing. They talked the talk and walked the walk in terms of empowering women in tech.

At that first Meetup, we took a poll of what the attendees would be most interested in.Their main priorities were getting training, learning how to create these experiences, getting jobs,and getting funding for their projects. From that meeting, I felt like I had my marching orders.

We continued to meet every month with the Meetup, by then it was only me doing it. On the educational mandate, I gathered a team of people together and we launched a school teaching the basics of creating VRAR experiences. Our first cohort was 15 women, including me, because I wanted to learn too. It was hosted a Unity headquarters, the leading software platform company in the industry. It was entirely free and lasted six weeks, meeting for 2.5 hours every Wednesday. It was an exhilirating and empowering experience for all of us I think.

We also developed and launched the first ARVR job fair in the city.

Nancy: Had you done anything like this before professionally?

Jodi: Yes, I've done various kinds of community building and organizing my whole life, in addition to content creation. Also, I'm a masters level therapist and I've created many therapeutic curriculums and schools, so all the things I was doing with ARVR leveraged that experience except with a very different subject matter. This was my first foray into the tech space. I was excited about our school and had managed to pull together an amazing team of dedicated and passionate women as committed as I am to empowering women and teaching them to code. One of them had already developed a curriculum that she used as the base. Also, before I launched this school, I had launched a class back in my home suburb for children. I firmly believe everybody should know how to code. It should be the primary other language that we teach children in school, how to talk to computers.

Nancy: So are you a coder now?

Jodi: No! I wish. No, when I'm creating applications, I hire coders. I think I have learned enough about how the overall process works. Creation is creation. If you're creating something, at least for me, I use a similar process every time that works for me, whether its producing a play or developing a software application.

The school did a lot more than teach the basics of the technology. As I said, It also empowered all of us who were a part of it. We felt stronger together.

Nancy: Those are a lot of proud looking women!

Jodi: Yeah. Here's where things got strange though, and I guess you could say ominous. Up until this point, I had, what turned out to be, a blissfully ignorant feeling that finally we were all on the same page with this technology, Kum-Ba-Ya, women and men working together in harmony and respect. I probably felt this because there were so many guys assisting us and attending our meetups. Our mission was 50/50 in 5, or gender parity in the industry in five years. I didn't feel that things were perfect, I had to scrounge to get enough financial support from companies in the industry for food and beverages. I would have thought this would be a great way for a company to show its real interest in diversity, give ARVR Women some money for its meetups. But usually, it came out of my pocket. So, not perfect, but overall, the industry felt supportive. Until that day, something happened. I have to give the back-story on this to explain:

When I first started ARVR Women and was talking to various people in the industry, a powerful female executive in the gaming industry introduced me to a young woman in LA that was also organizing women in the industry. We chatted and decided we would both start a facebook page group. She seemed well-connected to this same ARVR media event company and they were helping her out, quite a bit. She was writing articles for them and they were introducing her as the face of diversity in the industry to all the CEOs that lead the heavy hitters in the industry. At the time, I thought all the support she was getting was yet another sign that the wind was at our backs. It seemed like a great thing.

The day after we completed our school and handed out diplomas turns out was International Womens Day. I get a call from this young woman saying she wanted to write up a brief profile of me for the press, specifically, this ARVR media group. I was excited to get her call, but told her I had a much better piece of news for the industry about women. I told her we had just finished up our first class for the ARVR Women's School, and could we publish this article instead? She said yes, but it had to be done by the end of that day. So I reached out to our school team and we whipped into action. Together we created a brief and powerful story about the first free women's coding school in the world for ARVR. I sent it to her, along with our awesome picture, and shortly after she responded that they weren't going to publish it. I was flabbergasted. This was news. I was used to doing PR for theater companies, and in my experience, the press was always thrilled to announce exciting things like this coming out of non-profits. I asked her why, and she said the CEO of this media group felt that it was too much like PR. I was utterly baffled by this. What does that mean? I kept trying to get a more specific response delineating what they felt was news and what they felt was "PR". This was clearly news. No one was making any money. It was completely about the social good and it should have been exciting for her considering her stated commitment to diversity in the field. Nothing was adding up.

So I asked her, ok, so what do we need to do to get some press from them? We were hoping to spread our model globally. We were hoping to get some funding for our good works. How could we get their support? To which she responded, what we might do was reach out to some student reporter to come and report on our meetup and if they liked that article, they would publish it, but it couldn't come from us. Obviously, this was both ludicrous and unfair. That's not how non-profits and the media work together. Her unquestioning behavior around this ridiculously crafted "process" and the media company's refusal to support our diversity initiatives contradicting their own stated position made no sense on the face of it. Offended for all these women participating so determinedly in our program, I pushed back around this. Out of that, the CEO for the media company and I scheduled a call.

The CEO was supercilious on the call, mostly angry at me for daring to push back against his directives and his representative, the young woman. I tried to explain to him how helpful he could be to diversity if he could get the word out about what we're doing, attend one of our meetups, maybe partner with us on something. Their office was right down the street from our Meetup location. He mostly spent the call harangueng me for daring to question him, for daring to confront this young woman, the leadership of "women in VR", his representative, and told me over and over again, in so many words, what a stupid, meaningless female I was and that nothing we were doing at ARVR Women was worthy of news. Seriously. It was eye opening and nothing good came of that call. Suspecting something strange might happen on that call, I had asked him if it would be alright to record it in the beginning, to which he adamantly refused.

Nancy: That's terrible. Was this an important media source for the industry?

Jodi: Yes! I would say at the time it was at the nexus of the ARVR industry!

Nancy: How were they funded?

Jodi: Good question. A bunch of VCs were handing these guys millions of dollars to do whatever they wanted. Meanwhile, nothing was coming to us, with all the amazing things we were accomplishing, on a shoestring. Mostly my shoestring. We couldn't even get press.

Obviously this was a depressing turn of events. I spoke with my team about how we should handle these guys. Some of them wanted to reach out again, but others, including myself, felt that before that happens, we would need to see a genuine commitment to diversity. For example, when they could be partnering with our women, women either already working in the industry or wanting to, for their professional industry events, they partnered with a company called "Models in Tech". A company which on their website stated that they had women for hire as attendees and hostesses for tech events that were both "Pretty AND Smart". Turns out, in a further example of self-dealing, the CEO founded that company. At least, that's what it said on their website when I looked.

My team was incredibly uncomfortable even talking about this situation. I could see, they were scared. They didn't want to piss these guys off. And that put us in a terrible position. Just by existing, we upset them. They were the ones being handed the money, and they were the ones being given the easy access to power. We were mostly ignored. This was the worst of Silicon Valley in action. I would love to see all their funders called out and publicly shamed, especially considering what came later. These guys weren't bright young things, far from, they were average IQ'd, immature, inexperienced, immoral, and full of themselves, but they played well in Silicon Valley. They were good-looking young white guys who spoke a good game and carried baseless amounts of confidence in themselves. That's the real story. Until the deal flow and access to power starts flowing in much greater measure towards the capable, creative, brilliant and experienced women in tech, we will be made victims. That's what I was learning. This situation, obviously, has to change.

So the upshot was for ARVR Women and for our school, we would just keep doing what we were doing and ignore them as much as possible. We carried on with trying to start a non-profit for the school and programming regular Meetups. For my part, I had started my own software development firm and was busy building some exciting applications and putting together a sales platform to reach new customers.

Nancy: Do you have any ideas about how to get more funding to women?

Jodi: Well, I've had a giant transformation in thought after having gone through this, meeting and speaking with so many people, and being privy to a lot of secrets. I used to think that funding for women was about better communication, more education for the funders, raising their consciousness around sublimated misogyny, getting better applications from the women. But I don't think that anymore.

Nancy: What do you think now?

Jodi: I think the VC's know precisely what they're doing and why. I think they want to maintain control of their mothers, wives and children. I think they are, in a coordinated way, successfully preventing women from gaining access to the halls of power, and to the necessary influx of capital needed for the successful creation of most tech startups.

Nancy: Wow, that's probably right, but so depressing. What do you think should be done about this?

Jodi: I don't exactly know, and I agree it's depressing. I'm thinking along the lines of revolution, of strongly worded laws and protections for women, of men and women demanding a change. This is a human rights issue.

Nancy: That sounds right. I know that in your experience in San Francisco, things got worse before they got better.

Jodi: Yes, so here we were carrying on our programming and along comes the regular gaming industry conference, I forget exactly what summer this was. At these conferences, there are usually parties hosted by businesses in the industry at the end of the day. At the conference this year, some of the big players did some, at best, tone deaf shenanigans. One was at the Microsoft party, there was some models in skimpy "schoolgirl" uniforms dancing.

I had several calls from women the next day after attending this now notorious ARVR media startup's event. They told me that one of the VR experiences at their party was a porn experience simulating a rape. Both of them said the experience was unmarked and that a woman present had talked them into doing it without much description. Both women had a shocking and unwanted experience. Both also said, they weren't against porn, but the nature of this experience was nothing they would ever have wanted. To give you some context, this VR experience was created by an online porn company that has, on its opening link, a huge warning; Bondage, Rape, Enslavement EXTREME porn, so no one goes in there without notice. Here, at this professional party, was a simluated rape expereince without notice from that same company. Part of the power of VR is its ability to make you feel like what is happening is real. This was dangerous. I'm a trained psychotherapist, what if one of these women had a rape experience in her past? Being duped into a rape simulation VR expereince in a crowded, public place might easily have triggered PTSD, and put her at risk. These women didn't know who to call, so they both called me telling me how horrified and appalled they were.

I didn't go to any of these events myself, but I wanted to find out more about what happened, if anyone else had experienced this. I turned to social media. At this point, there were two huge facebook groups for women in ARVR, one started by that woman in LA and one by me. I posted this question on both sites. Here is the posted response from one of the CEO's of that startup:

Nancy: wow. And you've said the diversity that they had at their events was because they partnered with "Models in Tech".

Jodi: Yeah.

Nancy: And he says you've accused them of glorifying rape, but that's nonsense.

Jodi: Yes, I was just trying to figure out what happened. It was an innocent question. But since he responded, a simple, "Hey, we'll better warn about such an experience next time" would have totally mollified me. It gets worse, here was the response from the moderater, that same young woman. Now remember, this Facebook group is called "Women inVR', this is a forum for bringing up issues about women in the industry, ostensibly.

Nancy: wow. She's not even making sense.

Jodi: No. It's just a blatant distortion of my comments in an obvious attack on me to protect these guys. After this posting, my team took to calling that group the "fake women in VR". I didn't spend much time on that page, but some of my teammates did. They said there were lots of great women on there and lots of great discussion, but anytime something critical was posted about this particular arvr media startup, this young woman came out punching. She was there attack dog.

There were lots of consequences and responses to this thread to my inbox. First, one of the women that came to me about this in the beginning dropped right out of the industry. She was experienced and gifted, but didn't want to be bullied for having a job she liked. Who knows how many others did the same that I don't know about?

I got a private message from a guy who liked to think of himself as a gender warrior, he wasn't. He asked what reaction did I think I was going to get on this media arvr's own Facebook group? I responded, it's called women in VR. he said, yes, but everyone knows it's really belongs to them. I'm pretty sure just about none of those women knew that. I didn't even.

Finally, I got a very disturbing email from the same powerful woman in the gaming industry who had introduced me to that young woman. She included attachments of several articles about women who had been targeted by gamers for either saying pro-female things or for creating games designed for women to enjoy. Imagine that crime. These women were violently threatened, there addresses made public. One woman had a game created about her with her likeness as the protagonist and the whole point of the game was to shoot and rape her in various bloody ways. One went to Congress to demand more protection, but was ignored.

And the note this powerful woman sent me was, "I'm a mother with two children at home. I have to be very careful. " She never responded to me again.

Nancy: Do you think she was warning you?

Jodi: Yeah. That's how I read it. This brave woman was risking herself for a career she loved, because she did have a reputation for speaking up about women. But I think she may have felt like I was a bull in a China shop, clueless to the danger. She didn't want to be standing next to a potential target, me. That's when it hit me, how deep the fear goes for speaking up. it's terrorism plain and simple and law enforcement should be treating it that way.

It also put this young woman's covering behaviour in a darker light. She was enabling terrorism against women.

After this, I realized, I don't want to be in a fight with some big dangerous bullies. I had started both ARVR women and the school meaning to hand them off as soon as possible. I've done a lot of non-profit work, I was ready to focus on my own for-profit business. So that's what I did.

I handed off the school to my school committee. Unfortunately, although they talked big, going global, other great expansive ideas, I think either they didn't have the right experience to carry it off or they were scared of this bullying element, but they never did much. They held another round of classes with the backups from the first class, a list I initiated. I'm not sure what else they did after that, if anything.

Iva Leon and Siciliana Trevino took over ARVR women, along with some other amazing women they brought on, and they have done some phenomenal programming. Here's an article about their Restorative Justice program. They also have an amazing website. I'm thrilled with their work and love that they are carrying on my vision for building diversity in the industry.

Nancy: So tell me about your business. How were you funding it? What was it called?

Jodi: My company was called New Reality Arts. I had consulting clients who brought me on either to help them position their ARVR apps in the market or to help them extract best utilisation from the tech for their business. I was also creating our own applications. It was self-funded, I used the settlement from my divorce as the seed. I had an agreement with my ex-husband that gave me a cushion and allowed me to take some chances. I definitely count on that. This was a new and fragile industry, there were a lot of serious questions about timing, whether the zeitgeist was ready, and viability. We hoped it would fly, but we were cautious.

Nancy: What apps did you create?

Jodi: The big one was a micropayment platform for digital assets connecting cryptocurrency and data to ARVR and 3D web. This will be huge one day, but maybe was too forward thinking for now. Another app was a training tool for psychic ability. Then some other cute ARVR applications for marketing purposes. I partnered with some other companies to create a theater piece that incorporates VR, that was fun and powerful. I was also on the IEEE committee for developing global standards for the tech. I was an in-demand speaker at conferences around the world on ARVR and cryptocurrency. I also did several industry-wide surveys, including a trip to China where I interviewed many of the top businesses and startups there to assess application viability and pinpoint global target markets.

Nancy: How did you create these apps? I know you don't code.

Jodi: I worked with partners and teams of engineers around the world. I loved it.

Nancy: Did you ever get any funding?

Jodi: No, but I think the deck is pretty stacked against someone like me. While I got many customer referrals from my speaking engagements, I wasn't getting any from my Silicon Valley contacts. I later learned from several sources that because of my advocacy work, I was being black-balled. I wasn't surprised. People were simply told, don't work with her. And that was all, despite the amazing work I was doing both with ARVR Women and in my business. It sucked.

Nancy: People just kind of accept this injustice don't they? Look at Colin kaepernick. Were you still in contact with ARVR Women?

Jodi: Yes, occasionally things would trickle through.

One day I got a call from an employee at that ARVR media startup. I didn't know him. He told me he wanted me to know that the CEOs of that startup hated me and were out to get me. He said all kinds of evil gets talked about behind their closed doors. He said one of their CEOs was a diagnosed sociopath. I asked him if he believed that I might be in danger. And he said, he couldn't say for sure, but lock my doors,

Nancy: With all these threats going around, were you scared?

Jodi: Definitely, I was, I didn't know what to do.

Nancy: Did you call the police?

Jodi: No, but I should have, I was in denial. I'm not even sure what i was doing that so upset them. Maybe just occasionally posting critical things on our Facebook page?

Nancy: I'm so sorry this happened to you. Were you getting any support from home?

Jodi: No. My ex-husband didn't think I was doing anything important. And when I would come to him scared, for comfort, he would barely pay attention. But yeah, it was scary.

I heard from a female CEO in China about a horrendous experience she had with those same CEOs. They hired her to help them navigate around China when they were there, they made her sleep in the same room as them...then they got some Chinese prostitutes. They made her take the prostitutes home the next day. This woman reached out to another female who she thought was a leader for women in VR. That same girl I've been talking about. The CEO was told by her she better not talk for her own good and I'm sure that woman then ran to those boys with her story.

I was keeping my nose down and staying focused on my work with the support of several male allies when finally the damn broke. A female employee at this startup essentially became a whistleblower and filed a sexual harassment suit against them. All hell broke loose. I got a lot of calls from reporters asking for my perspective. Here, here and here are some of the articles.

At this time, I received yet another warning that my life might be in danger. A male ally, and fierce feminist, called me after he read one of the articles. He had been a game producer and CEO all his career. He told me that if I keep speaking out like that, I could be killed by some random angry male. This was the third time I was being warned my life was at risk, simply for saying women want the opportunity to work in a non-sucky environment in this field. How can that still be so dangerous a thing to say? This is wrong.

My ARVR teammates and I were frustrated that no one spoke of how the "fake women in VR" group had been used to give these dangerous and toxic boys cover. We all felt that in this battle for freedom and equality, we need to find ways to address and call out these false leaders. One of my teammates called her an Ivanka trump kind of woman, but I think they are more Trojan horses. They divide us, and they need to be named for what they are.

Throughout this tsunami of press about this startup, who were at the Nexus of the industry, the "fake women in VR" group continued being yuck. While on our page, we were having all kinds of intense dialogue, lots of articles. It was almost radio silent on their page. Once or twice some of their leadership posted positive things about the media startup, making ridiculous excuses for them. They also said they didn't know what was going on until now.. Of course, this wasn't true, I was telling them, my teammates were, and all kinds of people had spoken to them about what liars these guys were when they said they supported diversity. The problem, as I pointed out on their page, was that they had benefitted hugely by their relationship with these guys. They were double dipping. On the one hand they benefitted from their role as feminist leaders, and on the other they were also benefitting from maintaing, through dogged and aggressive attacks on other women, the status quo, which gave them all the benefits of the "rich white guy network" as well as access to resources and powerful allies not aligned with genuine diversity, just the false messaging of it, for the sake of sales or image. They kicked me off their group for saying that, but it's the truth.

The good news is, that young woman is no longer there. Both those CEOs are gone and I hope they're doing something unpleasant. There are more female CEOs and creators in ARVR than in any other tech, just as I had envisioned. ARVR woman is thriving. The other one even, under different leadership, has done some cool initiatives as well. There is a VC group who only funds women in this industry, which is pretty cool.

Nancy: What's your takeaway from these really awful experiences?

Jodi: I guess the big one is that we need the men to be our heroes. Much more, so much more. They're in much better positions to help us than we are to help ourselves. Look around, we are losing America. This is a war, no one gives up power without a fight. It's about human rights and human dignity, it's about equal access. It's about ensuring everyone has equal access to our guaranteed right to pursue happiness. Draw your swords, bring your honour, and stand with us. This is not a time for nonchalance or somnolence, or some kind of short-sighted pursuit of your own protection. Come out of hiding, speak for us, fight for us.

I had guys tell me ageism was worse than the patriarchy. No, it's not. I'm sure it's there, i'm sure it hurts more directly for you, but no one is threatening your life. We need you to rise above your narcissism, maybe your shame or guilt, see our suffering and our longing for freedom, the same freedom that you enjoy, but we still do not. Are we not your loved ones?

Also, for those of us involved in this battle, we need to find a way to ethically and clearly call out the women amongst us who are giving cover to predators and abusers. This can't be tolerated. How we do this while still staying committed to sisterhood? I'm not sure. But it's corruption at the core, and must be addressed as such.

Nancy: Hearing your story, I feel like I'm talking to Wonder Woman or a Jedi Knight!

Jodi: Aw thanks. Maybe. It's so not as fun and exciting as it appears in the movies. I truly believe that as long as one soul is enslaved, starved, silenced or endangered, we all are. I see this as a war no one who cares about freedom, love or happiness can afford to pretend isn't happening. We are in this together. I hope more and more people are seeing the results of complacency when it comes to human rights, both here in the U.S. and around the world, and that they decide to refuse the status quo, and to join the fight.

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