Why I Won’t Promote the Oculus Launch Pad Opportunity (But As An Alum, Here Is My Advice To Those Who Get Accepted)
Hi. My name is Dale Henry and in April of 2016, I was accepted into Virtual Reality (VR) giant Oculus’ inaugural Oculus Launch Pad (OLP) group. According to their website, this group “Now in its second year [as of 2017], Oculus Launch Pad provides women, people of color, members of the LGBTQ community, and people from other underrepresented backgrounds funding and resources to ensure diversity of thought in the VR ecosystem.” Because of the well-documented lack of diversity in SIlicon Valley, the well-documented amount of venture funding that typically overlooks non-white male founders, and because VR is on the cusp of a moment in time where many (including myself) believe it will have a great impact on our culture and society, having a program that ensures diverse voices are heard in this space is a great idea, right? Right. Agreed. However, I catch serious feelings when I read the words from the Oculus website… “funding and resources to ensure diversity of thought in the VR ecosystem”. Each time reading it is basically nails on a chalkboard to me.
As an alum of this program, I have two basic thoughts about it: 1. Your funding model is poor and needs re-evaluation, and 2. If you don’t step up your efforts for this 2017–2018 class from what you did for the first class, your milk-toast approach will do nothing to make real impact on “ensuring” diversity of thought in the VR ecosystem. Here’s why…
Before I go in, two things: I really was grateful for this opportunity, so I don’t want it to come off as 100% “sour grapes” just because I didn’t receive funding, even though some will say that’s what this is. The experience gave me the VR bug, where before it was just an interest. I’m taking the Unity certification course the next time it’s given in LA, and I’m pretty confident I’ll pass because of the work I’ve put in (complete Unity Courseware, hours of Charger Games and Holistic 3D YouTube videos on C#, etc.). Even if I don’t pass the first time, I’m going to take it until I do. I’ve chosen VR development as my career path now, no matter how long it takes. So thanks for that. Second, I’d also like to thank the two women who were our facilitators and guides for the experience, Amy Thole and Ebony Peay Ramirez. I know they fielded hundreds, if not a couple thousand, emails and requests and helped us get our feet underneath us, so to speak. That being said and thanks being given…
Part I: Your funding model is poor and smacks of low expectations.
Case and point for me here was Mark Zuckerberg’s announcement at Oculus Connect 3 (OC3) to add $10million to their diversity fund. The Launchpad group was still waiting to hear about who had gotten funded (we waited 3 months to hear, and they pushed the date back 3 times on us, I believe. Definitely twice for sure). So we were still waiting to hear funding news at OC3, Zuck steps up and says, hey, we’re investing another $10million across 3 programs: VR for Good, Education projects, and, wait for it… Launchpad. The entire Launchpad crew basically jumped up like a Drake clapping gif at the announcement.
The original fund for Launchpad was $250,000 and, initially, we were told between 5–10 people would get funded. Details were 1 person would get 50k, the remaining 200k would be spread out across the remaining 9 winners at different levels. So approximately a 22k average, give or take. But even after Mark F*%king Zuckerberg (all respect due) says they’re adding $10mil to the pool fund, AFTER Palmer Lucky had freshly showed his ass maybe 1–2 weeks prior funding Nimble America and “shitposting” memes, guess how many people got funded? Eleven. Guess how much the fund was to seed these projects? $250,000. Not one penny above the original amount. This, after Palmer acted a fool. After Zuck just told us there’s an extra *few million dollars* in the fund. Seriously? C’mon.
Not that you should throw a party with money because Palmer took a huge L, but if you’re “truly committed to diversity” wouldn’t you put even a little something extra because the mission of what you’re trying to do essentially attempts to counter what Palmer was funding? Now, to be perfectly fair, I could be wrong about the 250k as the amount that was disbursed to the Launchpad winners, but you know what? They didn’t tell us anything about the final amount being different either. But I would bet the entire Sequoia Capital fund they didn’t dip into that extra scratch Zuck was slathering on top of the original 250k. Not one penny. Think about that for a second. Really… what sort of message are you trying to convey here, Oculus?
You don’t hear it? Ok. Here’s your message in an equation:
Extra millions in the fund and no extra disbursement + More opportunity to spread seed funding, but you only add 1 person/project extra = Your funding model is poor.
I’m not going to do the rearview mirror crystal ball trick and try to figure out why you chose to seed the fund the way you did. The chips fell where they lay. Maybe you felt like you didn’t have quality projects to choose from. But from what I can remember, here’s a rundown of some of the opportunities you had in front of you that you didn’t fund: a) a VR app that helped train children how to respond in emergency situations b) an experience which honored Alan Turing by sharing how his story affected millions, from how robotics currently help autistic children, to how minorities are being empowered to become technological entrepreneurs, c) an app for meditation and pain management d) another app which was a scenario trainer for kids on the autism spectrum to practice situations where they may be getting bullied (this one was mine) and e) a climate change app for kids in K-12 where Antarctica was the classroom. This one was connected to climate change researchers at UCLA. These are just a few you passed on, but almost all of the projects I heard about were exciting, relevant, and for the most part, potential money makers. So really, what was the difference between typical venture investing and how you selected winners? Wasn’t the whole purpose of the program to be a little more daring in some of the ideas you invested in? I didn’t get it. And if the problem was you had lots of great ideas, but people really didn’t have good plans for follow through of taking the idea through its execution, well isn’t that the point of having a “mentoring” program?
I’m going to let you in on a secret, Oculus. O.G. Black people have a saying you should know about. It goes, “Scared money can’t gamble, and jealous money can’t work”. It basically means that, if you’re gambling (and as Oculus Launchpad is basically acting as a venture capital agent, you are) you don’t win if you act scared. Fortune rewards the bold and all that. I skipped the “jealous money” part, but you can either find that out on your own or ask a black person over 50. Because Jay-Z gave young people a phrase too… “The game is to be sold, not told”. So if you want to get at me about other ways you could make this program better, you can pay me. I’m happy to help. Instead of scrolling through our Launchpad Group Facebook page and simply taking what you need from us for free. Unity, you can pay me too. Your training materials are extensive, but not geared toward visual learners or artists.
My thing was, and still is, Oculus, why were you so scared to spend this money? Did you think we were unqualified to execute our ideas? Did you not think the ideas were good? Because the answer is not because you didn’t have the money. This is why I come to the conclusion of low expectations. You figured you were throwing the money away (which is essentially the gamble of venture capital) so why spend too much of it? Not exactly the best approach when going about nurturing the next wave of diverse creators to enter the landscape. But these are only my personal feelings on the matter.
Part two. The Milktoast Approach
Milktoast point 1: There is no real mentoring as part of the Launchpad program, as stated in the program description.
Oculus, your latest call for the Launchpad application states on its website that, “Creators receive mentoring, hands-on training, and a free Gear VR to playtest their own games and experiences.” Let me just stop you right there. If by mentor you mean that you will bring 100 people to Facebook HQ for a one day training, then ok. But if anyone reading this gets accepted to the program and expects any sort of ongoing support for your learning that lasts longer than the day you are there, you will be mistaken. Hello, Oculus! #MissedOpportunity to do the very thing you’re trying to achieve, which is get more people of color, women, and LGBT people into the VR creator space. There’s a Medium post by Brian Brackeen of Kairos that parallels what I’m trying to say here, and I think he actually does a better job of it. You can find his post here.
Milktoast point 2: Non-verbal communication is communication, i.e. The Palmer situation.
I mentioned earlier how Palmer’s funding of alt-right memes came to light just before we got to OC3 in October, 2016. When the OLP group got to OC3, they were hosting a diversity luncheon for us, and we were all kind of holding our breath like, they *have* to say something, right? I mean, support for groups like those are exactly the reason a program like Launchpad is supposed to exist, right? Let’s just pause for a moment about who the audience was here for a signature “investing in you” luncheon: Black, brown, gay, trans, female. Be that as it may, we didn’t hear word one about where Palmer stood. Or Oculus as a company for that matter. There was no official statement from the company or to the group to say, hey, Palmer’s opinions are his own and everyone is entitled to them, but they have nothing to do with the mission of this group or our philosophy as a company. Nothing like that ever came from Oculus officially. This, even though at the luncheon, Oculus did its best to keep the media out of it and not speaking directly to any of the Launchpad participants. I’m just saying. It felt inauthentic to me.
To go even further, here we were excited to have a luncheon whose theme was diversity, where there were a couple hundred people from all aspects of the VR industry, and where our OLP group were featured guests. Imagine my surprise at the fact that the two Oculus employees who were sitting at my table had no idea what the Launchpad program was. I mean, they had no idea. To be fair, I’m positive they weren’t the only employees in the room to be in the dark. Even though these employees were at a luncheon specifically for diversity. I’m not blaming the employees. This just tells me that management didn’t do their job to let the company employees know that this program existed. The non-verbal communication here is that the program is a low-priority. But seriously, why are you asking employees to come to a very fancy lunch when they have no idea why they’re there, other than to fill asses in the seats? You didn’t think OLPs would ask questions? You didn’t think we would ask what they were saying officially about Palmer Lucky to staff at the company? People of color are *famous* for asking white people uncomfortable shit. C’mon son. The fact we wouldn’t is just silly.
In Palmer’s (somewhat) defense, when we had our 1 day training in May, 2016, he came and made himself available to us for over 2 hours. If you’re a multi-millionaire and have a company to run, I would imagine that your time is one of the most valuable commodities you possess. Giving over 2 hours of it to a room full of people you don’t know, but whose potential you were curious about, is a statement in itself. Non-verbal though it was. I remember appreciating it. I didn’t agree with his politics, and doubt I would today, but I appreciated the help and feedback he gave to everyone who asked it of him that day. So, just know I’m not trying to be an ass here. I really want what Oculus is offering to deliver on what they’re selling and be the best program it can be. I want the program to change people’s lives. And not just the ones who are within the Launchpad group. I want the program impact to be larger than 1 degree of separation. Oculus, you should too.
Milktoast point 3: Your evaluation criteria for earning funding.
Future OLPs: In case they decide not to share it with you, here is the rubric for project evaluation that they gave us AFTER we submitted our projects. We didn’t find out what they were looking for until the email came out telling us who the winners were. So how were we supposed to know that we should focus in these areas if you don’t tell us until after you’ve already selected the winners? Weird, right?
Anyway, future OLPs, here it is:
Kind of a crappy rubric, no? Not exactly specific about what they’re looking for and how those points of interest may be weighted. My point is, have them explicitly tell you what they’re looking for well before you submit your projects. We had no idea. Not 1 clue. What are the priorities for what they’re seeking? Sellability, innovation, creativity, beauty, using your damn touch control inputs? What? Make them make it plain up front so it’s not some grand Wizard of Oz beyond the curtain situation. I myself didn’t receive any specific feedback about my project, though I’ve spoken to people in the program who did. The unevenness of that irked me as well. If you’re trying to get more people involved in the space, wouldn’t you at least give a little feedback to everyone to keep people engaged in projects they may be working on? You want them to stay in the space. Seems reasonable to me.
Essentially my point for The Milktoast Approach is this: You (Oculus/Silicon Valley/venture capital) talk a great game about how, as developers, marginalized groups are these wonderfully fertile grounds to, well, develop. Grounds are to be tended, toiled, and nurtured. And yet, your actions don’t match your words. The way you’re treating it, all you see is B-grade commodity, at best. Not purpose, not mission, not democratization of the space for those you seek to serve… Sales. Of goods that aren’t as valuable as those you would usually buy.
In my opinion, your actions, as reflected with the inaugural cohort, were those of an opportunist. Down for the glamour shot PR that black, brown, gay, trans, and females give you, but unwilling to put your money where your mouth is. Even when you have the money. We’re not talking scarcity of resources here at Oculus/Facebook. We’re talking diversity as a low priority, and a lack of motivation because you can’t see the money shot. Yet. But as Arlan Hamilton, principal at Backstage Capital, says (and everyone in the Launchpad group should get to know who she is AND her “Bootstrapped VC” podcast), “It’s not about “helping” [black and brown] founders, it’s about fueling an untapped ecosystem so that you may be lucky enough to reap the rewards in years to come.”
My major gripes having been shared, here are some things *I* would do if I went through the program again:
- On the day you travel to FB HQ Get them to show you how to submit your final project through the Oculus developer portal, and have a video of how to submit ready for you to follow. I remember the final day we were all submitting our projects, many of us struggled with getting our projects uploaded. The directions provided are NOT intuitive, and for noobs, are in a completely unfamiliar language. I remember that some of us, including myself, couldn’t figure out how to do it at the last second and so we submitted youtube links to a demo of our project. I’m still not sure to this day if anybody really looked at my project
- Don’t put much (hardly any) time into the development blog about your project. They told us it would be considered in the evaluation of our projects but we never saw any evidence that this was the case. I put a lot of time into those, which means it was time I could’ve been developing or learning something else.
- Oculus, you never really engaged the group and said, hey guys, how is this going? What are we getting right? What could we improve? Are there questions you have about what we expect of you? Of what you as a group can and should expect of us in a mentoring capacity? Have it be more of a dialogue than a 1-sided conversation.
- Here’s something that was big for me, but each individual is going to have to have their own “come to Jesus moment” about… what do you speak up about when things don’t feel right? The question will always be in the back of your mind that, if you say something/anything, you’ll put yourself in a position not to be funded. The best example of this I can think of happened when, while we were going through this experience, news broke about Palmer Lucky and his alt-right meme support. Thankfully one person from our group had the balls to speak truth to power, and wrote a Medium post 100% taking Palmer and Oculus to task about his comments (a black woman will always be responsible for saving the world, btw). You can read A.M. Darke’s post here. And you absolutely should. It’s awesome. But believe me, this will haunt you. Even as I’m writing this, in the back of my mind I’m wondering how it might affect my chances if I try to submit something again. So my advice is, stand in your truth as much as possible. Be your authentic selves. If 1 ‘no’ will stop you from following through on your project, maybe you should be working on one where 100 “no” answers won’t stop you.
- Just because this opportunity ultimately turns into a competition on the day you submit your projects, that doesn’t mean you should treat it that way while you’re learning in the group. We didn’t. Our Facebook Group was probably one of the most generous and supportive portals for resources and answers that you could find in the VR space. We cheered each other on the whole way. The approach we took was that, “a rising tide lifts all boats”. I would recommend you try to do the same.
- Ask to see the NDA you’ll have to sign if your project is chosen to win the contest. Ask to see this before you submit your project. There was a sense of hesitation among the group once the winners were announced. Even with the people that won, not everyone jumped to accept the money right away. I would want to know why. Start with the NDA
Future Launchpadders, the responsibility for 99.9% of your learning will fall squarely on your own shoulders. You will be given no framework or guidelines of what you should study, what YouTube, Unity, or Microsoft tutorials are quality material (most tech tutorials assume LOTS of prior knowledge), nor will any suggestions for how to build a community of shared learning within your cohort be provided to you after you leave Oculus. But you can ask almost anyone in the O.G. Launchpad Facebook group and we’ll help you (offline, please).
To Oculus itself:
Look, this may be amateur hour and the chump change disbursement for you, but for us it means something different. A lot different. To us, an opportunity like this means freedom. A quick story. My girlfriend, Carmen, is a principal at an inner city high school in LA and her and I talk everyday about how our kids (black, brown, LGBT) need the tools and training now to become creators and not simply consumers of amazing technical content. They need to do this now not just because coding will teach them problem solving and collaboration skills, and because automation of the workforce will cut many low-skill/entry-level paying jobs out of the workforce in the next 5 years, but because the starting average starting salary for an entry level VR developer job on glassdoor.com looks like it’s currently $62,000. Many of those jobs don’t require 4 year college degrees (avoiding debt).
And as I have personally visited offices at Facebook, YouTube, Ryot Games, and Upload VR, one thing I know for sure… the people who work there are free to dress how they want, to have tattoos, to have piercings, to have tech implants, whatever. Food is cooked to order for them. Sometimes there’s beer and coffee on tap at work. Employees at these places enjoy a personal freedom many working people in America do not. This is important to our youth. Our Black and Brown have grown up in a period of time thinking they are automatically entitled to the opportunities of privileged white spaces because they seem so close and so real in videos on smartphones, and because Barack was POTUS. They are not.
Also please realize that 95% of the kids at my girlfriend’s school (and lots of schools in urban and rural areas) receive free and reduced lunch. They’re poor. Having the skill to obtain an entry level job that paid 62k and would only pay more after more experience (6 figures in 2 years or less perhaps), will changes lives. Full stop. It would change their families’ lives. Brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews, all would see a hero in their family making good money, not having to conform 100% to the soul suck of corporate culture, and having confidence and swagger because you make money. It’s not a fortune, and we need to recognize that, but it’s real money to us. Our kids wouldn’t have to constantly worry about getting their basic needs met and could focus on investments, financial stability, wealth creation, generational wealth giving; things that sustain and build a family and a community. Like ODB said, “who the f&*^k wanna be an emcee, if you can’t get PAID to be an emcee”. The skills VR development represent mean life changing opportunity for us. Having a structure to make sure that the Launchpad experience isn’t a 1 weekend hobby camp, and that a fire for learning is ingrained so as to inspire career change is key to producing the wave of change you say you’re trying to bring into the world. As a wise man once said, “Do or do not. There is no try”.
I want you to know I’m not saying what I submitted to Oculus didn’t suck. It was some rough shit, hands down. But what I am saying is that, if you had a little extra money to gamble (and you did), I might bet on someone who was a content expert (special education teacher, 10 years experience), who knows how to complete difficult tasks which require perseverance and significant investments of time (I have a Doctorate), is comfortable in typically uncomfortable spaces (I’m Black. I majored in Chinese), and is comfortable being a pioneer (a Black child being a competitive swimmer in the 80's).
What I think I’m saying is, you will have a bunch of people in your Launchpad group with amazing credentials. You already know that. But I think your evaluation metrics can be improved by a lot. You’ve got the funding to make some amazing things happen in not only the lives of individuals, but communities as well. I really hope you take that up as a responsibility, and not as a PR obligation because it’s something you’ve said you’d do.
I’m just saying, Oculus. You could’ve done better. For this next group of visionaries and pioneers, I really hope you do.
Btw- New Launchpadders, here’s a resource for you to check out. You may be interested in it: http://intentionalequity.org/ — “The ultimate crowd-sourced list of Orgs Supporting Leaders of Diverse Backgrounds”