Recently, we featured the co-founders of Backstage Capital portfolio company Astral AR on Mission & Values, one of our podcasts. Astral AR is a remarkable startup — they make drones designed to save human lives.
Each of their products is designed with a specific use case: Charlie is a drone that flies into fires to seek out and aid human survivors and firefighters (tech includes: heat and infrared light vision, falling debris trajectory prediction, air quality and chemical composition analysis, fire-retardant foam…); Edna is a public safety drone that documents law enforcement, optimizes hostage rescue, and even stops bullets (tech includes: object identification, anomaly detection, autonomous situational assessment…)
Astral AR takes your worst fears about unmanned aircraft and transforms them into hope for these futuristic, life-saving devices with superhero powers. And did I mention specialists fly these drones with their mind? But, Astral’s astounding tech isn’t the star of this story.
“We wanted to give people a place to be themselves.”
The team at Astral AR is growing one of the most inclusive company cultures I’ve seen at an early-stage startup. I learned of the term neurodivergent from the company’s co-founders, both of whom fall on the Autism spectrum and come to the startup world from atypical backgrounds. Instead of being a hinderance, these traits appear to be a huge advantage — they seem to glide over formidable technical hurdles, while simultaneously dreaming up a mission meaningful enough to attract all the right talent needed to navigate the highly-regulated world or patents, drones/UAS, and government customers.
Diversity is a core value at Astral AR, and their team reflects that in its makeup, including women, disabled persons, veterans, and people of color. One shining example of forward thinking inclusion is an employee manual that declares a commitment to supporting life transitions (including gender identity). When pressed for why they are working hard to champion diversity and inclusion, co-founders Leah and José reveal that they simply can’t imagine building a startup any other way.
Just after publishing their podcast interview, I was contacted by Torey Cloud-Fallaw, an Astral AR employee. She wanted to share how impactful this culture has been in her own life and what the team’s inclusion has meant to her. In the face of personal hardship, she’s found a spark of hope in her place at Astral that keeps her motivated to work toward a brighter tomorrow. Her words below speak to the power of inclusion to empower individuals, but also its benefit to businesses.
After a brief call with Astral AR COO José to hear the co-founder’s reaction to Torey’s testimonial, it’s not hard to see that, while gratifying and touching, this reaction to Astral AR’s culture is by design. “We wanted to give people a place to be themselves,” he says. “We’re aware that time is the most valuable thing we each have. You cannot get more time. The fact that our employees give their time — that’s a responsibility we take seriously. We have a duty to make sure our employees are taken care of and are in a good space, where they’re not wondering what’s going to happen next, and that we’ve always got their back.”
Elements of Astral AR’s culture echo the discoveries of other remote startups. When you’re not co-located, and you don’t share a timezone, employee impact can’t be measured by time clocked sitting at a desk. José notes, “we’re not time-oriented, we’re results oriented.” This flexibility allows teammates like Torey the freedom to manage their personal lives, while contributing to the startup whenever they’re most productive.
“Our goal is to make the lives of everyone we interact with better. That’s how you build loyalty and succeed.”
Torey is a content developer and marketing intern. Through immersion, she’s learning how to get the word out about Astral AR. When she confesses to feeling thrown into the deep end of the pool, José responds with the startup truism that, “there’s no other end in our pool!” When reflecting on her place in Astral’s team, he revealed, “when we look for people, we look for people who are good at stuff. Torey is a queen of the written word.”
José concludes, “our goal is to make the lives of everyone we interact with better. That’s how you build loyalty and succeed.” The following words were written by Torey, and stand as a testament to Astral AR’s ability to achieve this goal.
“People say, ‘what is the sense of our small effort?’ They cannot see that we must lay one brick at a time, take one step at a time.”
- Dorothy Day
I find it very difficult to even begin writing about this subject as I sit in a coffee shop surrounded by people with homes. People I’m trying to blend in with. People who I don’t want seeing me blubber and sob into my keyboard.
If you’d asked me when I was ten years old where I thought I would be at 34, I might have told you what any child might have said: a policewoman, a politician, an astronaut. By the time I was 21, I was a couch-surfing punk with no life skills, sleeping on Leah’s couch and working at IHOP. If you asked me what my goals were then, I would have told you something like, “I’m going to die in the revolution.” Having lost a parent to incarceration at 13 following three years of drawn-out torture in the form of supervised visitation, I was well on the way to a turbulent life of addiction and just generally poor life choices. I honestly figured I would end up on the business end of a police officer’s weapon, not wearing their badge.
I was supposed to graduate high school. I was supposed to go to college. I was supposed to do a lot of things. Instead I ended up chronically homeless.
When I started working for Astral AR, my life was still chaos. Leah presented me with an opportunity to do something immediately productive for the world, which would give me something to focus on that I COULD control. When I got kicked out of my apartment, I still had this job. When I went to the hospital, I still had this job. I was even able to work from the hospital. When I lost my daughter to foster care, I still had this job. I still have this job even though I live out of a storage unit, sleep on a porch, and can only focus for short periods of time sometimes due to anxiety. I am neurodivergent, something which is a double-edged sword for me in that I enjoy periods of genius followed by the worst darkness anyone could fall into. I will always have this work, though. Sometimes when I’m not feeling well, this work is the singular pinprick of light in my day that I can grab onto and pull myself out.
I don’t know when things will pick up for me, but when they do I will have this company to thank for supporting me unconditionally. Some say a startup’s success depends on its grit, and I can say for a surety that Astral AR’s employees are living proof.
Written by Torey C-F
I’d like to thank Torey for the bravery and initiative she showed in sharing her thoughts. I hope that her work continues to move her in the direction she wishes to go. I loved that on our call with José, he started hatching plans to allocate resources to provide company housing and even had ideas about tiny smart houses. And until those plans come to fruition, we can take comfort in the words of Mary Ceallaigh, CPO and Chief of Staff at Astral AR, who said in reaction to Torey’s words, “each day is a new day, the sun keeps coming up.”
Listen to Astral AR’s co-founders on the Mission & Values podcast.