As a part of their series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women in STEM and Tech,” Authority Magazine writer Fotis Georgiadis chatted with EON Reality’s Executive Vice President, Anna Lejerskar.
Take a look at the interview below or see the original on Medium.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit about your backstory and how you grew up?
I grew up in Riga, Latvia (the former USSR), into a family of Russian descent. My father was a construction businessman; my mother used to work as a cosmetologist and a TV presenter. I believe my brother and I had a blessed childhood. Like many childhoods, it was perhaps not a perfect one, but this is what I liked about it.
My brother and I were raised in a loving and free-minded atmosphere with solid traditions. My parents always valued education and always supported anything I wanted to learn. I was always coming up with some new things that I wanted to learn or do immediately, and they were always encouraging my (which were always of paramount importance) ideas. I remember myself as a very social and curious child. When I was 12, my father suggested that I move to Moscow to study, and I was courageous enough to say yes. My mother and brother followed me to Russia about a year after me. I spent about ten years studying and eventually getting my master’s degree from the University of Peoples Friendship. The experience was an exciting time in my life. I got to learn quite a lot and meet a lot of amazing people. After that, I moved and lived in Italy for several years and then one day woke up and opened my eyes in California. Needless to say that I prefer warmer weather and have been residing here since 2010.
Is there a particular book, film, or podcast that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
I have to confess, and I love Harry Potter. Yes, I am 34 now, but I still feel like a kid, and I genuinely love magic. Besides, this movie is amazingly detailed with many positive messages. Fantasy movies always inspired me. Is magic possible? And what are those magic things in our daily lives? I think some of us can honestly do magic in the way they can achieve incredible things. It just depends on what you believe in and how much you are willing to make a better change. My little sister loves this movie too, and we watched it perhaps 100+ times. It inspires me to stay curious and creative, and it inspires her too.
Is there a particular story that inspired you to pursue a career in the X Reality industry? We’d love to hear it.
I wish I could say that since I was 5, I dreamed about working in the XR Industry. No, I did not. XR did not even exist as an industry back then. But as with many things in our lives, I got into the XR industry by pure coincidence. I was visiting California and was young and in need of a job, so I decided to look for an international company based in the US to work for and somehow got introduced to EON Reality.
However, when I joined the company and got to view the industry from an insider perspective, it started to grow on me for how much value it could bring, specifically in education.
I have always seen first hand the importance of quality education for the youth. Since I was young, I was very fortunate to have my parents’ unwavering support to get a better education. In some countries, not excluding where I come from, the outdated perception that getting an education is not as crucial as getting married continues to hold. Getting an education was a significant step and building block for my future life. It opened a lot of doors for me and future opportunities.
Yet, It is not something everyone has access to today. Technology is maybe not the magic pill for all the world’s problems, but after traveling to more than 90 countries worldwide, I could see how much impact it could have on living standards. My professional journey took me worldwide and showed me how uneven access to education is today. That is what inspires me to do my best and provide solutions that can help solve this inequality.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began this fascinating career?
After my first year of working at EON Reality, Dan ( CEO and Chairman of EON Reality) was considering expanding my responsibilities with a promotion to Global Business Development Manager. But to test me, he asked me if I really loved to travel. As I said, I was young and curious and said yes.
The year after this, I was home for a total of 3 weeks.
The period was absolutely crazy and fascinating at the same time. Just being able to visit all the countries, meet different people and cultures changed my life forever.
It was such an eye opening experience which I consider the most inspiring adventure of my life. Since then, I have never been able to stay at rest for long and am always ready to get out on my next adventure to learn more about the world.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
When I was starting, I was on a frantic, jam-packed schedule trying to meet as many people as possible to showcase what XR technologies could do. I had a business meeting in a remote town somewhere in Germany on a Saturday during one of these trips. When I say remote, I mean I needed to take two flights, two taxis, and a train to get there. As fate or Murphy’s law would have it, the second flight was delayed, and the entire trip was hanging by a thread.
Somehow, I considered canceling the meeting but decided to give it a try thanks to blind optimism, if you will. The train was late of course. By the time I arrived at our destination, I had realized the same train I was on was the only train I could take to go back — and it was only 2 minutes before it was headed back.
The doors opened; I stepped out on the platform and shook the person’s hand, and said, “Hello, my name is Anna Lejerskar. Nice meeting you; I am thrilled to finally meet you face-to-face, I believe it is essential for our future conversations. But now, unfortunately, I have to leave on the same train to catch my flights. Looking forward to talking to you soon and Goodbye!”
The person was speechless.
I traveled 10 hours to get a meeting that lasted a minute. The biggest lesson? Instinctively, we all want to battle right to the end, but you can not always control everything in your life. As long as you know you have done your best, don’t be stressed, embrace each moment as a learning experience, and you can go to bed with a clear conscience.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I want to thank all the people I have met throughout my journey because everyone I work with has taught me something negative or positive.
As they say, it always takes a village, and so I need to credit the team at EON Reality I have been working with for over a decade. They have helped immeasurably in one way or another and continue to be a source of support and strength.
But I do need to thank my husband, Dan Lejerskar, an AR/VR visionary in his own right and for seeing the potential in me. He has always supported my vision and encouraged me to share my ideas freely. There is only so much one can do alone, but there is almost always a partner who is a well of strength in every success story. I have been lucky to live with the person who let me be who I am.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Yes, I do! I am currently working on Learn for Life, a not-for-profit arm at EON Reality whose mission is to bring awareness that technology is not something out of reach and is readily available. Our primary mission now is to leapfrog development in communities that need it the most and to provide the support and resources to help them create a 21st-century learning environment — which means easy access to the classroom and the teacher, no matter where they are. This is in line with our mission statement at EON Reality — Knowledge is a Human Right. I would like to live in a world where no one is denied access to education just because of where they came from; whether you are a primary school student in a remote village in North of Ghana or a youth looking for opportunities to learn a trade. And this is what I am striving to achieve with Learn for Life
Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. The VR, AR and MR industries seem so exciting right now. What are the 3 things in particular that most excite you about the industry? Can you explain or give an example?
It is endless, in my opinion. There are so many areas that XR can impact already today and is set to grow over time.
But if I would pick 3 I would say:
The potential to weave all the complementary technologies such as haptics, neural sensing technologies, and A.I. into AR/VR to make that killer learning app. The pioneering advances in these technologies make the virtual world even better at mimicking the real one and making VR/AR a space to watch out for!
The potential pervasiveness of VR/AR technology and how people can use the technology for daily life. Since COVID-19 hit, it has completely upended the way we live and what we knew of living. Technology became a central part of keeping everything together in so many different ways, and people are starting to be aware of the influential role it can play.
Throughout 2020, we witnessed a massive uptake with an 819% increase in our EON-XR platform usage as institutions started to realize video conferencing limitations. We quickly realized teachers needed VR and AR’s power to provide contextualized and interactive learning for students to keep their already short attention spans from wandering.
So when taking AR and VR, for example, virtual traveling started becoming a means of seeing sights and monuments in a time when no one could travel, sometimes even taking you back in time to discover truly fascinating places right where you are. When we replicate this experience in the classroom, it becomes so much more powerful when students can travel to historical landmarks to view and explore ancient Pompeii to understand life in ancient Rome with a personal virtual guide. Boring history lessons with an outdated textbook will soon become a relic of the past; now, isn’t this truly a fascinating thought?
The value it holds for Industry 4.0. There has been an explosion of use cases for industries since COVID-19 hit the scene, particularly for its precise training applications. VR has its origins in heavy industries such as oil and gas and even in flight simulators and was used to create training for emergencies without putting anyone at risk. VR is a compelling medium for immersing people in a designed environment and changing their behaviors in reality, with the added benefit of being realistic, repeatable, and scalable.
So the sky is the limit when it comes to creating new scenarios for learning. Walmart, for example, has taken bold steps to revolutionize training for its in-store associates using VR and is now reporting 30% higher employee satisfaction and are seeing improved test scores of 10 to 15% compared to traditional training. If we can replicate this learning workflow across the different industries, we are essentially looking at a turnkey solution in a matter of days and not quarters. This will be a massive leap for us in terms of productivity and efficiencies.
What are the 3 things that concern you about the VR, AR and MR industries? Can you explain? What can be done to address those concerns?
The first one is the lack of awareness surrounding this technology and its accessibility. The majority of people do not realize it is readily available. There is an existing perception that XR technology is a Silicon Valley fantasy — high-end and expensive. The truth is that you can use it already today, and it will become more common in the years to come. We are trying to raise awareness that XR technology is not as out of reach as you would imagine. And we are walking the talk by creating a zero-code platform like EON-XR to allow anyone to create content in minutes without any pre-existing knowledge in programming or coding.
Secondly, there is a dangerous perception that technologies like AR and VR are putting jobs at risk and, consequently, growing resistance to adopt them. I take the view that while technology is used to automate certain positions, it is paradoxically creating more meaningful jobs. From the educational perspective, we see resistance from some educators who see their role as the expert in the room, and these technologies are changing that status quo. They also argue that the technology delivered from a smartphone or tablet is a distraction.
However, what this technology does is changing its role to a facilitator of learning. Instead of simply delivering information, they have more time to play an essential role in getting students to critically analyze and synthesize information, which in my opinion, is the actual process of learning.
After all, one can google information, but can you google knowledge? Today, students are digital natives; they are used to smartphones and tablets, so we are merely talking to them in their language. The cultural shift in mindsets is a barrier we need to overcome. EON Reality is now engaging with teachers and educators to show them how XR technology is helping and not harming them.
Another concern is the speed of hardware catching up with software speed to guarantee VR/AR has the means to hit a critical mass. We faced some hard times in 2017 when hardware expectations fell short of reality. As a software company, we pivoted by making our solutions available on a VR/AR viewing device that everyone had — the smartphone. We continue to look forward to hardware developments at an accessible price point for the average consumer. We see that with Oculus Quest now, but we expect to see much more activity in this space and hopefully have that iPhone moment for AR and VR in the coming years.
I think the entertainment aspects of VR, AR and MR are apparent. Can you share with our readers how these industries can help us at work?
Using VR to design training can help create an engaging experience and enhance learning by transforming how lessons are delivered. Firstly, with VR, there is less cognitive load, and it becomes easier to process the information. And by anchoring instruction to experience, trainees are actually able to visualize and live “reality” as they learn. VR is a great solution for technical training, especially for medical procedures, which requires many hours to achieve proficiency.
When we add a gamified approach to learning, the lesson stops becoming a delivery of pure facts and instead becomes an interactive lesson that offers challenges and rewards. Why would ten grown men assemble on a court shooting balls through hoops? The desire to win. We have all experienced the drive to compete and outperform others, even ourselves. By drawing on human psychology and using the same principles, we can quickly create an addiction to learning.
One of the benefits of introducing gamification is its natural high and its impact on knowledge retention. By combining realistic VR environments or AR elements with gamification, lessons are entertaining and fun yet engaging and effective.
Are there other ways that VR, AR and MR can improve our lives? Can you explain?
Fundamentally, I think there are so many ways that XR can improve our lives at work. Its potential to create jobs is enormous. There are millions of job opportunities in promising and impactful areas such as medicine, aerospace, and environmental studies, to name a few.
VR and AR technologies’ beauty is their malleability in creating any training scenario you want while being realistic, scalable, and with proven benefits. Just ask Walmart, Boeing, and the US Army, which recently announced a $22bn program using AR technology for training.
So if we are looking to create a strong base of knowledge workers for the future, XR technologies have both the capacity and ability to provide meaningful tools to develop more effective and efficient ways of learning. And in combination with data analytics and A.I, this would enable us to access a potent tool to access what is understood and not by the learner. These tools will drive truly effective learning that would have been a utopian ideal in the past. This will consequently create a new generation of workers who can be upskilled, retrained, and trained, making lifelong learning available at the flick of a switch.
Let’s zoom out a bit and talk in broader terms. Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in STEM? If not, what specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?
The women in my family have always been great role models for me, and I could witness the levels of success a woman could achieve. Even though we have roughly the same ratio of women and men globally, we do not see the same ratios represented in the workforce. There is a 26 percentage point difference according to the International Labour Organization. I think it matters to have a diverse set of voices at the table, and I am looking forward to seeing a world where we have a workforce made up of 50 percent women.
We are far from where we need to be, especially when we have figures of women making up 27 percent of the STEM workforce, and these figures are even lower in the XR industry. The pandemic has not helped. The lack of representation is a challenge of multiple dimensions. Fundamentally, we need to solve the problems of access to education. We continue to see low participation levels in higher education, especially in developing economies, and we need to offer more opportunities for women to participate. One of the critical conditions of working with Learn for Life is that institutions must show that they promote women’s participation in their programs.
And generally speaking, I think perceptions that women should play specific roles at home continue to exist, which is really two full-time jobs if you ask me! Dispelling these perceptions will take a long time, but in the meantime, what I am doing at EON Reality is offering women more freedom at work. This could be the flexibility to work from home and at the hours they choose. I want to offer them the opportunity to climb the career ladder if that is what they choose without having to choose between sacrifices.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about working in your industry? Can you explain what you mean?
The number one myth is VR and AR are solely for gaming. Although I see these mindsets slowly shifting, there is still a need to raise awareness of the power of AR/VR as an incredible social force of change. When I say that, of course, I mean AR/VR’s potential for transforming lives through education. We are starting to see greater adoption of the technology beyond gaming and used for education — but it is still far from where I envision it. For instance, just think about flight simulators; for example, it has become the de rigueur in a pilots training course. And we’re supposed to trust them with our lives when we are thousands of kilometers up in the air! VR and AR have proven benefits for learning; this has been verified in countless studies conducted worldwide.
So what about doing the same for our classrooms? So when AR/VR is seen as an indispensable part of learning, I think that’s when I can say, yes, we’ve made it. We’ve dispelled the myth; we’ve made it everyday technology.
What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience as a Woman in Tech” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
Never put up with toxic people. Their negativity is a poison and eventually will fester and affect the culture of your organization. Never allow that because you’re allowing cancer to spread slowly but surely when you put up with it.
Women in tech are rare, but you are the leader when you get to a leadership role; it has no gender. And rest assured, things will go wrong at some point, and you will have to deal with a problem. The higher you get in your career, the more issues you will have to deal with. But this is why you were selected as a part of the leadership team, to be able to deal with problems, take the heat and solve it. Never get engaged emotionally and just focus on three steps: find the problem, address the problem and fix it.
Value your time. Money is way cheaper than time; the money you can make, but not the time. The projects I take on will always have a value, both intangible and tangible.
You can’t know everything, and you should be well aware of it. As a leader, you are supposed to use your leadership strengths to get the best out of your team and achieve better goals together. Keep your ego low, be objective if someone in the group understands the topic better, and let him/ her shine.
Never stop moving forward and think big. Don’t get stuck in the past; look into the future. The difference between hallucination and reality is how much work you put into it.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I would like to see a movement to change negative perceptions towards Technical Vocational Education and Training. TVET skills are necessary for a sustainable economy and are undoubtedly one of the best investments a country can make, yet it is often perceived as second-class. Too often, these crucial professions’ societal perceptions dissuade youths from considering vocational trades as an option. This restricts their choices and pathways and limits the growth of society and the economy at large.
I would like to see more countries following the German model where the country has become the forerunner in technology and industry because of the emphasis given on skills development for its people. I would like to spearhead a movement to encourage youths to explore new vocations with XR technologies and discover for themselves their latent talents. I am convinced I would be a carpenter if I had the chance to be exposed to it earlier in my youth. And this is why I am so passionate about this, and would like to give everybody a chance to do the same.
We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
I would like to meet Elon Musk. I am very intrigued by space travel and how it extends the frontiers of human knowledge. Of course, I would like to bring up the idea of recreating space environments in XR so while we may not be on SpaceX flight, we are not left wondering!
Thank you so much for these excellent stories and insights. We wish you continued success on your great work!