Can VR Help Your Coworkers Be More Empathetic?

April 25, 2017, 10:30 AM UTC

If you had met Nathan Egan in 2014, you would have thought he had it all. He was married to his best friend. He had three healthy children. He was the CEO of PeopleLinx, a successful software business that had just raised millions of dollars in funding.

But then things fell apart. His marriage hit a rough patch, and his company veered from explosive growth to near implosion. “That was a low, low point,” Egan recalls. “Everything good was gone.”

Egan soon realized that it was not the life he wanted. The problem was neither his company nor his wife—it was that he didn’t want to be a “he” at all.

Egan came out as Natalie, a transgender woman. For the first time, she understood how minority groups experienced the world. She also realized how little she had considered different perspectives back when she identified as a heterosexual white male. But where Egan saw a problem, she also saw a business opportunity.

Her new venture, Translator, is a mobile app designed to help companies train their employees’ “empathy muscle.” The company is building a platform that will enable people to virtually walk in others’ shoes.

Each Translator user’s experience begins with learning what identity is and what it means to him or her. Depending on an employer’s specific needs, the user then learns about other identities—based on race, gender, or sexual preference—that are different from the trainee’s own experience. Some lessons are audio exercises, others are games, and some are fully immersive virtual reality experiences.

For example, a male employee might (virtually) find himself in the mind and body of a woman of color as she sits in a business meeting. He may be called “honey” or be asked to fetch coffee for the men in the room. He might hear a monologue of her hopes and fears, including the dreaded, “What if they think I’m the secretary?”

An empathetic workplace isn’t just a nice-to-have. In a study of 200 global corporations, psychologist Daniel Goleman found that high levels of emotional intelligence—of which empathy is a key part—was found in 90% of high-performing workers. Moreover, empathetic employees are more engaged, less likely to leave, and better at serving customers. All of that contributes to a company’s bottom line. According to a 2013 Gallup study, companies with engaged employees outperform those without them by up to 202%.

Translator’s app is still in development, so in the meantime the company is providing in-person workshops to clients, which include Fortune 500 companies, banks, health care systems, government organizations, and schools. A little more perspective can’t hurt.

This article is part of “The Future of Startup Innovation” package that appears in the May 1, 2017 issue of Fortune magazine. Click here to read more from the series.