David Porzio is a serial entrepreneur who has been immersed in the world of early stage business development since he graduated from Brooklyn Law School in 2006. He has worked at some of the top venture capital firms in New York City and nurtured a number of early stage digital agencies and software companies, but recently turned his attention to something quite different. His latest company, Translator, aims to disrupt the business world by doing something radical: building empathy.
Porzio’s journey from finance to feelings began when a friend from Cornell University, Natalie Egan, founded the Philadelphia startup PeopleLinx, which uses employees’ LinkedIn profiles to generate sales. Porzio took an early position in the company while he was director of investments at MDC Partners. In 2015, when Egan came out as transgender and began the process of transitioning, she told Porzio she was launching a new business—Translator, which started as a social media site for the transgender community. Porzio loved the idea and became an early investor.
Not everyone was so enthusiastic. In the process of reaching out to investors, Egan found the business world was not quite as welcoming to a transgender woman as it had been to a straight white man. Realizing the need for corporate sensitivity training, Porzio and Egan decided that Translator would offer consulting services to help companies create cultures in which trans people could thrive. In its new form, Translator is a company built on teaching such skills as respect, trust, tolerance, collaboration, and openness. The company aims to fill a “soft skills” gap by using mobile-delivered virtual reality and artificial intelligence technologies to allow users to walk in someone else’s shoes, increasing their capacity for empathy.
When you understand yourself better, you understand others better, and you have more diverse perspectives, which is a revenue driver."
“What we are trying to do is translate the human experience through technology,” said Porzio, who is leveraging his experience at firms like MDC, Burch Creative Capital, and health and wellness media company mindbodygreen in this new venture. Translator uses the latest virtual reality and artificial intelligence technologies to allow employees to “feel” what it is like to be a marginalized person in a meeting where an offensive joke is told. “You are in that person’s skin, so you feel the pain of alienation, illustrated in laughter or misguided comments from others in the scene, which allows users to experience new perspectives,” explained Porzio. The company also offers an app with simple, guided identity exercises, building employees’ mastery of key concepts and strengthening development of soft skills. Translator also sends transgender people to offices to talk with employees and share their stories. “Hearing their stories is a great way to help break down barriers,” said Porzio.
Building empathy, Porzio contends, does more than create a warm and fuzzy work environment—it drives business. “Disengaged employees drain more than $550 billion per year out of the U.S. economy,” he said. “When you understand yourself better, you understand others better, and you have more diverse perspectives, which is a revenue driver. You can also increase employee productivity, boost retention, and decrease company risk.” Translator already has commitments from digital consultancy Rain, the NYC Department of Education, and Venture for America, and is in talks with many Fortune 500 companies. In May, Fortune named Translator one of "41 Companies Creating Tomorrow."
Porzio said his experience at Brooklyn Law School was transformative. “In hindsight, I am not glad I went to law school; I am glad that I went to Brooklyn Law School,” he said. “It was the perfect school for me because entrepreneurship is in the ether there.” He cites as examples the careers of study group classmates Ilya Fishkin ’06, a Russian immigrant who started an immigration firm; Keith Billotti ’06, a trader who is now a partner at Seward & Kissel; and John Rudikoff ’06, who is now the CEO and managing director of the Center for Urban Business Entrepreneurship (CUBE). “They are not aberrations,” said Porzio. “Brooklyn Law is an entrepreneurial lawyer’s paradise.”
The spirit of entrepreneurship also means that transgender sensitivity training is just the beginning for Translator. Porzio said the company will tackle race relations, implicit bias, and even divisions between the white working class and the so-called liberal elite, a significant issue in the current political climate.
“One day, I hope to take this type of training to the highest levels of government,” said Porzio. “If we can teach empathy, we can change the world.”
—Andrea Strong ’94