Xyla Foxlin strives to be the woman she wishes she had to look up to growing up: passionate and invested in what she does technically, but also maintaining pride in her femininity and external interests including fashion and art. You’ll find her in a dress at robotic design reviews, and a blur of pink in the machine shop.
Xyla is the 20-year-old CEO and founder of Parihug, the startup behind internet-connected plushes that let you hug loved ones from anywhere in the world, and she first launched the idea back in 2015, at a hack-a-thon as an engineering student.
The company won the Readers Choice poll for SXSW Startup of the Year, but they also recently launched Beauty and the Bolt, an “online village that is designed to reduce the barrier to entry into makerspaces and the makerspace movement, as well as subtly change the narrative of what an engineer should look, act, and dress like.” Here's Xyla on her journey and the advice she has for anyone hoping to follow in her footsteps.
You started what turned into the company at a hack-a-thon. What inspired you to explore haptic presence?
“I was in a long-distance relationship at the time, and simply wanted a source of comfort at the end of the day. That sparked the idea, and then it was the technical challenge that really drew me in at first. How on earth do you use a couple simple components to fool the brain into believing something that isn’t true? How can a cuddly plush toy detect a hug without becoming an awkward creepy weird robot? Now, much of my motivation stems from people’s stories. I absolutely love hearing about supporters’ family experiences and why they need Pari— some of these stories are absolutely tear-jerking.”
What direction do you see the company going in the upcoming few years?
We are in a really unique position, where we (accidentally) practically invented the consumer tele-intimacy market. There aren’t any options for families and loved ones to share emotions over distance the way we do in person— through touch, smell, taste, etc. There are so many more options than just audio/visual. That said, I hope that changes— there is a huge difference between telling someone “I love you” over Skype, and actually being able to give them a hug. I really want to just focus on connection— how can we keep making that experience more and more real, and more and more emotional.”
Do you think this tech has applications beyond your current products?
“Adults, use your imaginations. (Kidding!!)
Absolutely. Could I tell you exactly what? Not at all. I personally want to explore the options in therapy for both special needs children and anxiety disorders. Imagine Pari in a NICU, or as an open source platform for therapists to develop on. The possibilities are endless!”
You got started at a young age. Do you think your entrepreneur journey was significantly different as a result? (I mean, beyond people asking you this question all the time.)
“For sure, although I think my college and social life was significantly more impacted than my entrepreneur journey. On the startup side, easily the toughest part is (still!) not being 21, since so much networking and startup events happen at bars.
On the social life end of things, it’s (understandably) pretty tough as a 20 year old girl to empathize with your roommate who is constantly traveling, putting herself out there, no longer taking classes, and constantly being featured in press. I have definitely felt alienated and even targeted by people whom I considered good friends before I started Parihug, but hope that with time the cattiness will wear off. (Someone once scrawled ‘Hugs are overrated' in my dorm elevator.) Those who I’m truly close to say I haven’t changed as a person, and I’m very conscious about not talking about startup things when I’m with my old classmates. It’s hard to find people my own age who can understand the stress of starting a company.”
What advice would you offer someone hoping to get into the startup world?
“Learn to be a sponge, and then learn to filter out bullsh*t. Always listen, even if you disagree. You can learn the most from those people.
Surround yourself with a support network that will be there not only when you’re successful, but also when you fail. But make sure they are people who don’t take joy from when you get knocked down, or are jealous enough that they want to see you fail.
The most important things are grit, empathy, and kindness. You need to know how to work through the hardest nights of your life and maintain a (mostly) positive spirit. You also need to be able to empathize with your coworkers, your support network, and your product audience. And be kind! Your mother was right. Volunteer when the opportunity arises, donate your time and efforts, and be nice to everyone. Not only does it make you a good person and is fulfilling, but you never know who will be able to help you in the future.”