Base Jump: Inside the virtual world of Esther Li ’19
Esther Li ’19 was nervous as she presented her business plan to venture capitalists and answered their seemingly endless questions. And she had every reason to be—this was no class project.
Li, the 22-year-old CEO of Jump China, a virtual reality startup, was seeking $6 million in venture capital.
“I only did one roadshow—my first roadshow ever—and we got the funding,” she said.
Jump China, a Beijing-based joint venture with Utah-based Jump (spirited from The Void), builds virtual reality centers that provide a full-body, fully immersive experience in a specially designed environment. Currently, the company is in the research and development phase of creating a lifelike wingsuit base jumping experience center to be built in China’s Shanghai Disneyland. This extreme sport involves jumping off a cliff in a suit with fabric between the arms and legs, resembling the body of a squirrel and functioning—or not, as is often the case—in much the same way. It’s incredibly dangerous and requires significant training, so Li’s goal is to give virtual jumpers a safe yet completely realistic alternative.
“We want everything to look and feel exactly as it would if you were actually jumping from anywhere in the world,” she said.
The Void has built several similar attractions, including “Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire” and “Ralph Breaks VR” at Disney properties in Anaheim and Orlando, as well as in other locations in the United States. Li’s goal is to build on that success by bringing immersive VR to other markets around the world.
“We’re already established in the U.S. We’ve got to bring the brand and the reputation to the largest market and get a foothold in China,” she said.
It helps that Li is from Beijing and is a native speaker of Chinese. Still, running a global company from a campus dorm room is not without its challenges.
“You have to think creatively and you have to be prepared. You have to have a Plan A, a Plan B, a Plan C, a Plan D, a Plan E,” she said.
Li credits her team with supporting her and believing in her despite her young age. While her partners are mostly midcareer professionals, they don’t dwell on her age, she says, so she tries not to either.
“I try not to limit myself. Just because I’m young I can’t be a CEO? I can. And they think I can and they support me,” she said.
An economics major and finance and East Asian studies double minor, she chose Conn for its small college community and support for student initiatives, both of which she says have benefited her greatly. She was granted the opportunity to take a gap year after her sophomore year to learn about the virtual reality industry. As a gamer, she is fascinated by the idea of total immersion in a virtual world.
“If you read a book or watch a movie, you are always on the outside, observing. If the virtual reality technology is developed well enough, it provides a nearly 100 percent real first-person experience. You are inside a film, you are inside a book, you experience the character falling in love firsthand,” she said.
When Li returned to Conn for her junior year, she wrote her business plan for Jump with the help of her major adviser, Economics Professor Mónika López-Anuarbe, who taught her to carefully consider her audience and tailor her pitch accordingly.
“It’s really important to tell a good story,” Li said. “Data shows what you have done, but it doesn’t necessarily predict what will happen in the future. So, it’s really important to let your investors imagine with you, to let them share your dream.”