What if there was a source of underemployed talent with high productivity and retention rates that offer a wide range of perspectives when solving problems? You don’t have to imagine it.
Now there is a virtual assistant company with a substantial talent acquisition philosophy around diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). Virtual Gurus assistants include First Nations, Métis, and Inuit peoples, members of LGBTQ2+ communities, racialized people, people with disabilities, and people living in remote communities.
From Wall Street to Main Street, Virtual Gurus provides talent as a service to businesses in need of administrative, accounting, customer service, data entry, marketing or social media support. Assistants are matched with employers using artificial intelligence (AI).
The company currently has 950 virtual assistants and plans to hire 2,000 more by Q2 2023. Need skills? No problem. The community offers many on-demand courses and the company also offers mentoring.
Bobbie Racette started Virtual Gurus out of necessity. When oil and gas prices fell in 2016, it took a heavy toll on Calgary’s workforce. The oil and gas industry is the engine of Calgary’s economy.
“I was a foreman and I was one of the last people to be fired,” said Racette, founder and CEO of Virtual Gurus. “By then all the jobs had been taken, required skills I didn’t have or didn’t want to hire a tattooed queer indigenous woman.” She hit the wall. Her mother helped pay Racette’s rent.
“I have to create my own work,” she thought. She went to Craigslist and other sites that list virtual assistant jobs. There were many offshore virtual assistant companies, but they did not guarantee the quality of their talents and paid them poorly. There was no job security, leading to high turnover rates.
A light bulb has gone out. “I could create a platform where people who weren’t getting jobs because of who they are, not their skills, could get jobs,” Racette said. Its aim is to provide work for marginalized people.
At first, she hired an offshore company to create a rudimentary online platform that relied on Excel and Google sheets behind the scenes. She was living off unemployment and working as a virtual assistant. It wasn’t until 2019 that Racette started paying himself a small salary to be CEO of the company.
“Most people build the technology first,” Racette said. “I understood the business processes and strategy first, then I built the technology. Between 2018 and 2021, Virtual Gurus grew by 200% every year.”
In 2019, Racette began raising angel and venture capital to create a robust online platform. It was a painful process. “The first 10 or 20 ‘no’s really got me down and shook my confidence,” she sighed.
Racette received about 170 “noes”. What allowed him to overcome the rejection was his “why”, his purpose. Even when you encounter setbacks, your “why” gives you stability and a sense of direction. “It wasn’t that they didn’t believe in the service or that it was scalable, it was that they didn’t believe in me,” Racette said. “They didn’t believe in me because of who I am [a queer, indigenous woman].” After the first 10 or 20 no’s, they began to fuel her fire and helped her overcome the rejection.
Knowing nothing about fundraising, she joined Startup Calgary. Things changed when she discovered there were VCs out there who were focused on making an impact. It took about two years, but Racette raised $1.25 million from Raven Indigenous Capital Partners, The 51 Ventures and TELUS Pollinator Fund for Good.
Many companies now recognize the benefits of hiring diverse people. Clients include Ideo and Telus. A tech company provides hardware to remote indigenous communities, and Gurus’ Virtual Academy trains them.
Virtual Gurus raised an $8.4 million Series A round in just five months. Seed investors increased, and the Houssian Foundation and the Accelerate joined the cycle. “Not bad to start with just $300 and a mom who covered my rent,” Racette pointed out.
“Virtual Gurus has become the largest virtual assistant company in Canada,” Racette said. About 15 months ago the company expanded to the US “It’s now the fourth or fifth largest virtual assistant company in the US. About 60% of revenue comes from the US”
“About 25% of talent comes from the United States,” Racette said. Now that the company is complying with the laws of each US state, Racette expects that percentage to increase significantly.
It’s not just Startup Calgary that has helped support Racette. She is one of 20 founders recently announced as EY Entrepreneurial Winning Women North America for the class of 2022. It’s the 15th anniversary of the program, which supports high-potential women entrepreneurs and connects them with advisors, the access and resources they need to continue to grow and scale their businesses. Participants receive executive education, introductions to EY’s global entrepreneurial ecosystem and become part of the global Winning Women community.
Racette participated in the EY Strategic Growth Forum (SGF) held November 10-13 in Palm Springs. At a gathering in front of SGF for her cohort of women winners, she was advised to schedule meetings ahead of the event and work on her pitch to adapt it to different audiences. She scheduled 14 meetings with major partnerships, corporate accounts and Series B investors.
“Almost all of the encounters have been very beneficial,” Racette said. Even for those who weren’t an apparent match, the connections were still exceptional.
Even more meetings resulted from Racette’s speech on the main stage. “It was a great exhibit,” she said.
Racette is now part of the EY network. She can call or email anytime to request a connection, and that benefit is forever. The US has more companies than Canada, a more established freelancer culture, and DEI initiatives are more prevalent, making for mature growth. EY connections will be of tremendous help and program alumni will also provide support.
One of the highlights of SGF was the LGBTQ lunch. “We were able to sit around the table with other LGBTQ founders and talk about our challenges,” Racette said. “Being around other people like me was great and I made a lot of connections.”
How do you leverage relationships to open doors for yourself?