What if there were a source of underemployed talent with high productivity and retention rates that provides a wide array of viewpoints when solving problems? You don’t have to imagine it.
Now there’s a virtual assistant company with a substantial diversity, equity, and inclusive (DEI) talent-acquisition ethos. Virtual Gurus’ assistants include First Nation, Métis, and Inuit peoples, members of LGBTQ2+ communities, racialized people, people with disabilities, and those living in remote communities.
From Wall Street to Main Street, Virtual Gurus provides talent-as-a-service to companies that need administrative, bookkeeping, customer service, data entry, marketing, or social media support. Assistants are matched to employers using artificial intelligence (AI).
The company currently has 950 virtual assistants and plans to hire 2,000 more by the second quarter of 2023. Need skills? No problem. The community offers plenty of on-demand courses, and the company also provides mentorship.
Bobbie Racette started Virtual Gurus out of necessity. When oil and gas prices plummeted in 2016, it took a heavy toll on Calgary’s workforce. The oil and gas industry drives Calgary’s economy.
“I was a foreman and was one of the last people to get laid off,” said Racette, founder and CEO, at Virtual Gurus. “By then, all the jobs were taken, required skills I didn’t have, or didn’t want to hire a queer, indigenous woman with tattoos.” She hit the wall. Her mother helped pay Racette’s rent.
“I have to create my own job,” she thought. She went on Craigslist and other sites that listed jobs for virtual assistants. There were many offshore virtual assistant companies, but they didn’t ensure the quality of their talent and paid them poorly. There was no job security, which resulted in high churn rates.
A light bulb went off. “I could create a platform where people that were not getting jobs because of who they are—not their skills—could find jobs,” said Racette. Her goal is to provide work to marginalized people.
In the early days, she hired an offshore company to build out a rudimentary online platform that relied on Excel and Google sheets behind the scenes. She lived off of unemployment and the work she did as a virtual assistant. It wasn’t until 2019 that Racette started paying herself a small salary for being CEO of the company.
“Most people build the tech first,” said Racette. “I figured out the operational processes and strategy first, then built the tech. Between 2018 and 2021, Virtual Gurus grew by 200% every year.”
In 2019, Racette started raising angel and venture capital to build a robust online platform. It was a painful process. “The first 10 or 20 ‘nos’ really beat me down and shook my confidence,” she sighed.
Racette received about 170 ‘nos.’ What got her past the rejection was her “why,” her purpose. Even when you have 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 scaleable; it was that they didn’t believe in me,” said Racette. “They didn’t believe in me because of who I am [a queer, indigenous woman].” After the first 10 or 20 “nos,” they started fueling her fire and helped her push through the rejection.
Not knowing anything about raising money, she joined Startup Calgary. Things changed when she discovered that there were VCs who 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 technology company provides computer equipment 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 re-upped, and The Houssian Foundation and the Accelerate joined the round. “Not bad for starting with just $300 and a mom who covered my rent,” emphasized Racette.
“Virtual Gurus has grown to be the largest virtual assistant company in Canada,” said Racette. About 15 months ago, the company rolled out to the U.S. “It is now the fourth or fifth largest virtual assistant company in the U.S…About 60% of revenues come from the U.S.”
“About 25% of talent is from the U.S.,” said Racette. Now that the company is compliant with individual state laws in the U.S., Racette believes that percentage will grow significantly.
It’s not just Startup Calgary that 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 the advisors, access, and resources they need to continue to grow and scale their businesses. Participants receive executive education, introductions to the EY global entrepreneurial ecosystem, and are a part of the worldwide Winning Women community.
Racette attended EY Strategic Growth Forum (SGF) held November 10 to 13 in Palm Springs. At a gathering before SGF for her Winning Women cohort, she was advised to schedule meetings before the event and worked on her pitch to tailor it to different audiences. She scheduled 14 meetings with large partnerships, enterprise accounts, and Series B investors.
“Almost every meeting was very beneficial,” said Racette. Even for those that weren’t an apparent fit, the connections were still outstanding.
Still more meetings resulted from Racette speaking on the Main Stage. “It was excellent exposure,” she said.
Racette is now part of the EY network. She can call or email at any time to ask for a connection, and that benefit is forever. The U.S. has more businesses than Canada, a more established freelancer culture, and DEI initiatives are more widespread, making it ripe growth. EY’s connections will be of enormous help, and Alums of the program also provide support.
One of the highlights of SGF was the LGBTQ luncheon. “We got to sit around the table with other LGBTQ founders and talk about our challenges,” said Racette. “Being with other people similar to me was neat, and I made a lot of connections.”
How are you leveraging relationships to open doors for you?