“Our people are our North Star” — A humane, successful tech founder who just happens to be an Indigenous LGBTQ woman
HSBC's In Conversation With… series is aimed at spotlighting diverse business leaders who serve as a source of inspiration to entrepreneurs everywhere. We recently sat down with Bobbie Racette, an Indigenous LGBTQ woman who’s the founder and CEO of the Calgary-based Virtual Gurus, which provides its growing roster of clients with remote administrative services. Read Part 1 of our interview:
One of the unique things about Virtual Gurus is its focus on marginalized groups. Tell us about your workers.
One employee really stands out, a lovely lady from the Blackfoot tribe and a small reserve. She started off as a virtual assistant for us two years ago and worked with a lot of our Indigenous clients. We brought her on to be our full-time Indigenous Talent Manager where she focuses on recruiting and retaining virtual assistants from Indigenous and underrepresented groups.
We have so much diversity on our team ... people who have struggled with social anxiety and mental health issues, people who are transitioning genders and single stay-at-home moms who can’t afford daycare. People who the traditional 9 to 5 office doesn’t necessarily fit.
You founded Virtual Gurus after working in the oil & gas industry. How did you come up with the idea?
So many people were being laid off in 2016 in Alberta. I had worked my way up to being a foreman, but people all around me were being laid off and I knew my time was coming. I started looking online for ideas because I knew I wasn’t going to find another job in oil and gas.
My background was in administration, and I kept seeing freelancer and gig economy jobs. I started working for companies that are now my competitors, but the pay was extremely low, sometimes only two dollars an hour; it was ridiculous. No one could make a living that way. I realized I could create something that would be valuable for business owners and provide work for those who had been laid off in oil and gas. I also knew I wanted to create opportunities for people like me — people from Indigenous and LGBTQ2+ communities.
Tell us about your experience trying to bring investors on board in the early days.
I couldn’t close for the life of me. I didn’t even pay myself a salary at first so I could pay my employees to manage our operations.
I went through 170 investors who said no to me. It really beat me down. But I realize now that none of them were impact investors. I didn’t go after the impact funds like I should have. Then I saw an article about Raven Indigenous Capital Partners closing a funding round with another small Indigenous tech company in B.C., and I emailed them. We worked at the same co-working space as The51; I ran after them on their way to the kitchen one day and pitched them on the spot. I finally closed our first funding round of $1.25 million in February 2020.
Those are our two lead investors, and we just closed another funding round a few weeks ago with them contributing $700,000 and the federal government (the Western Economic Diversification Canada Business Scale-up and Productivity Program) granted us $1 million.
What’s your advice to would-be entrepreneurs who have a great idea but can’t get investors interested?
If you’re onto something and you can show you have growing revenue, be courageous and don’t take no for an answer. If somebody says no, go to another person until you get the yes. It will happen if you believe in your product.
I kept going because I wasn’t going to disappoint all the people who were coming to us to be virtual assistants, so that was my “why.” Now investors are knocking my door down and we’re about to go into our Series A funding of probably about $15 million.
Click here for Part 2 of our interview with Bobbie Racette