As an Indigenous LGBTQ woman, what kind of unique challenges have you faced as a founder?
I am a woman, I’m LGBTQ and I’m Indigenous, so that’s very rare. I think I am one of the few Indigenous women in tech in Alberta; it’s actually helped with my story in some ways.
But I’ve seen so much prejudice in my life. Just the other day I was walking down the street and a racist comment was thrown my way. I was in Canadian Tire and they chose to floor-walk me because I’m an Indigenous woman.
Now I’m just so honoured to tell my story so that other Indigenous and LGBTQ women can get out there and say: “If she can do it, I can too.” That’s my No. 1 goal now, to encourage and inspire other people.
Virtual Gurus was well ahead of the flexible and remote work trends of COVID-19. Tell me how COVID-19 has — or hasn’t — had an impact.
We were born out of an economic crisis, so we were built for this. When COVID hit and it was time to go home, it was just another day for us. But it certainly hurt our clients; they started dropping because of the uncertainty when everyone realized this wasn’t a two-week break in business.
So we offered free services to 110 startups, because that group was really taking a big hit and we wanted to help them keep their businesses afloat. And then we gave 40% discounts to any new clients who weren’t startups, so we brought on a couple of hundred that way. If they had to lay off administrative staff, we gave those people work. We wanted to help the people being laid off and save the businesses.
This essentially exploded us. We’ve experienced 300% year-over-year growth. We have 26 full-time staff right now and soon we’ll be at 31 full-time staff and more than 400 contractors.
You’ve won awards for how you treat your employees. Why is it so important to you to be a humane business leader?
I was treated poorly in some of the jobs I’ve had, but I had to put food on my table. And I saw others being treated poorly and I told myself that one day I am going to start a business that is humane and compassionate.
People are important; you want people to want to work for you. I’ve let people go in my operations when I’ve seen people verbally bullying co-workers. I have walked people to the door and told them we don’t do that here.
If someone works for Virtual Gurus and doesn’t feel safe, that’s on me.
You’ve said your passion is your people, and your logo is a North Star. Tell us more about that, and how it’s helped you attract investors.
Ninety-five percent of our contractors identify as female, 65% are in remote communities and 45% are part of the LGBTQ community, because the majority of these under-represented folks were treated poorly in past positions. They know that we’re a company that supports them, and they want to work here because of that.
Most of our investors are impact funds. I challenge other businesses to understand they can still put impact into their companies while scaling. A lot of potential investors said you don’t need to focus on impact; just focus on scaling. And I refused, I wanted to stay true to my mandate and what my impact is.
We’re all over the United States now; we’ve got four sales team members focused on Canada and the U.S. We’re looking to possibly acquire a virtual assistant business in the U.K., and the Series A funding will help us there. Then the goal is New Zealand and Australia.
By the end of next year I think there will be more than 1,000 people working for us, mostly from marginalized communities. And we’re just getting started!
Click here for Part 1 of our interview with Bobbie Racette