Calgary’s tech community is an innovative space, but not many people understand the power of thinking outside of the box quite like Bobbie Racette.
After losing her oil and gas job in 2015, Bobbie (an Indigenous, LGBTQ woman) pivoted and marketed herself as a virtual assistant in a bid to change the way online assistants were supplied. And also opens doors to a career path that typically overlooks and excludes minorities, and folks who may need to explore remote job options because of their remote location and other circumstances.
Just one year later Bobbie founded Virtual Gurus – an online talent-as-a-service platform which pairs hundreds of remote assistants who traditionally have faced barriers to employment with a wide variety of businesses based on algorithm, machine learning and human expertise. By 2018, revenue had reached $265,000 and she had several virtual assistants on board. Come 2023, the company in which she is majority owner in is valued in the tens of millions.
Through this service, CEO Bobbie and her team have empowered First Nation, Métis, and Inuit peoples, members of 2SLGBTQIA+ communities, racialised people, people with disabilities, and those living in remote communities. And the proof is in the pudding – in September this year, The Globe and Mail placed Virtual Gurus in the top 100 of Canada’s Top Growing Companies.
These visionary efforts have seen Bobbie win a cavalcade of awards, including Indigenous Entrepreneur of the Year 2022, EY Winning Woman 2022 and Distinguished Entrepreneur of the Year 2023 (University of Victoria’s Gustavson School of Business), alongside being named a finalist in EY Entrepreneur of the Year 2023. To top it all off, Bobbie is also a 2022 IWF Harvard Graduate.
With Virtual Gurus supporting Innovation Week YYC’s Launch Party on Thursday (Nov. 23) as a lounge sponsor, attendees can join the Virtual Gurus team to chill out and experience the technology ecosystem in comfort while having fun with selfie stations, taking a load off the footsies on comfortable couches and mixing and mingling in style.
Right before the party, Bobbie will take part in a panel discussion: Launch Party Pre-Celebration Panel with Launch Party Alumni, 4:30 p.m. at the Pioneer on Stephen Ave. Folks are welcome to attend the panel of Launch Party Alumni, Including ZayZoon’s Darcy Tuer and Calgary Economic Development’s Chelsea Hallick.
Calgary.tech sat down with Bobbie pre-party to discuss the talent, tact and triumph at the heart of Calgary’s ever-growing tech community.
What issues are marginalised people facing within Calgary’s tech community?
BR: More often than not, individuals from diverse communities struggle to gain access to mentorship and guidance on a fundamental level. Everyone is unique. Everyone has valuable talent, passion and perspectives, and so closing the door on underrepresented folks leads to closing the door on untapped ideas and potential, much of which may never see the light of day as a result of the closed-mindedness of people from outside of these diverse communities.
It’s also important to flag that ‘individuals from diverse communities’ doesn’t only apply to members of 2SLGBTQIA+ communities, racialised people and/or people with physical disabilities – it also encapsulates other professionals who may have a harder time finding work, including stay-at-home parents or single parents and Indigenous peoples who live in remote communities. All of these people deserve opportunities and a fair wage, and that’s something we at Virtual Gurus have always been passionate about.
Are there any initiatives which are taking place to address these issues, and what should tech companies be doing to improve their diversity and inclusion moving forward?
BR: It’s so important that we continue to work and innovate, not only to turn our dreams into a reality, but the dreams of others within Calgary’s tech ecosystem. Thanks to events like Innovation Week, we can ensure that there is an ongoing and ever-evolving conversation about building communities and safe spaces for aspiring entrepreneurs from all walks of life.
How has Virtual Gurus changed since being named one of Canada’s 100 Top Growing Companies?
BR: I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I never expected to become an entrepreneur. Growing up my pursuits were completely different – I wanted to be a music teacher for deaf children and went to college for sign language in Vancouver, and for a while I had aspirations of becoming a social worker – but launching Virtual Gurus was an endeavour the likes of which I could have never predicted for myself. When I moved back home from Montreal in 2012 I worked as a safety technician for an oil and gas company, but when the layoffs happened I knew I had to change the way I marketed myself both personally and professionally.
It took Virtual Gurus two whole years to find its first client, and that resilience is why our online marketplace is finally gaining the recognition it deserves. We have work with more than 5,000 virtual assistants since our inception – all from different walks of life – in order to pave the way for marginalized folx within Alberta and beyond and match businesses and entrepreneurs with the right freelancer for the job. Our social impact mission has always been to provide employment to marginalized communities as well as those who may have a harder time finding work, and so being named as one of Canada’s top 100 growing companies has shone a light on the positive social impact Virtual Gurus continues to build and foster.
Why did Virtual Gurus decide to support Innovation Week YYC’s launch party as a lounge sponsor, and what is the importance of this event for companies within Calgary’s tech community?
BR: In order to turn the dreams of underrepresented folks such as myself into a reality, it’s so important that we continue to work and innovate to nurture Calgary’s tech ecosystem. The only way this can be achieved is through ongoing conversations about the intentional and unintentional biases which can occur within the hiring processes of any and every company in our community. Sometimes, unfortunately, companies simply don’t know how to build a diverse talent pipeline, and so connecting and collaborating within our shared space is the only way to remedy this issue.
Weeks like this feed my entrepreneurial soul, and I can only hope Platform Calgary’s Innovation Week can be the same source of inspiration for other countless skilled and capable individuals from diverse communities this time around.