This featured story is brought to you by the Power of Why Podcast in collaboration with Invest Ottawa. We teamed up to produce this special series in celebration of AccelerateOTT, Ottawa’s flagship entrepreneurial conference. Visit www.accelerateott.ca to learn more.
I had $300 in my pocket after I got laid off, and now my business is valued at $22 million.
In the midst of losing her job, Bobbie Racette set out to build a platform that would economically empower others. As the Founder and CEO of Virtual Gurus, this Cree-Metis champion for Indigenous and 2SLGBTQIA+ communities is doing just that through her inclusivity-first talent and services solution.
Today, Bobbie, recently named Canada’s Indigenous Entrepreneur of the Year, works with a 150-person-strong team to champion marginalized groups, setting a new business standard rooted in community impact.
We caught up with Bobbie to talk about approaching the right investors for your business, staying true to yourself, and taking your power back.
Tune in to the podcast or take the time to digest each article found below. Regardless, Bobbie’s story is sure to spark inspiration for your own entrepreneurial venture.
This episode is for you if:
- You’ve recently lost your job
- You want to create a meaningful diversity strategy
- You’re struggling to raise money for your business
- You believe economic empowerment is critical for equity
Looking for something specific?
[4:30] How Virtual Gurus matches business owners with top talent
[5:30] The goals and metrics that define Bobbie’s commitment to diversity
[6:30] Pushback on diversity and inclusion mandate from investors – what it means to be non-compromising about your values and vision
[7:20] 2 years on the road and 170 “no’s” later…
[9:00] To be or not to be [yourself]?
[10:10] Why mass lay-offs prompted Bobbie to start her business (before being let-go)
[12:30] Bobbie’s ideal client
[14:00] Quality talent and fair wages
[15:34] Kickstarting Virtual Gurus with just $300
[17:00] Virtual Gurus, a two-sided marketplace
[18:00] Building skills, creating community, and encouraging growth
[19:11] Here’s what investors look for before they’ll invest in your company
[20:20] How approaching “impact investors” changed the game
[23:27] Knowing when to introduce new integrations
[25:55] Building a business without the formal background
[27:00] When Bobbie choked five minutes before her pitch
[28:00] Putting yourself out there and persevering, nerves and all
[30:00] Inspiring young Indigenous women
[37:05] Battling imposter syndrome
[37:43] Believe that you are the best person to run your company
[39:29] What to look out for in the gig economy’s $455 trillion market
Naomi: Bobbie, can you tell us a bit about yourself?
Bobbie: I’m a huge traveler, but I hail from Regina, Saskatchewan. I’m the Founder at Virtual Gurus, where we help business owners and entrepreneurs connect with the talent they need to drive everything from their back office administration to marketing, web design, bookkeeping, social media, legal, medical and financial assistance.
We have over 400 virtual assistants working on the platform, and are onboarding 100 as we’ve landed a number of large corporate accounts. We pride ourselves on the fact that every single one of these people are based in Canada.
What sets us apart from the competition is our diversity and inclusion mandate, and our commitment to providing work to marginalized communities. We want 95% of our contractors to be women. 65% are Black, Indigenous or people of color. 45% are members of the 2SLGBTQIA+ community.
We welcome people with disabilities, stay-at-home moms, people in the army and veterans. Our goal is to offer meaningful work to them all.
Naomi: It’s rare for companies to be so outspoken and clear on their hiring goals. For you to be clear and uncompromising is inspiring. But I also know you’ve received some pushback on this.
Bobbie: Raising money is one of the most daunting things I’ve ever had to do. I don’t like asking for help. Virtual Gurus seed round was 1 million. It took two years and 170 investors saying no to close my financing round. I’m a woman, I’m LGBTQ and I’m Indigenous. I don’t like saying that’s why it took so long but the research clearly shows that those parts of my identity are often a factor.
A lot of the investors I met with gave some really valuable feedback. However, some of them suggested that I don’t talk about community or our diversity mandate. That it’s not about that, but it’s about scaling growth. But this is about me scaling people.
I’m always myself. I usually wear jeans, Converse shoes, and a black T-shirt or button-down. You can see my arm tattoos. And I would often get an investor telling me that maybe I could come in without them showing. But they have nothing to do with my skillset.
At some point, I thought I should change how I dress. I should change my pitch. Maybe I won’t talk about diversity. But I just shook my head and realized that businesses these days do talk about that. I’m really happy with how we closed our funding round. We’re working with investors who are perfect for us.
Naomi: Take us back to when you first identified the problem that drove you to build Virtual Gurus.
Bobbie: I had moved to Alberta to work in the oil and gas sector. The pay was good. I would work 12-hour shifts and go back to my camp and do that three, four, five weeks at a time before getting time off. Then the layoffs started. Oil prices plummeted.
I realized that I had to pivot if I wanted a chance at finding work in the city. I looked online, where the freelance gig economy thrives. I signed up for companies who are now considered our competitors. While I thought it was amazing, the pay was extremely low. For one task, I bid $2 an hour just to get a task. Who can live off of that?
A lot of these companies were offshoring overseas. That’s not a bad thing, but a lot of folks on our turf don’t want offshore support. A lot of people wanted to work with me because I was based in Canada. That’s when I realized there was an opportunity for me to provide meaningful work and offer a fair wage. That’s how Virtual Gurus began.
I started by putting up a funny splash page online, going on Kijiji. I built out my ideal client, the quality of service I wanted to offer. I was a virtual assistant, while, at the same time, working 12-hour night shifts as a foreman. After them, I’d go back to my camp where I’d work another four to five hours in my room.
I had 19 clients and word was getting around that there was someone in Canada doing this great work. It was catching on, so I started work on a bigger site. The number one thing was that I wanted to provide equal talent and offer a fair wage. I worked on a lot of pricing models to ensure that our platform had a healthy margin.
Naomi: While you were working those long hours, what kept you going?
Knowing that layoffs were coming, that I would need a job. But, also, my work ethic comes from my mom. She’s worked hard her entire life. I will say that once you create something, it becomes your baby. You get that adrenaline rush when you see things happen.
I had $300 in my pocket after I got laid off, and now my business is valued at $22 million Canadian.
Naomi: When did you know you were ready to bring people onto your team?
Bobbie: I brought my first assistant from Kijiji. I wanted to find someone on the East Coast because a lot of my clients were based there. That was my first virtual assistant, and she stayed with us for four years.
I worked on the site and algorithms, going to community groups like Startup Calgary, Calgary Economic Development, and putting myself through an accelerator. I was in Arlene Dickinson’s for six months. Fast forward to today where we have a full tech team working on our platform. It’s two-sided because we’re a two-sided marketplace: one for the clients, and the other for virtual assistants. Clients can click and pick the talent they want, and VAs get access to skill building, tests, and a whole community through Slack.
We’re closing our Series A right now, to build out our machine learning capabilities to allow for mass onboarding, because we can’t keep up with the growth.
Naomi: What have you learned about investors, and what they’re looking for in a business?
Bobbie: You always have to prove yourself when it comes to raising money. You have to prove that you have a viable product. Some investors want technology, others want revenue. That’s why it’s important that they put their portfolios on their website, so you know whether they’re right for your business.
Things changed for us when we started approaching impact investors. We’re an impact startup. We provide work to marginalized folks. When I could communicate that the reason why we needed more funding is to provide more work because we can’t keep up with the growth – instead of because I needed to build out our technology – more people came on.
This next round has been so much easier. We haven’t had to go looking for investors. When I closed out funding in 2020, we had five full-time staff and were at around two million in annual recurring revenue. Now, we’re at about six million with 30 full-time.
Naomi: Ask Betty is a new integration for Virtual Gurus. Why did you add it to your product?
Bobbie: Virtual Gurus has a subscription model, where the lowest package you can sign up for is 10 hours a month with a dedicated virtual assistant. But we had folks reaching out to us and saying that they only need support with a task here and there, and they didn’t care who their virtual assistant is. So that’s where the idea for Ask Betty came to life.
You can go on Slack and download it, and through Ask Betty, you’ll get your own personal assistant on-demand. You can just say “hey, Betty, I’m doing a podcast, can you transcribe it?” And it’ll send it right back to your Slack. It’s getting a lot of love.
The thing is, we’ve essentially started two startups at once. It’s a lot of work. There’s so much movement. So you have to ask, what do we focus on right now? There are always budget constraints.
Naomi: You don’t come from a business background. What was it like having to learn everything on your own?
Demo days are big in the startup world. I really struggled with public speaking when I started out. For my demo day, when I was in Arlene Dickinson’s tech accelerator, five minutes before I had to go on stage, I choked. I ran out of the building and went home. I was so nervous, crying, getting sick. I had to work to get over that.
I reached out to people in the startup community for help. I felt like I needed to redeem myself. So I flew out to Montreal for Startupfest, and pitched. I ended up being the runner-up for the $100,000 prize – this is out of 3,000 people. That’s when I was like “you know what, I can do this.”
I’m an introvert, so it’s been a struggle. But I just keep putting myself out there. The most empowering thing has been getting past this and learning so much about myself. I’ve persevered over and over again. Now you can put me in front of a crowd and I’ll be fine.
Nerves are good. Channel them, get pumped, get happy. Before a speaking engagement, I’ll go to the mirror and do a Superwoman pose. On stage, I’m jacked with a big smile on my face. And then more and more speaking events and requests started coming in.
Naomi: How do you feel when you look at how far you’ve come?
My number one goal is to inspire people, especially young Indigenous women. When I only had $300 in my pocket, I was borrowing money from my mom to pay rent. I was laid off. The package wasn’t much. I still have a long way to go. But at the end of the day, it’s not about me. It’s about all the people I’m providing work for who have struggled as well. That’s what gets me out of bed.
I have this motto, and it’s “Inspire one, inspire a nation.”
If I can inspire people to work past the barriers of starting a business, of being a woman in tech, a lesbian in tech, an Indigenous woman in tech. You have to keep pushing. I’m not shy to talk about where I came from because others need to know that they have it in them to do it.
Turn the bad things in your life into good things. My mom isn’t just proud of me. She’ll look at me sometimes and go, “where did this come from?” If everyone did just a little bit of this in their entrepreneurial journey the world would be a whole different place.
Naomi: You talk about Virtual Gurus being an impact-focused firm. Where did your thinking and intentionality come from?
Bobbie: When I realized Virtual Gurus was going to scale, it was a light bulb moment. I had to leverage my voice and platform to help people who were struggling to find work, especially marginalized communities. They are our North Star, and we’ve rebranded so they’re right at the top of our logo. What we do, we do for them.
Sometimes, a virtual assistant will reach out on Slack and say “thank you for helping me provide food for my family.” We want these people to feel empowered, like they’re part of a community. So they can support each other and learn from one another. That’s why we launched the Virtual Gurus Academy, which is by virtual assistants, for virtual assistants.
Our newest, largest account from the US, is coming to us for 100 virtual assistants because they love this angle we’ve taken with diversity. We are now able to provide 100 different people who are BIPOC community jobs. If everybody puts numbers and mandates on their website we can make a real difference.
Naomi: That was something that investors told you to get rid of. Not everyone’s gonna see it, but the people that you’re meant to work with will.
Bobbie: It feels good. We are doing what we set out to do. Every single one of my 32 staff… That’s why we work here. It’s amazing to see how close it brings my team together as well.
Naomi: Are there any other experiences that helped validate that you were on the right path?
Bobbie: When I was about to get laid off, I hired a fellow that I met online to be our CEO. I didn’t think I could do it. Imposter syndrome. That was my number one mistake because I gave up quite a bit of buying shares. I didn’t think Virtual Gurus would get as big as it is now. Maybe six to eight months after he came in, I realized our visions weren’t the same, and that I needed to take over. That there was nobody better to run the business than myself.
Taking my power back, to help it scale, was one of the most empowering, beautiful things ever. I came out of my shell. That’s why I went to Montreal, pacing back and forth in front of a pitching tent, in front of thousands. Just the fact that I got on stage was winning for me.
It’s important that we understand that we are the best people to run our businesses. Everybody’s going to make mistakes. I’ve made plenty. You need to learn from them to grow. I tell these stories all the time because they made me who I am today. That’s why I’ve been able to scale like this.
Naomi: Thank you for being honest, that this is about learning as you go. Now, I’d like to know whether there’s anything interesting going on in your industry that you can share with us today?
Bobbie: The gig economy and the sharing economy, freelancer economy, is a $455 trillion market in North America. There’s a lot of food gig workers, administration and freelance.
Upwork, for example, started years ago. Platforms like ours are coming out and taking a completely different approach. We’re providing quality talent. There are other platforms in the US, but we’re the only one in Canada. In the US, some have revenues of $100 to $400 million a year. That’s because they’re approaching it with a fresh perspective, too. We’re onto something in Canada, but we’re actually scaling big time in the US right now. It’s rare, but 60% of our clients are based there.
I love how much this industry is changing. The cycle is refreshing.
Connect with Bobbie
- Virtual Gurus’ Website: thevirtualgurus.com
- Ask Betty’s Website: askbetty.io
- Virtual Gurus’ Twitter: @virtual_gurus
- Bobbie’s Twitter: @bobbie_racette
- Virtual Gurus’ Instagram: @virtual_gurus
- Bobbie’s LinkedIn: Bobbie Racette
Connect with Naomi
About the Power of Why Host, Naomi Haile
An intrapreneur, consultant, and interviewer.
Naomi Haile is curious about people, their paths and what drives them. In 2017, she launched the Power of Why Podcast. Her guests have taken the non-linear path in business, venture capital and other creative professions to share their story. Each episode explores people’s philosophy on life and work.
As we all navigate our lives and careers, Naomi hopes that everyone she connects with – guests and listeners – can shape products, companies, and communities of impact.
Naomi is a consultant at QuakeLab. She is starting graduate school at Columbia University.
Check out other inspiring stories in this special series in celebration of AccelerateOTT:
AccelerateOTT rallies hundreds of founders, innovators, industry veterans, investors, tech giants, and a host of entrepreneurial partners from Canada’s Capital Region across Canada and worldwide. This one-day flagship entrepreneurship conference hosted by Invest Ottawa strives to equip, connect, and create new opportunities and impact for founders, entrepreneurs, business owners, startups, scaling firms, SMEs, and their partners. It aims to catalyze their growth and success by addressing key opportunities and challenges facing the startup and scale-up community; providing actionable insight entrepreneurs can put to work; and facilitating relevant investor, customer, and market connections. Visit Invest Ottawa’s venture path programs to see how we can help your business thrive.