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Bobbie Racette, founder and CEO of the Virtual Gurus.Illustration by Chief Lady Bird

Bobbie Racette, a Cree and Métis woman, was born and raised in Saskatchewan. After working various jobs around the world for much of her young adult life, she settled in Calgary and worked as an oil and gas technician. When layoffs hit the energy industry in the mid-2010s, her groundbreaking business idea was born. Now, she is the founder and chief executive officer of Virtual Gurus, a digital platform that matches client companies with virtual assistants and freelancers, with the help of matchmaking algorithms.

Where did the idea for Virtual Gurus come from?

After some years of travel, I ended up working in oil and gas here in Alberta and worked my way up to a high-level safety technician. Just after I was promoted, massive layoffs were happening in the oil patch. Everybody around me was getting laid off and I needed to pivot, and fast, because I knew I didn’t have a lot of money saved. I was trying to find work in Calgary, but so many other people had been laid off; it was hard to find work. So, I took administrative jobs that I was doing remotely.

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It was around that time that I had the idea for Virtual Gurus. I was bidding as low as two to four dollars an hour on each task. I was saying to myself, “This is not right! There’s got to be a better way.” Many [companies] were offshoring to people in countries like the Philippines and Bangladesh, and the work force they were using there were not providing quality work. I decided that I needed to find a way where I could provide quality work while paying a fair wage and keeping the jobs in our own economy. That’s how Virtual Gurus came to be. I started it in 2016 and I was the only virtual assistant. Then the next year I hired our second virtual assistant and I started developing the technology that would simplify the matching process. Today it’s algorithms that do the matching between the freelancer and the clients using the service.

How helpful was Raven Indigenous Capital to Virtual Guru’s success?

In February, 2020, I reached out to many investors across Canada and I went on the road trying to raise money. At that time, nobody believed in me or my business proposal. In fact, 170 investors said no to me. Nonetheless, I persevered and approached Raven saying, “I saw that you invested in Animikii Indigenous Technology and I think you’re going to like what I’ve got.” I’m grateful that they believed in me and, looking back now, I could not have done it without their support.

How important is that Virtual Gurus have a diverse work force?

I’ve set a mandate where we would like 95 per cent of our freelancers to identify as females. Sixty-five per cent are part of the BIPOC community, and 45 per cent are part of the LGBTQ community. We have a lot of stay-at-home moms, people with disabilities, and people with mental-health issues. I see how many of these communities are left out of spaces and companies across the nation and around the globe, and I want to personally work to fix that.

Is educating your staff about Indigenous peoples and cultures an important part of your corporate culture?

It’s important that leaders, especially Indigenous leaders and especially in a work force where there are non-indigenous individuals working for us, educate those around us. It’s important for people to learn about what Indigenous culture is, and especially in Canada, what the residential school system is and what it has done. We encourage all of our staff to participate in open-access education like the course offered by the University of Alberta. We also encourage staff to go to powwows and take part in Truth and Reconciliation Day. We shut down the whole company on that day and we told them why. We ask questions and we let them ask questions, too. I think it’s important to do that.

One thing to remember is that we’re a very large, culturally diverse company. We have people from all walks of life working virtually for clients, so it’s important for us not just to focus on Indigenous culture, but to also implement this for other cultures.

Have residential schools affected your family?

Definitely. Many of my close family members attended these “schools.” My parents and grandparents have struggled with it our whole life; they’ve told me a lot of stories. They all have had a really rough upbringing and we still feel the intergenerational effects today.

What does leadership mean to you?

Leadership to me is being able to be vulnerable while being able to lead with distinction. You have to be able to pull people in and show them that it’s okay to be you, it’s okay to be vulnerable, it’s okay to be different. I think that being a leader is about paving the way for the next generation and not being afraid to do that.

Is there a difference between Indigenous and non-Indigenous leadership?

I think so. I don’t like saying that we have something to prove, but at the end of the day, we do have something to prove as Indigenous leaders. People always say to us that being an Indigenous person and a leader has been frowned upon, but it’s also society that has made it seem like we can’t lead. Every single one of us is proving that we can in fact be leaders.

There are certain things that we feel that we have to stand up for and be a little bit louder about. The resilience that all of us hold can get us through those tough moments. We’re all supporting each other, too. There are support groups and companies like Raven and all of these supporters of the Indigenous business collective coming out. We’re all coming out of the woodwork and it’s amazing to see. We’ve just got to keep that momentum going.

What is your advice to Indigenous youth reading this column?

Be you. Be bold and be brave. Do not change who you are just because the societal norms try to make you change who you are. I will always be me. I will always stay humble.

It’s also important to be open-minded. Learn about other cultures outside of your own. Don’t just think about your own culture. There are so many other rich cultures out there that we need to learn about as well.

Canada has a long history of dispossession, oppression and discrimination of Indigenous peoples. The future, however, is filled with hope. The Indigenous population is the fastest growing demographic in Canada; its youth are catalyzing change from coast to coast to coast. Indigenous knowledge and teachings are guiding innovative approaches to environmental protection and holistic wellness worldwide. Indigenous scholars are among those leading the way in exciting new research in science, business and beyond. There is no better or more urgent time to understand and celebrate the importance of Indigenous insight, culture and perspective.

Optimism is rare in media. And coverage of Indigenous peoples often fails to capture their brilliance, diversity and strength. In this weekly interview series, we will engage Indigenous leaders in thoughtful conversation and showcase their stories, strategies, challenges and achievements.

Karl Moore is a professor at the Desautels Faculty of Management at McGill University in Montreal. He is also an associate fellow at Green Templeton College at Oxford University. He was the host of a long-running video series for The Globe and Mail in which he interviewed chief executive officers and business professors from the top universities in the world. His column, Rethinking Leadership, has been published at Forbes.com since 2011. He has established a global reputation for his research and writing on leadership, and has interviewed more than 1,000 leaders, including CEOs, prime ministers and generals.

Wáhiakatste Diome-Deer is completing her master’s degree in educational leadership at McGill. She holds a bachelor of arts degree in psychology and brain sciences from Dartmouth College in New Hampshire and has completed graduate work at Harvard University in Massachusetts. She is a consultant in education, leadership and Indigenization for organizations and schools, and has previously held positions at the Kahnawake Education Center, the Quebec Native Women Association and the Canadian Executive Service Organization. Ms. Diome-Deer is a traditional Kanien’kehá:ka woman from the community of Kahnawà:ke.

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