Being laid off from the oil and gas sector turned out to be a fortuitous event for Calgary’s Bobbie Racette because it set her on the path to high-tech success and allowed her to follow her “north star” of providing work for others.
Her workers are the first thing on her mind when waking every morning, Racette said from Calgary on Thursday.
Racette was named Thursday as the University of Victoria’s Peter B. Gustavson School of Business 2023 Distinguished Entrepreneur of the Year Award recipient.
The award will be presented on Oct. 17 at the Victoria Conference Centre.
Racette, 45, who is Cree-Métis, is founder and chief executive of Virtual Gurus and askBetty, which deliver a wide range of online administrative services to large and small companies in Canada and the U.S.
Many of the workers Racette thinks about are from underrepresented groups. Employees include single parents, veterans, Indigenous and 2SLGBTQIA+. Some work the equivalent of full-time while others are part-time.
Virtual Gurus has dedicated assistants, who are paid by the hour, and askBetty completes tasks for clients who do not need long-term workers.
The U.S. represents 60 per cent of the business with the remaining 40 per cent in Canada. The U.K. will be next market Racette pursues.
She is the majority owner of a company she said is worth $70 million, and is now pursuing another round of funding.
Racette said: ‘I never, ever, ever thought I would be an entrepreneur.
“My dream was to be a music instructor for deaf children.” She learned sign language at a school in Vancouver.
Racette left her home town of Regina at 18 to spend a decade travelling and working. She spent a lot of time in B.C. picking fruit, worked in nightclubs clearing tables in Europe and cleaned hotels in Mexico. At times, she lived in a van.
She credits those experiences with helping her succeed in business. “A lot of that gave me the discipline to be able to be able to manage this company.”
Racette was living in Calgary and working as a safety technician foreman in the oil and gas sector when she lost her job due to an economic slump in 2016. During the subsequent job hunt, she spotted a gap in the market. She realized that online administrative services were supplied offshore and so, with just $300 and a lot of bootstrapping, Racette set up her own company and hired her first virtual assistant in 2017. By 2018, revenue had reached $265,000 and she had several virtual assistants.
Now, she has about 800 virtual assistants in Canada and the U.S. working for Virtual Gurus and askBetty. Another 50 employees are in the Calgary office, including a dozen technical experts.
Virtual Gurus trains and connects highly skilled, remote workers to serve as virtual assistants. They work with companies needing on-demand help that can be scaled quickly to meet clients’ changing needs. Internal courses are provided for workers, Racette said.
“We listen to our Virtual Gurus stories, and everyone is unique. I am proud of the opportunities we provide for underrepresented folks by growing and scaling Virtual Gurus without losing focus of our north star,” she said.
“I am honoured to receive such an award.”
When Racette was starting up, 170 venture capitalists turned her down. She recently closed on an $8.4-million funding round, becoming the first Indigenous woman in Canada to do so, UVic said.
Saul Klein, dean of the Gustavson School of Business, said: “Bobbie’s commitment to her vision and drive to empower others is an important example to our students and any aspiring entrepreneur. “She has shown how passion and tenacity can be translated into a values-based business success.”
Peter Gustavson, chair of the award committee, said: “Bobbie’s unwavering focus on building thriving, inclusivity-first platforms is changing the Canadian tech industry in critically important ways.”
Racette is a mentor at eCommerce North, a member of The51’s community council to support businesswomen, and serves on the board of the Telus Friendly Future Foundation, which helps young people facing obstacles to reach their potential.
When not busy with business, she spends time with her partner, their two dogs, and loves to read, garden and play golf.
For tickets to the gala, go to the UVic website.
Past Distinguished Entrepreneur of the Year recipients
2022: Ratana and Arran Stephens, Co-Founders of Nature’s Path
2021: Anthony von Mandl, O.C., O.B.C. Founder and CEO of The Mark Anthony Group
2020: Jim Pattison, Chairman and CEO of The Jim Pattison Group
2019: Sue Paish, Q.C. CEO of Canada’s Digital Technology Supercluster
2018: Stewart Butterfield, Co-Founder and CEO of Slack
2017: Don Mattrick, former President of Microsoft Interactive Entertainment Business
2016: Linda Hasenfratz, CEO of Linamar Corporation
2015: David Foster, businessman, philanthropist and record producer
2014: Dennis Washington, Founder of The Washington Companies
2013: Brandt C. Louie, President and CEO of H.Y. Louie Co.
2012: Dennis (Chip) Wilson, Founder of lululemon athletica
2011: JR Shaw, Founder of Shaw Communications
2010: Dr. Alex Campbell Sr., Co-founder of Thrifty Foods
2009: Sir Terence Matthews, Chair of Mitel Corporation and Chair and Founder of Wesley Clover
2008: Clive Beddoe, a founding shareholder in WestJet
2007: David Black, President of Black Press
2006: Gwyn Morgan CM, former President and CEO of EnCana Corp.
2005: Dave Ritchie, Chair and former CEO of Ritchie Bros. Auctioneers Inc.
2004: Inaugural Recipient Jeff Mallett, former President and COO of Yahoo!
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