Virtualahan: Digital skills for persons with disabilities

A social enterprise in the Philippines envisions a more inclusive workplace.

by Portia Ladrido

“The foundation is to basically realize the dream of creating an inclusive, sustainable, and meaningful workplace for disadvantaged people,” explained Ryan Gersava, founder of the enterprise. © Virtualahan

Ryan Gersava grew up in the southern Philippines, where jobs are scarce and income inequality is apparent. Nevertheless, he and his family persisted to power through their circumstances. At 16, however, Ryan was diagnosed to have an incurable medical condition.

Still, this didn’t stop him from doing well in school and finishing university. Upon applying for jobs, he quickly learned that his medical condition was a hindrance to being offered a job. He tried to apply to work in Dubai, had an offer, but was forfeited because of his condition.

“Because I couldn’t get a job, I opted to work online, which is how I supported myself when I was still studying. I was doing a lot of research, managing, e-commerce for my clients during my free time,” Ryan said.

This then sparked an idea: if he could earn a decent income by being at home with a laptop and an internet connection, there must be other people who may be physically disabled or people who may have medical conditions that would greatly benefit from working online — all while not having to face workplace discrimination.

“The foundation is to basically realize the dream of creating an inclusive, sustainable, and meaningful workplace for disadvantaged people,” he explained.

“I’m talking about people with medical, mental, and psychosocial disabilities and I’m also talking about people who are deprived of opportunities because of where they came from, like indigenous people.”

In 2015, he built Virtualahan, a wordplay between ‘virtual’ and ‘eskwelahan’ (which means school in Filipino).

INKLINE talked to Gersava about the story of Virtualahan and how it hopes to achieve a more inclusive workplace across the globe.

INKLINE: How has Virtualahan been since it started in 2015?

Ryan Gersava: We know that what PWDs (Persons With Disabilities) need are just the fundamental skills so that they can start working on their career as an online professional.

Since Virtualahan started, we have been named the most preferred outsourcing destination in the world, our internet infrastructure is getting better and we’re purely bootstrap now.

We started from our own pocket and since, Virtualahan has grown from having zero founders to now with seven leaders in my team. We have a league of coaches, we have over 130 beneficiaries in 28 cities from all over the Philippines and we have a 74 percent employment rate.

And, we have a growing community of members with rare medical conditions like, for example, this year’s batch has the only case of Noonan syndrome. 

I: Supposing a would-be student signs up on Virtualahan. What kind of training do they undergo?

R: We have created what we call a Virtualahan team platform on which we invite candidates to join our training and if they pass the training, they are given a scholarship. It’s a kind of train now, pay later model – so they don’t have to pay anything upfront but it’s not a total dole out.

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One of the training sessions of Virtualahan. Typically, sessions are done online. © Virtualahan

They undergo six weeks of intensive digital skills training, mostly on customer service, digital marketing, administrative support, and now we’re expanding into data management, content moderation, and a lot of human intelligence to provide AI support to companies. And then after they successfully complete the program, they are given three months of employment support.

It’s either we directly hire them or we place them to our outsourcing partners, or we help them in their online job applications. So websites like Upwork, onlinejobs.ph, and others.

I: Are there digital experts who facilitate the training?

R: We have partnered with an association of virtual assistant leaders. Kasi, my brother has been working online for eight years now and he’s one of the co-founders of an informal group composed of 30-50 experts. We source our trainers from them.

I: What are the components of the social enterprise? What are the pillars that serve as the foundation of the business model?

R: Component number one is skills training. Two is employment support. Three is well-being. The third one is like a support group session, creating a space for people to basically open up and be themselves. The reason for that is for example, in my case, nobody knows about my condition, not even my parents. They only knew until Virtualahan turned one.

During our first anniversary, that was when my parents knew that I had this particular medical condition. I struggled with that alone. I felt that I couldn’t tell anyone because of the stigma and discrimination that is associated with my disease. There’s a lot of misconception. 

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The Virtualahan team whose goal is to be the leader in workplace diversity and inclusivity. © Virtualahan

In the session, when you read all the pains and struggles, statements like, until when do we live in the shadows? It’s super painful and I know because I’ve been there. And also, a lot of people are not contributing to the economy because they are deprived of employment for a medical reason that can easily be addressed. Also, socially, psychologically, it affects not just the person but the people around them.

That’s why there’s a well-being session. The purpose of that is to help people embrace their disability. If you cannot overcome it, there basically is no way up. Teach them about empathy, undeveloped confidence, enhance their emotional intelligence, that would turn them to into advocates of their own condition.

The fourth component of our impact formula is the advocacy. We run a lot of advocacy campaigns. So again, it’s a work in progress, so that basically formed the pillars of what we’re doing.

I: You mentioned you try to partner with companies who can hire a PWD. What challenges do you face when you try to partner with companies?

R: Number one, they don’t understand, so they just say no for the reason that they cannot hire a PWD. Another, for those people who are more advanced, those who have more diversity and are more inclusive, they want to hire, but they don’t have the framework to do it. They’re scared. It’s not about the jobs that they can provide but it’s about supporting the person with a disability. Like okay, we hired a PWD, what happens next?

The problem is especially in Western or multinational companies, the problem is like, they’re still like an overprotected stage mother when they employ persons with disabilities, so it’s under their CSR arm because it’s good for marketing, the payroll is still coming from their CSR.

When a PWD is hired by a company and people are always telling them ‘hey you don’t need to do that you might get hurt’ and stuff like that, instead of feeling productive that he’s doing well in his job, the person feels guilty getting a paycheck at the end of the month because the person didn’t do anything productive.

I: What has been the core of the company and what is your ultimate goal?

R: We thought we were a company who would just help people find a job, but the core of what we’re doing is actually the community that we’ve built and how we’ve organically built a movement within these individuals to empower them to basically dream again.

Ultimate goal really is the leader of diversity and inclusion. We are starting with PWDs but now we are launching our project with indigenous people in Sultan Kudarat, we are launching our project with drug dependents because when you’re labelled drug dependent, it’s difficult for you to get a job as well.

To invent the future of work where no one is left behind — that’s really the vision.

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