Hi folks! I’m Spiffy, your interplanetary journalist reporting from the Philippines on Planet Earth, back with a new guest. Ryan Dawa Gersava is working hard as the founder of Virtualahan to break down barriers! He’s going to talk to us about making a difference for people often discriminated against and excluded from employment opportunities because of their backgrounds and life circumstances. Let’s see how he’s doing it!
Spiffy: Welcome Ryan, I’m super excited to hear about your work! What challenge are you addressing and how are you tackling it?
Ryan: Thank you so much for having me today, Spiffy! Virtualahan is a social enterprise that eliminates employment barriers for people with disabilities, former sex workers, drug addicts, persons in jail, indigenous people, and other disadvantaged communities who are socially excluded in the workplace. We do this through online training, remote work, life-coaching, and community-building using cost-effective and transferrable social technology.
Spiffy: Wow, this sounds pretty amazing! What motivated you to take this on?
Ryan: Well Spiffy, I dreamed about becoming a medical doctor to help get my family out of poverty. I am the youngest of children, and neither of my parents finished high school. I worked hard as a scholar, finished school with flying colors and received a medical degree. I wanted to end the cycle of poverty in my family but I experienced discrimination from jobs because of a chronic disease that could’ve have been prevented if I had access to child vaccination. My experience helped me understand the root causes of the problem of discrimination. Since no one hired me, I decided to employ myself and I started Virtualahan to break down employment barriers for persons with disabilities and other disadvantaged groups using the equalizing power of technology.
Spiffy: Technology really is an equalizer, isn’t it? How else are you and Virtualahan striving to create a more equitable world?
Ryan: We provide excluded communities with economic opportunities and life skills to become productive, and we work with businesses and organizations to build a diverse and inclusive future. Our impact formula includes a five-week online skills training using a life-long learning approach, two-weeks of employment support, three weeks of apprenticeship, and one-year of life coaching. In the process, we help restore the dignity and confidence of our students, which opens doors for healing, economic empowerment, and active citizenship. We also educate our employment partners and help them improve their diversity and inclusion programs.
Spiffy: This is a very inclusive approach. What kind of milestones have you reached?
Ryan: Well, Spiffy, we have created jobs for 500+ people with disabilities and other disadvantaged groups in over 60 provinces nationwide. We have a 78% employment rate, and our graduates earn an average daily salary of $20.12 USD—more than twice the national average of $7.91 USD. In addition, 42% of our graduates increased their income threefold after one year of completing our program. Our impact formula also focuses on the holistic well-being of our people. In 2019, 78% of our participants reported an increase in their overall self-confidence, 84% learned to become self-sufficient, and 92% credit our program for helping them accept their own condition. There is also an increase in their participation in decision making in the family, and a strong sense of belonging to the community.
The Virtualahan team in front of Davao City Hall. (Image courtesy of Ryan Gersava)
Spiffy: This does sound incredibly holistic, Ryan. With all of these successes, I’m wondering if you’ve ever encountered failure? What did you do and what did you learn from your setbacks?
Ryan: Virtualahan lost everything and had to start over again twice in the last five years. That experience taught us that no obstacle is big enough to stop us from achieving our mission. What helped us is the clarity that we have about the root causes of the problem that we are solving and its systemic impact. We might not know exactly what the end goal is and how to get there but we have a very clear understanding of why the problem exists, why it continues to exist, and what will happen if we don't do something about it. We also discovered the value of co-creation in building sustainable solutions and how important it is to foster more change makers within our organization.
Spiffy: It sounds like you’re ripe for that sort of growth. What is something unexpected you’ve learned recently?
Ryan: Well, Spiffy, I’ve recently learned that I am comfortable with death. I realize it’s a difficult subject to discuss, but death is such a big part of the human experience. We can combat the negative stigma around it if we normalize talking about this experience and find peace with it even before it happens. In my case, I realized that I wanted to stay alive in the memories of the people who know me. I would prefer to be cremated right after my death and be buried in our farm with a tree. Being mindful of our finite existence has also made me appreciate life and think more about how to live life well. (And in case you’re wondering what has made me think about all this, I just secured my cremation insurance at the start of the year.)
Spiffy: Perhaps it’s never too early, but sometimes too late to think about those things. Is there anything else you’d like to share before we sign off?
Ryan: I’d love to share some links with your audience! These highlight several of our accomplishments! A Virtualahan Graduate’s Impact Story from Charina, Google Business Group Stories, the Ashoka Profile, the Global Citizen Prize, and finally, the World Summit Award ceremony.
Spiffy: I can’t wait to check these out, thanks so much Ryan! It’s been an absolute privilege to talk to you today! Congratulations and all the best!
Ryan Gersava is a social entrepreneur, educator, and disability rights advocate. Ryan is the founder and president of Virtualahan and Spectrum, companies that he founded after he experienced employment discrimination as a medical professional because of his chronic disease. Coming from a humble background in Sultan Kudarat province in the Philippines, Ryan is committed to creating systemic change, using empathy and technology, to get people out of poverty. (Nominated by Harvard Innovation Lab)