Ryan Gersava

Ashoka Fellow
Ashoka Philippines Fellow Ryan Gersava smiles while wearing a collared shirt with the logo of his organization Virtualahan
Philippines
Fellow since 2019
This description of Ryan Gersava's work was prepared when Ryan Gersava was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2019 .

Introduction

Ryan ensures that the most excluded populations of society are given equal opportunities for high-level work in the new digital economy using an impact formula that integrates well-being sessions and community-building with digital job skills training.

The New Idea

Ryan is designing a cost-effective and transferable social technology that allows socially excluded populations to access work in the global digital economy. His method is tailored to suit those who struggle with social exclusion due to the social stigma attached to their conditions such as Persons With Disabilities (PWDs), Persons Deprived of Liberty (PDL), recovering drug addicts, and former sex workers. He is opening up the means for them to first acquire in-demand job skills to boost their economic capacity while underwriting a community culture that fosters self-care, empathy, and personal advocacies—leading many to rethink and redefine their conditions and take ownership of their future and personal narratives.

Through virtual training and coaching, Ryan and his team impart digital literacy and life coaching to any Filipino with access to broadband and a computer. This method proves to be a cost-effective and accessible way for those that cannot physically work in a traditional office set up, to perform high-value work from their homes. Well-being and community building sessions are also provided to scholars to aid them in overcoming the debilitating effects of social and economic exclusion, allowing them to transform their negative experiences into powerful testimonials and means to connect with others.

Economic independence through job security is just the starting point Ryan sees in the upliftment of the socially excluded—the real work is in providing them with the well-being mechanisms and life skills to become leaders in their own capacity and community. Many of Virtualahan’s graduates have gone onto building their small groups of support and are empowered to rally behind one another’s struggles and advocacies.

The Problem

Ryan believes that it is a common struggle of humanity to experience different conditions that may “disable” them in one way or another and the conversation around disability vis-à-vis employment needs to shift. The traditional view of PWDs as those who are blind, deaf, or with mobility issues is not inclusive of those who struggle with “invisible” conditions such as mental or chronic illnesses. The spectrum of disability could be redefined in such a way that almost anyone who is considered human has been disabled at least once in their life. From this premise, Ryan is rallying for a change in the mindset of employers and employees alike wherein one’s disability shouldn’t prevent them from high-value work and the opportunity for social mobility.

Virtualahan started with exploring impact sourcing for PWDs due to Ryan’s personal experience with disability and remote work. Now, it is seeking to expand its toolbox of inclusion to include other groups who struggle with social stigma. In terms of pathways for their graduates, Virtualahan set its sights on the global ICT sector as an ideal employer due to the millions of remote jobs available digitally. The ICT sector would benefit from an untapped workforce who can meet their rising demand for digitally-skilled employees from a predominantly English speaking and internet-savvy population. The Business Process Outsourcing industry in the Philippines already has a high demand for skilled workers that isn’t being adequately filled because of the prevailing job-skills mismatch wherein about 63 million Filipinos lack the digital skills to take advantage of the booming ICT industry. With the proper shift in mindset and increase in digital literacy initiatives, millions of Filipinos will be able to access a ripe job market that can improve their quality of living and economic independence.

PWDs and other special populations are at an integral juncture to take advantage of the upward demand for ICT workers and the increasing broadband connectivity in the country. While PWDS are traditionally excluded from local formal sector jobs, North American and European multinational companies are a potential source for large demands of digitally-skilled yet socially impeded workers because of their legal obligation to reach quotas on inclusivity and diversity. In a study done on PWDs in 2005, it was reported that only 32.5% of the 1.4 million employable PWDs in the Philippines were able to secure jobs. More so, half of the employed PWDs are either underemployed, vulnerable workers, self-employed, or unpaid family workers. There are also hundreds of thousands of former PDLs and recovering drug dependents that are seeking a new lease on life that only a stable job and income can help them sustain. As the community of Virtualahan continues to grow with the fight against social stigma at its core, they are also leading the formation of best practices in the rapidly growing digital workforce. Taking note of this trend, the Department of ICT is currently implementing the National Broadband Plan that is aiming for about 50% of Philippine households to have access to broadband internet by 2020 and 90% by 2027; they have also adopted a similar training curriculum as Virtualahan for PWDs.

The Strategy

Ryan spearheads the movement of owning and redefining one’s disability in five levels. First, he seeks to empower scholars through in-demand digital skills training as the doorway to better economic participation and security. In Virtualahan, the job-skills training runs for six weeks and then the scholars are supported throughout the job application process. 42% of Virtualahan’s graduates had their income increased by threefold as a result of the program. As of 2019, the average daily salary of a Virtualahan graduate is 20.12 USD—more than twice the national average of 7.91 USD. Better opportunities and wages have greatly improved the lives of the PWDs and their loved ones as they become highly capable to finance their needed medical treatments or lifestyle improvements.

Second, Ryan acknowledges that capacity-building isn’t sustainable on its own and there is a need to focus on rehabilitating the trauma their community has faced. The well-being mechanisms championed by Virtualahan evolves organically from the unique sensitivities and difficulties experienced by the PWDs and its other community members. The well-being sessions, life coaching, and community-building activities are introduced by the Virtualahan staff during the initial job-skills training and are sustained well-after graduation by the alumni. The community themselves feel a sense of empowerment when they can support each other during negative experiences and believe their civic engagement will grow more sophisticated as more members come together and find their voice. In 2019, Virtualahan graduates reported a 78% increase in their overall self-confidence; wherein 98% of those interviewed felt a strong sense of belonging in the community, 84% learned to become self-sufficient, and 92% credit Virtualahan for helping them accept their condition.

The advocacies that graduates have undertaken are often based on their conditions, for example, an emotional support group for quadriplegics, empowerment campaign for young deaf girls, and workshops to deal with the psychological stress of chronic or terminal illnesses. Other graduates who have secured jobs outside of Virtualahan’s partner employers advocate for inclusive employment in their workplace and lead their executives to commit to hiring more PWDs and partnering with Virtualahan.

Third, Ryan explores different methods to encourage inclusive practices and spaces that are more mindful of socially excluded populations. One approach is e-learning as a tool to educate companies on inclusive workforce practices. He determined that this would be the ideal pathway for spreading Virtualahan’s impact as it is a cost-effective method of equipping more companies to hire inclusively. By working on both sides of the employment paradigm—empowering the socially excluded populations and educating employers on the value of inclusion—Ryan is ensuring that all sides are engaged in the conversation and that the demand for PWD workers will foster more awareness on the condition of marginalized populations. Another innovative approach is half-time employment, which ensures consistent and quality work within a demographic who may have trouble working on fixed schedules. Half-time employees are grouped together to perform pre-assigned tasks wherein if one member cannot work for a certain period because of their condition, the other members step in and ensure that the tasks are still accomplished on time.

Fourth, he looks for partners and investors who share the same vision of mobilizing an emerging community of social change agents. Locally, Virtualahan is already working with several large companies as partners or clients, three national departments looking to adopt their training curriculum, and local governments who wish to localize the program of digital literacy for target vulnerable groups (i.e. PDLs in Lapu-lapu City, recovering drug addicts in Cebu City, and at-risk youth in Sultan Kudarat). Globally, they are currently working with companies and organizations in the USA, Sri Lanka, New Zealand, Germany, Panama, and Syria to provide actionable recommendations in hiring their graduates or to replicate Virtualahan in their region. Some notable partners who have committed to hiring thousands of PWDs are Accenture and Globe Telecom. The increasing demand for skilled PWDs inspired by Virtualahan graduates positions Ryan’s team to take on bigger batches of scholars to scale their impact. A pool of close to 2,500 applicants are currently waitlisted, and the Virtualahan team is committed to serving them all by taking in a minimum of 1,000 scholars per year and replicating their training and operations into a global, PWD-led movement for inclusion.

Lastly, Ryan is continually collaborating with other social entrepreneurs and organizations to further refine Virtualahan’s impact methodology and mutually explore the establishment of certification and regulatory systems to foster better compliance of inclusive employment. Virtualahan has joined several local and regional focused group discussions such as the Global Disability Summit, Asia Pacific Diversity Forum, and the Philippine Business Disability Network to exchange knowledge and ideas with others in the same space.

The Person

Ryan is the youngest of eleven and spent his childhood in a town called Sultan Kudarat—one of the poorest provinces in the Philippines. Growing up, his family had to move several times due to financial problems and conflict within their community. When he was seven years old, his family was forced to live under a shacked up tarpaulin at the back of a church for three years. Despite living in abject poverty, his parents always put great importance in their children’s education. Ryan and his siblings were always at the top of their class—they had an edge over other students because for them, being short of number one meant losing a full scholarship, their ticket to an education.

With excellent academic and extra-curricular performance, Ryan was easily able to secure a spot as a pre-medicine student at a local university. It was during his first year in college that he discovered he is positive for Hepatitis B. Upon the advice of a peer, Ryan kept his diagnosis a secret due to the career-threatening implications. As he continued studying medicine, Ryan was awakened to the negative stigma that surrounds those with disease and disabilities even amongst doctors and medical professionals. Despite graduating with impressive marks, he failed to secure any job due to his diagnosis. Disillusioned from his dream of becoming a medical technician, Ryan decided to work online where his condition wasn’t factored into his employability. He then discovered the wealth of opportunities and the empowering potential of the digital economy for people who are traditionally barred from accessing work due to discrimination.

In 2015, he co-founded Virtualahan with his siblings and is continuing to develop the best methodology to optimize their impact formula and reach. Years of exploring different approaches—from social enterprise, hybrid models and other non-profit systems, Ryan is now refining the social technology they have developed and is working on making it transferable to companies. As a leader of the Virtualahan community, he is committed to holding the space open for PWDs and others who struggle through negative stigma to be able to access work and fellowship in a safe and empowering setting.