Ryan Gersava’s social enterprise, Virtualahan, was born out of necessity. It answered a need for the 27-year-old to create his own job after being excluded from the workforce himself, while at the same time providing a scalable solution for people facing discrimination across the Philippines.
Gersava grew up in poverty in a rural community, but by using technology to access education was able to apply to college and gain a medical degree. Despite this achievement, he was turned away from a graduate job after passing all stages of the application process simply because of a medical diagnosis.
“Essentially, no one employed me so I employed myself,” he says with a grin, speaking to Global Citizen over a video call from his home in Davao City. It’s lucky that he did, because Gerseva certainly isn’t alone in losing access to job opportunities over something completely out of his control.
In the Philippines, he explains, it is common practice for companies to require a medical certificate from potential employees — affecting everyone from low-skill entry level workers to CEOs. Any sign of having an ongoing medical issue, a disability, or a neurodivergent condition such as autism, can mean people are turned away.
Ryan Gersava walks in Davao City, Philippines. "Virtualahan was born with a mission to break down employment barriers for people with disabilities and other disadvantaged members of our society," says Gersava.
“It automatically filters out people who have any diagnosis,” Gersava explains. “That’s what happened to me, I passed all the other processes for the position and was about to be offered a contract. But the medical exam came back weeks later and I failed because I have an incurable disease, hepatitis B, and that makes me an HR liability.”
One of the reasons he contracted the disease is because of a lack of access to vaccines when he was growing up — with chronic hepatitis B being something that affects around one in 10 people in the Philippines.
The labor practice still takes place despite laws stating that government agencies, and private companies with over 100 employees, need to ensure that they are employing people with disabilities — ensuring they make up a minimum of 1% of their staff.
“Currently companies are really far from reaching even that 1%” Gersava says. He adds that fewer than 10% of organizations comply with regulations that require companies to make reasonable adjustments for their employees with long-term conditions or disabilities, for example, providing adaptations for people who are deaf or blind.
People can be discriminated against on the basis of their personal circumstances or former life experiences that have caused them to be ostracized too, Gersava continues. “Discrimination impacts people with disabilities, but also solo parents — especially single mothers, former sex workers, former drug addicts, former prisoners, for example,” he says.
It’s this systematic exclusion that traps people in poverty and Gersava set out to try to fix it by founding Virtualahan. The organization launched a training program that utilizes digital tools to make remote access possible, and has a far-reaching ambition to end employment discrimination across the country.
Now, Gersava has been named one of the three finalists for the Global Citizen Prize: Cisco Youth Leadership Award 2020, a prize that celebrates young activists working towards achieving the UN’s Global Goals and ending extreme poverty, and awards $250,000 to support the winning activist’s organization.
A public vote has launched to help decide the winner of the Cisco Youth Leadership Award 2020. You can find out more about the three finalists, and cast your vote for who you think should win, here.
The name Virtualahan means “virtual school” — a combination of the words “virtual” and “escuelahan”, based on the Spanish word for school (escuela). Its programs train people in digital roles that can be accessed remotely: digital design, marketing, video editing, and so on.
People facing all sorts of issues that cause them to be left out of the job market can apply to enroll. “Even though we have diverse backgrounds, we as a group share the common struggle of not being able to get a job, much less so a dignified job,” Gersava says.
Ryan Gersava is pictured working on his computer at home in Davao City, Philippines. "I started Virtualahan because I was denied of employment after being diagnosed of an incurable disease that could have been prevented if I had access to vaccination as a
Since launching in 2015, the organization has seen over 600 people graduate from its programs, and boasts a 78% employment rate among recent graduates. Online learning is a crucial element — 80% of people with disabilities live in rural areas in the Philippines, without physical access to opportunities, the organization says.
Virtualahan focuses on training people for tech-oriented roles because they can often be done remotely and require a shorter amount of training than jobs that might require a college degree. It’s also an area of the economy that is growing.
“Now someone with a disability can become a data analyst, they don’t have to settle for a low-skill, low-pay job,” he explains.
Another key feature, and something Gersava says helps make the program unique, is it involves life coaching as well as skills training, run by a resident psychologist.
“The life coaching helps people gain confidence and process the negative experiences they’ve had,” Gersava explains. “We’ve developed a curriculum based on self-determination theory; encouraging participants to embrace their identity and their disability. We also teach the origins of social inequality, and train people to be leaders and ambassadors of their respective communities.”
It’s through their community-building and network of graduates that staff at Virtualahan hope to expand its impact. “We’ve got people working in Accenture, Microsoft, in data, blockchain, start-ups, and so on,” says Gersava. “Our ultimate goal is to show businesses that employing people with disabilities is a positive investment.
“Employers tell us that from hiring our graduates, they benefit from staff loyalty and from greater innovation because of the wider range of perspectives included in their company processes,” he adds. “Meanwhile external applicants can see that they are a company that invests in its staff and are socially conscious.”
Gersava sees the potential for these positive experiences to have a domino effect: the more Virtualahan graduates get jobs, the more impact they will have in their own workplaces, and ultimately the more barriers will be broken down for people with disabilities or facing exclusion everywhere.
“We want to start social franchising,” says Gersava. “We want other organizations to use our model and then reproduce it. Our aim is to onboard at least 100 companies, who will then train thousands of people.”
They have already had some big success — Gersava says Microsoft has entrusted Virtualalan to run its inclusive hiring program for the Asia Pacific area, and the Filipino government is interested in the work they are doing too.
For the participants themselves, the opportunity to train and find meaningful work after facing lifelong discrimination is huge. It’s what makes Gersava’s and his colleagues' work so rewarding, he says.
Ryan enjoys breakfast with his family. "My lived experience of growing up in extreme poverty and then being denied of employment helped me to meet people with similar stories. I shared their reality and that inspiration gave birth to our mission."
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