Kickstarting future entrepreneurs: The growing virtual assistant industry in the PHL

Kickstarting future entrepreneurs: The growing virtual assistant industry in the PHL

By Miguel Hanz L. Antivola, Reporter

EXECUTIVE ASSISTANTS (EAs) who work virtually in the Philippines can kick start the next generation of entrepreneurs once given direct exposure to C-level tasks and employer support, according to an industry player.

With previous experience as an executive in the business process outsourcing (BPO) industry, Robert Hayes, co-founder and chief executive officer of Athena, saw an opportunity to harness local talent and propel their routinary work into higher level tasks.

“People compare our industry to freelancers and other VA [virtual assistant] companies, but the difference in the stance we’re taking is we are forcing a high level and subtracting BPO,” Mr. Hayes said in an interview with BusinessWorld.

Athena is a startup that hires virtual/executive assistants, with its largest market being the Philippines.

Mr. Hayes explains that tasks taken on by EAs are far from simple.

“Oftentimes, they are acting as CEOs where they’re looking for investments, processing government reimbursements, chasing leads, etc. — incredibly complex things,” he added EAs can also assist executives based overseas.

“We’ve turned away a lot of BPO-style work. We aggressively insist that our clients delegate tasks and open up their calendars for both business and personal,” he says.

“It always focuses on the end goal as opposed to what the job description for a specific role is. Think of it more as a partner trying to achieve great things than a person taking on a particular job.”

Mr. Hayes, alongside his business partner and Athena co-founding chairman Jonathan Swanson, have first-hand experience on what leverage an EA can give businessmen, having been assisted by a Philippines-based EA, present at every stage of their business and personal development.

Veering away from the turbulence of EA freelancing, this prompted them to establish Athena in 2021 where EAs are protected, able to work in a fully-remote environment, be well-compensated with a full range of benefits, and poised for long-term success.

Athena specifically offers a one-on-one EA and client arrangement via a fixed monthly subscription, where both parties build a high-trust relationship and work together to achieve goals, according to Mr. Hayes.

“Certainly from a business and process standpoint, it’s completely different. It’s a brand new outsourcing industry,” Mr. Hayes said on its distinction from BPO.

“I think it’s going to stay that way as long as we can continue to build that long-term bond,” he added. “On the flip side of those freelancing companies, you have scammers, abuse, not paying taxes, no healthcare benefits, no protections.”

“We don’t think it’s really fair for somebody to have to work five hours this week, and then ten the next, then two the next. It’s really hard to live that way.”

Mr. Hayes says the company aims to find “a sweeter middle spot” for the EA industry, where long-term goals and work flexibility become drivers of sustainability.

“We’re really focused on trying to create this kind of long-term relationship for these folks so that we can put them in a really great position,” he said.

“It is incredibly hard to do the work that we do, but with anything tough comes great learning, great opportunity, great potential,” he added. “In that exchange, I think we’ve got to take incredible care of the people who work with us.”

Among the benefits of working at Athena is a phantom equity program, where all employees are entitled to be a part of the company’s ownership after a certain number of years.

Additionally, Athena recently opened its globally recognized P2.7-million Metis College Master of Business Administration program, which offers free tuition for all its employees and advances their credentials upon completion.

“In the future that I envision, if you work with a CEO for five years, who is successful running multiple businesses, and you watch and learn how that CEO runs a company, you will get a really good idea of what it takes to run your own,” Mr. Hayes said.

“And you get that capital. You get that money at the end of the five- or ten-year mark at Athena,” he added. “You’ve now got two of the primary things you need.”

“I think this is a great and exciting startup mentality for a lot of folks in the Philippines.”

“And wouldn’t it be nice if Filipinos felt like they didn’t have to leave the Philippines to get great opportunities?” he noted, tapping the potential of returning overseas Filipino workers with such working conditions and arrangements.

“How many times have we seen the best and brightest leave for a different country, right? So this might be an opportunity to bring a lot of that talent back.”

With almost three years under its belt, Mr. Hayes noted that the company’s employee base has grown to about 1,600, with 1,500 coming from the Philippines, from its initial 80 headcount.

“We’re going to double the size of the company this year. Over 2,500 people is the goal,” he said, with the company’s recent market expansion to Kenya.

“We want to take some really big investments on artificial intelligence (AI) and technology integration,” he added. “We really see a huge opportunity to supercharge our people with AI.”

He mentioned that Athena has credit with AI platforms Humanloop and ChatGPT for its EAs, recognizing how the technology has allowed them to grow and learn tasks faster.

“AI might end up being one of the big moments for the Philippines where it democratizes the world and what you’re able to do is dramatically higher,” he said.

“We have people who really don’t have a STEM background at all, able to do advanced programming now because of AI,” he added. “It helps them learn faster and code.”

“The companies that get the most excited about it and invest in it are going to be just heads above everybody else.”