By Griffin Swartzell
Sharai Johnson wanted to make change — and for her, that meant becoming a police officer. When the South Carolina native had the chance to choose the next duty station with her husband, an active duty soldier, she chose Fort Carson, intending to join the Colorado Springs Police Department.
“I was looking for a medium-sized police department — nothing too small, nothing too big — where I can put my feet down and make an impact in the community,” said Johnson. “During the application process, I [took] about four or five trips here before I moved here, and I absolutely loved that the community was very receptive toward the police department here.”
So she and her family packed up for a new life in a new state. But when they got here, CSPD chose not to hire her.
“It gave me [the push to] figure out something for myself,” she said. “I do want to work from home. I have children. So I began virtual assisting … and my first client was a friend that was doing a startup cleaning business.”
In late 2019, Johnson found a way to take what she had and use it to make change for others. She founded WeAssist, a company that helps pair employers with virtual assistants to handle administrative and secretarial duties remotely, which she launched during the first quarter of 2020. As sole owner, she’s proud to say her company is 100 percent woman- , disabled veteran- , military spouse- and minority-owned. Her business takes people looking for remote work, assesses their skills and matches their skill sets and personalities with an employer’s needs, opening up remote work positions to populations that have not traditionally had access to them.
Virtual assisting, Johnson said, is similar to the work an in-office administrative assistant might do, encompassing organization, email management, calendar management and scheduling, client onboarding and social media. But it can also be more. If her employer-side clients need it, the work can also include organizing webinars, handling a digital rights management system, using project management systems and overseeing projects.
“You don’t need someone in the office for 40 hours,” she said. “Studies show that for every eight hours that you have someone in your office, you only get about two hours and 53 minutes of productive time. … I won’t speak for every business, because it doesn’t work for every business … [but] there’s a big potential to save money, retain your staff, have a happier quality of life and attract better people.”
While WeAssist is headquartered in Colorado Springs, the company works with clients nationwide, removing geography as a barrier. That not only gives WeAssist’s employer-side clients opportunities to attract a wide array of talent, it gives work opportunities to people who would not typically have access to them.
“Being very blunt, remote work prior to COVID [was] not very diverse,” said Johnson. “I’ve spoken to a number of colleagues in the tech fields and IT fields. A lot of them are very passionate about this mission for me because they know that remote work is just not something that’s looked at as a real opportunity, in minority cultures.”
Johnson knows that better than most. As a teenager, she was a single parent on top of working and going to school full time. She attended Midlands Technical College at age 16, earned an associate degree in criminal justice there, served in the Army and earned her B.A. in political science from Fayetteville State University. She’s previously relied on Temporary Assistance for Needy Families benefits, Medicaid, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and more. But at no time while receiving assistance did anyone direct her toward remote work opportunities.
“It would seem like that would be a perfect opportunity for a single mom or parent trying to make it work. But it’s not something that’s talked about in our community,” she said, “and if it is, it’s talked about in a negative light — that it’s not real.”
It’s different with WeAssist, said Johnson. Most of her candidates are minorities, military spouses and/or military-associated. Since the work is remote, she said it’s ideal for military spouses and other people who have to move around regularly, helping them keep a continuous career instead of hitting the restart button all the time. It also offers substantial benefits to employers — while helping her employee-side clients make better hourly rates than they might with full-time work.
“When we [match] staff to potential candidates, we educate our clients and we go through budgeting and analysis,” said Johnson. “Since you’re not staffing for 40 hours a week and [budgeting for] $25,000 … what was 40 hours could now be 15 hours. … Instead of taking that money and directly putting it back into [the company’s] pocket, they can focus on better ways to retain staff and keep them interested and engaged.”
For some companies, that might mean building in training so the staffers WeAssist pairs them with can take on more technical work. It might mean increasing a staffer’s wages directly or building in raises or bonuses through whatever work contract they establish. Johnson suggests companies can also offer health and wellness benefits, such as gym memberships or health insurance. Due to the structure of the work, WeAssist’s virtual assistants can also ask for more hours and more clients, working enough to meet their financial needs and balancing that with their schedules.
COVID-19 has posed challenges to Johnson’s business. While the nature of the services her company provides seems tailor-made for a pandemic, she said low profits have made companies understandably averse to making a large initial investment in services like WeAssist.
“We’ve pivoted to launch short-term services which will allow small businesses to have an experience with a virtual assistant first, before they [commit to] hiring one,” she said. “I’ve adopted the mindset that nothing is ever going to be concrete — and it shouldn’t be, especially when you’re in business. You should be open and willing to change and pivot, because everything changes.
“When you look at the biggest brands, the biggest businesses, they change. Amazon went from selling just books to selling everything, and everyone shops there. They didn’t get there by saying, ‘We’re just going to sell books.’”