8 min read
Nilesh employs people from 23 different countries. Many struggled to find work
Nilesh Makwana arrived in Australia less than a decade ago as an international student with business cards already printed. He now runs an award-winning IT firm with a strong social focus.
Published Monday 17 January 2022
By Aaron Fernandes
Nilesh Makwana’s journey from a boy living with his grandfather in northwest India to an award-winning entrepreneur in Perth saw him cross a near-impossible divide.
His story is familiar to many people in Australia who arrive as international students with dreams of building a life and career here permanently.
From the day he arrived, Nilesh began working to turn his dream into a reality.
“When I landed, I had a business card ready because I knew that being an international student, it won't be easy to find a job,” the 40-year-old says.
“International students are always forced to do lower-level jobs as cheap labour. But I wanted to make sure that I became a job creator, rather than a job seeker.
A decade after he arrived in Western Australia, Nilesh is now an Australian citizen, the co-director of a consultancy firm and an advocate for diversity and inclusion in business and technology.
Nilesh's company delivered IT training to traditional owner groups in Western Australia. Source: SBS
Illuminance Solutions, the company he has run with business partner Vincent Lam since 2012, uses Microsoft technologies to co-design solutions for a growing portfolio of clients.
The company targets its services to the not-for-profit sector, aiming to help out organisations making a positive change in the world.
“For us, it’s about being the most human-centred focused company we can be. Like Mahatma Gandhi said, 'we want to be the change that we hope to see in the world,'” Nilesh says.
International students are always forced to do lower-level jobs ... I wanted to make sure that I became a job creator, rather than a job seeker. - Nilesh Makwana
The company has co-designed technology projects with NDIS disability service providers, aged care service providers and Aboriginal native title groups; all communities that have typically suffered from a digital literacy gap.
“That’s the true purpose of our organisation. It's not just the technology, but using that technology to make a positive contribution to society,” Nilesh says.
The company’s office in Perth’s CBD is as culturally diverse as Australia itself.
It employs 30 people from 23 different countries: China, Hong Kong, India, Nepal, Vietnam, Myanmar, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Thailand, Mauritius, the UAE, South Africa, Canada, the United States, Colombia, Brazil, Norway, France, Germany, the United Kingdom, New Zealand and Australia.
They include new migrants, refugees, Indigenous Australians, seniors and people with disability.
“After I came here as an international student, I wanted to make sure that when I'm in a position where I can help others or open the door for them, I want to do that,” Nilesh says.
“Most migrants working in restaurants or at petrol stations are looking for an opportunity to prove themselves. They have skills and all we have to do is give them that first go.”
A 2021 report by the Committee for Economic Development of Australia found about 23 per cent of permanent skilled migrants are working in a job beneath their skill level, with skills mismatch costing migrants an estimated $1.25 billion in wages over a five-year period from 2013 to 2018.
Among newly arrived Australians who had difficulty finding work, 33 per cent blamed their lack of work experience in Australia. Other key barriers, according to CEDA, were a lack of local, professional networks and language difficulties.
Most migrants working in restaurants or at petrol stations are looking for an opportunity to prove themselves. - Nilesh Makwana
Jean Rudlay Marie Jean now works with Nilesh as a business analyst.
He had previously completed degrees in law and management in Mauritius, but when he first arrived in Australia as an international student in 2018, he worked as a cleaner and fruit picker.
An internship at Nilesh's company changed all that.
“I didn’t realise how important networking and having local contacts would be for success,” he says.
“Getting into the job market of Australia is not easy. Being able to get a company to give you a chance is not easy. Through Illuminance, I was able to learn and grow and show what I can do”
Struggles as a student
For Nilesh, putting people before profits is a personal commitment he’s pursued since leaving India.
He grew up in the city of Rajkot, where he spent the first years of his life living with his grandfather.
He remembers those years fondly, as carefree child riding his bicycle at leisure while ignoring his worsening grades at school.
Nilesh pictured with his grandfather in India. Source: SBS
“My father wasn't happy that I was running my own little businesses, selling things to make money, but not passing school. So when I was 12, he said ‘you are no longer staying there with your grandfather, you are coming to Mumbai.'”
“I had to leave behind my bicycle because Mumbai is a big city and there’s a lot of traffic there.”
Under the watch of his parents and siblings, Nilesh still struggled at school but found a job assembling computers in a local electronics shop.
That exposure to emerging technologies unleashed his entrepreneurial spirit. Nilesh eventually started his own web design company in Mumbai and by 2002, his company had designed more than 200 websites.
At the urging of his aunty, Nilesh did finish school, and in 2005, he left India to study at a university in London.
He paid for his education through another venture, linking software developers in India with businesses needing websites in the United Kingdom.
It wasn’t until 2011, at the end of a holiday in Asia, that Nilesh visited Australia and decided that Perth was the city where he would resettle permanently.
He arrived as an international student in June 2012 and enrolled at Edith Cowan University to study a postgraduate degree in information technology. He was ready to forge a path to permanent residency straight away.
“In Australia, anybody can apply for an ABN number and as long as you have one, you can be self-employed. I launched the business from day one.”
Within six months, Nilesh’s first company, Tantra Technologies, had employed two other international students.
But it wasn't all plain sailing. The company went bankrupt in 2015. It was a low point unlike anything he had experienced.
Nilesh had only recently married his Norwegian-born wife Lene, and says he was one month away from being unable to pay his rent and becoming homeless.
“I didn't imagine that I could go on such a high in my personal life, celebrating our wedding, and then my professional life just came crashing down,” he says.
With the support of family, friends and business contacts in Perth, Nilesh rebuilt, embarking on a venture with a new business partner.
Nilesh's company is a Microsoft Gold Partner and the inaugural winner of the Microsoft Global Partner of the Year 2019 Partner for Social Impact Award; recognised as a world leader in delivering technology for social good.
But the company is “not just another Microsoft partner,” he says.
“It is a business with a purpose. We became the first company in the world who were given this award.”
“It is a global recognition for driving social impact through technology. And that's quite a personal achievement for us.”
And Nilesh’s endeavours show no signs of slowing down. He recently hosted the 2021 West Tech Assemblage industry event, a technology showcase he founded himself to promote digital access and inclusion in WA’s technology sector.
“I think entrepreneurship is an amazing mindset for an international student to have when they come to this country,” he says.
“Most international students want permanent residency. They want to settle down, have a car, house a passport, start a family.
“The first thing they should ask themselves is, how can I be an active citizen from day one? The moment you start to think about creating, about giving rather than receiving, it opens up another world for you.”
This article is part of the My Australia series which explores the untold stories of extraordinary people in Australia.
This article is part of the My Australia series which explores the untold stories of extraordinary people in Australia. .
The Change Agents podcast series also hears from people in Australian communities who have become role models for change. .
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