The PIE: We’d love to know a bit about how you became such a successful entrepreneur…
Rupesh Singh: I come from a very small city in India called Varanasi. It’s considered a holy city, with a lot of spirituality, music and meditation. It has a very humble culture. Wages are low, life is simple, and most people make around $200 a month. Very few people from my city have had the opportunity to go overseas.
My first job was as a fire & safety officer with Oil and natural gas corporation (ONGC). I was one of only eight candidates selected for the training from the All India entrance exam. It was my first job, and I learnt a lot of life lessons because I was challenged every day. I was then headhunted by Essar Group, a very large oil, steel, telecommunications company. During that time my friend and I attended an event hosted by Wollongong University where we both were given on-the-spot admission to study in Australia. I just couldn’t believe it.
The PIE: That must have been very exciting..
RS: My friend was from Gujarat. The banking system in Gujarat was very straightforward. He was able to secure an education loan fairly easily. In my small city, people are very conservative, especially about money. I went to see the local bank manager, of the State Bank of India branch, and he told me ‘No, you won’t do well, and you’ll ruin your dad’s savings’. Basically I had no chance of a loan.
The PIE: Wow.
“I went to see the local bank manager, and he told me ‘No, you won’t do well, and you’ll ruin your dad’s savings'”
RS: My friend and I then went to see the vice president of my company. India is a bureaucratic country, as you know. We needed an appointment and we got an appointment, after 15 days (because there were 15,000 employees in that company). We went to see him and asked for a sponsorship to study IT in Australia. He just looked at us strangely and refused.
Around that time, we had heard stories about the generosity of Shashi Ruia. He was probably one of the 10 richest people in India. One morning, after finishing the night shift, we took a train to Mumbai and went to his office where we asked his secretary if we could meet him. And she basically just laughed at us.
We waited all day, then travelled back to work, did another night shift and next morning we were again at his office and again we were refused. We were told that ‘he has meetings’. This was repeated for a third and a fourth morning. There was no sleep for three nights. On the fourth refusal, we decided to visit Mr Ruia’s house the next morning. We were there at 06:00 and left a little note and we went for a coffee. When we came back, his security said ‘he wants to meet you’.
The PIE: This is an incredible story..
RS: He was amazing. Really nice. And within three hours, he gave us both a sponsorship, telling us to go and study in Australia and come back and work for him. So we applied and we got the visa and we came to Australia.
So he did that for me and I continue to be extremely grateful.
The PIE: And how did you find life in Australia?
RS: In the beginning it was very tough. During that time there was a recession in Australia, many companies were closing. I literally went to door-to-door in Wollongong looking for a job because shops were not hiring– no one hiring at all. I tried for work in a petrol station, a car wash, you name it. Then I started going to every house, asking ‘can I teach your kids? Can I mow your lawn?’
The PIE: Seriously? I’m seeing a trait of persistence here.
RS: Yes I had to, there was no money. I had around AUS$130 left and I had to pay AUS$150 rent in two days and I couldn’t get a job in the first 15- 20 days. In reality, I could have arranged money, I could have asked my parents, but I really didn’t want to do that to my family.
All the savings my dad had, he had saved for my sister’s marriage. So that was another big responsibility. It got to the stage that I only had two days left before I ran out of money.
I went to Centrelink at 6am where they told me that ‘this is only for Australian citizens. We can’t provide a job for you’. I persisted and said ‘I’m not leaving unless I get something.’ At 3pm, the Centrelink employee – who probably felt sorry for me – arranged a job, which was like nearly two and a half hours from where I lived in Wollongong. The job was in Brookwell, in Sydney. To make the job, I had to run for 20 minutes, take a train to Central and take a bus and then run another 20 minutes.
The PIE: What were you studying?
RS: I was studying IT. I then transferred to Sydney because the job was in Sydney, I completed my advanced diploma in IT in a private college and – after doing every job you can imagine: restaurants and building construction – I started doing a lot of tutoring to many students.
“These students have the same issues that I had when they come to Australia – they’re looking for accommodation”
This way, I saved AUS$30,000-40,000, and since I was so desperate to complete my studies I went back again to university and completed my postgraduate in IT.
The PIE: And how did you transition from postgrad to entrepreneur?
RS: When I graduated I couldn’t get a job and probably that was the best thing that happened in my career. I was lost as to what to do and then I thought, the only skill I have is my IT knowledge, so I planned to start an IT training company.
Other IT training companies were closing as they believed that people had no money and so could not afford to pay for the training. My attitude was that if they don’t have a job, what are they going to do, they need to upgrade, and I came up with a concept. Our offer was to train students for three months in technical skills, arrange live projects in companies and students were only required to pay after 12 months.
I explained to the bank that I needed them to provide study loans that I would guarantee. It was not standard for the bank to approve and I succeeded after several meetings with senior bank members. The first advertisement cost me the entire balance on my credit card AUS$3,000 and I had no money in my savings account. I then enrolled eight students and the company earned AUS$80,000 in the first week. I trained my students every day and then the company expanded and became a Microsoft Gold Partner and Cisco Partner in training and Infrastructure solution services within a year.
The PIE: And what was your next step?
RS: I acquired a struggling English language school ELSIS. The school had nearly AUS$600,000 liability. I used to supply computers and I got to know the college. They asked me to be involved and help the college to stay afloat. So I did and I eventually acquired the college. We re-located the college to Sydney CBD from Bondi Junction in a much smaller location with immediate savings (AUS$12,000 rent compared to AUS$60,000).
The business still had difficulty and at the beginning, we only had 15 days to turn things around. We learned very quickly that we needed to improve the way the college was doing business, and, with my IT background, we brought in new sophisticated IT systems and an improved communication platform.
“In the first few months we increased revenue by AUS$500,000”
Over the next 4-5 days, we met more than 100 agents, and very quickly, came up with a few promotions and assurances to our key recruitment partners. This was very successful, in the first few months we increased revenue by AUS$500,000 and the college was profitable from that point on.
The PIE: No way.
RS: During that time I noticed that many students completing ELSIS studies needed further study and these students progressed to courses at other colleges or universities. So, it was obvious that we needed to expand and offer higher education and other diploma courses.
We approached Victoria University and, although we were a small college at the time, they accepted our proposal. We then worked with their senior staff and, after 18 months, we established the VU Sydney campus.
The PIE: How did business develop?
RS: With VU we collaborated together, and developed a set of in-demand courses to offer at the VU Sydney campus. It has grown significantly over the years and now has nearly 2,500 students. We have excellent management and governance processes and committees.
The success of this and other ECA endeavours is our focus on nationality mix. We are not just reliant on one or two nationalities. We profile students from each country and further we profile students from different cities within the same country and run targeted campaigns as students requirements vary from city to city. We have developed sophisticated systems with targeted marketing, scholarships and have managed to create a very successful managed campus for our partner universities.
The ECA business consists of ECA online, University Partnerships with two major universities in Australia, our own Higher Education college, three VET colleges, Job Ready Programs, Internships and an English College. ECA is planning to extend the partner university campus model in the UK and NZ in 2020.
The PIE: So you have a good granular understanding of each student market and price points needed to recruit?
RS: We have a dedicated recruitment team within Australia and in a number of overseas countries that provide market intelligence for ECA on course trends and work opportunities.
We also developed a system where we can accurately predict the visa risk rating 12 months in advance for each country, and we work with partners using our transparent system.
The PIE: And how did your experience of being a student help, do you think, as you built up your businesses?
RS: When we first started Victoria University Sydney, we found that a number of good students failed subjects in the first semester [at the managed campus]. These students have the same issues that I, and many international students had when they come to Australia – they’re looking for accommodation. And the real estate agents want to see payslips and evidence of work experience. Students when they arrive don’t have all this.
“Internships have been part of the business model since day one”
By week five, mid-term assignments are due and they’re still struggling to find accommodation and part-time jobs. I thought, I need to fix this situation or it is going to be the same for students in the next semester.
Therefore, I supported a student housing business 2 Stay which now has 600 beds across Australia. We provided fully furnished accommodation with internet and latest computers and they started to settle down and their results improved.
The PIE: So your success was due to understanding the difficulties in transitioning..
RS: On top of that, our students study a university degree and our business model is to provide internships to all our students.
When I graduated, I couldn’t get a job because I didn’t have work experience. So we are helping all our students in that area. We place around 2,000 internships at present. Internships have been part of the business model since day one. Our model of support called the ECA advantage, which offers airport pickup, accommodation support, free workshops to assist in finding casual jobs, free industry in-demand certifications to ensure that our students graduate with latest knowledge plus a number of other value-adds.
The PIE: How big is ECA altogether?
RS: Now, within the group, we have 670 employees in Sydney, Melbourne, and Brisbane. We established the first Australian University Operation in India. ECA has a presence in many countries. We have now people working for us in Spain, Italy, South America, Indonesia, China, India, and the Philippines.
We are considering listing the company in the near future.
The PIE: You must feel very proud.
RS: I love people. I love my students. Education is my passion. We currently have around 8,000 students studying with us. And now it will grow further because we have recently started a partnership with Swinburne University. We have built a beautiful campus in Parramatta.
The PIE: What do your parents think about your achievements?
RS: Actually, my parents didn’t even know much of what I did until a few years back, to be honest.
It was only when my Dad saw my picture with prime minister Modi and attended an event then probably, my father realised that, maybe I’m doing something useful. He keeps asking me when I am going to finish my PhD!