Most daughters in India have dreams that die within them but for the Shah sisters, it was their father, an aspirational figure, who taught them to do the right thing.
Navin Shah was the only graduate in a long line of family that was into business. Hailing from the Kutch region of Gujarat in India, trade was in the family’s blood. But Navin did not want to step into the shoes of his father, a wealthy businessman. It would be a decision that would change the course of his life and that of his daughters. For better.
After a commerce degree, Navin’s dreams of studying abroad were shattered under the same protective dominion of a family who did not want their only son to set off overseas. It was the late 1960s and the trend of the wealthy and upper middle class families to send their children abroad to study. The US was a dream destination. But even though he could not go, Navin found himself helping his friends complete the paperwork and the complex admission and visa process for studying in the US. After a few successful applications of admission to US universities, Navin found his calling.
In 1971, from a tiny office in Mumbai, Navin started assisting friends and other acquaintances and gradually others who wanted to study in the US, some in the UK and Canada. Australia as a destination for study was unheard of (more on that later). His three young daughters would hang around the office helping him type letters and forms, going to the post office, booking trunk calls or putting stamps on application forms – whenever they found time in between their studies.
By the time Bina Shah, the eldest of the three, completed her Bachelors of Commerce degree and Masters of Commerce degree from Mumbai University, she joined her father full time as the business grew. “Those days everything was done by post. In fact we had to write a letter and send it to the university asking for prospectus of their courses. It used to be a long process. After getting the prospectus, we would apply to the university for the next fall or spring session and prepare the documents for visa, line up at the embassy and my dad would prepare the clients for the interview,” she reminisces.
Soon the business grew by leaps and bounds. Bina recalls how their first floor office in Mumbai had queues that stretched to the ground floor through the stairs. “People were there just to get information. We were doing very well. People knew us by word of mouth. And in India the general trend is when one member from the family leaves, the relatives also follow suit.”
Navin Shah’s style of business was distinct, one that made the investment necessarily worthwhile for his clients or students. It was his love for education translated into the lives of others. “Sometimes there would be really needy but exceptional students deserving to study abroad and my father use to help out with paying some of their tuition fees from his own pocket,” says Bina. In other times, students from far and remote areas would throng their city office and none of them left with an empty stomach.
But for Bina and Seema, who are now based in IAEC’s head office at Collins Street in Melbourne, it was the 1990s that was the turning point in their lives. “By then our father had already established his business and a reputation as one of the best education consultants in India. As such when Australia wanted to market its education services in India, we were approached by some Australian universities to assist them engage with the Indian market,” says Seema. In the early 1990s, Navin visited Australia as part of a four-member team sent from India to study the Australian universities, its suitability and benefits for Indian students.
Bina was also part of a delegation to visit Australian universities for further familiarity. After that Australian university delegates visited the IAEC India offices culminating in a long and steady relationship that continues till day. Their business was named Indo-Australian Education Centre (now known as IAEC).
Breaking the Indian fixation with American or UK universities was however no cake walk but they broke through the market nonetheless. “To get the benefits of Australian education into people’s minds was a big, big step in 1990s. We put in a lot of hard work during those days. We used to get video tapes of Australian cities and universities, of various facilities in those cities including transport and lifestyle and so on and conduct seminars as a familiarisation process for our clients in India. With the US or Canada, people had many relatives to check out with but Australia was a relatively unknown territory then, it was different. So that’s how we started marketing,” says Bina.
Meanwhile, Seema, the youngest of the three sisters came to Australia in 1998 to study Masters of Business at Monash University to add value to her father’s business. However tragedy struck the family when during her holiday in 1999 in India and just a day after Seema got her Australian Permanent Residency, her father died of a heart attack, literally in her arms.
Within days of his passing away, Bina, Seema and their other sister Nita found themselves at the helm of the business, managing the operations their father had developed over the years. The three sisters devoted themselves to the education consulting business completely from then on.
“We had learnt the trade as a result of working with our father from a very young age and later as student counsellors too,” says Seema, who took the step to open their first Melbourne office in Little Collins Street in 2001 and soon as was the case in India, IAEC became the ‘go to’ consultancy for Indian students in Melbourne. In the meantime Seema also up skilled herself by studying immigration law at Victoria University, becoming a Registered Migration Agent along with Bina. Around five years ago, Victoria University (VU) approached Seema and IAEC to develop a subject about ethical practice as part of the Education Consultants course. Seema developed and delivered that subject at VU.
In 2002 after a short stint in the US, Bina joined Seema in Melbourne and together developed IAEC’s brand in Australia. It was a natural extension of their work in India as they had already established good business relationship with the universities. “We were working with most of the universities in Australia so we had an ongoing working relationship with the university representatives who we have known for a very long time, which is fantastic. Besides our old clients were insisting that they wanted us to guide them and their family for all their matters related to Australian education,” says Seema.
The years 2009-10 was a tough time for the overseas education sector in Australia with the much publicised attacks on the Indian students and with that came a number of critical changes in the student visa rules. The Australian education market suffered a big blow in India and was severely impacted for about three years. A number of Australian education consultants were impacted by the sudden change in business climate.
Being in the business for over two decades, IAEC has no doubt seen a lot of ups and downs in Australian education industry. It is also an industry that has mushroomed with many fly by night operators looking for a quick buck. So there were lots who came and went. But Bina says, “For us it is more than a business, it is our passion. Whether there are ups or downs in the business this is all that we want to do and all that we know. And this is out of pure passion that we have sustained ourselves.
“What our father taught us is: if you do the right thing, money will look after itself. This industry is such where you are dealing with people’s lives and you can make or break their career or future. So the principle we work on is offering the right advice in the first instance. There are so many people out there who advise how to do the wrong things. Some agents advice freshly arrived students not to pay tuition fees saying their alternate visas can be arranged straightaway. But these fraudulent advices can ruin a person’s life. There are so many people who have ended up ruining their careers because of the unethical advice given,” says Seema.
Today, IAEC’s clients are from within Australia and across the globe. Their clientele have expanded over the years to include different nationalities. Due to their genuine guidance to all their clients, all the people who have come since the 1990s still prefer to avail their services. Both Seema and Bina alternate responsibilities looking after the education and Australian migration consulting.
“Over the past two decades we have assisted over 20,000 clients. Today I can proudly say we have thousands of students recruited by IAEC, a number of them are leaders in their industry, there are also doctors, lawyers, entrepreneurs, pilots and many more professionals which is very rewarding,” adds Seema.
Clearly their father’s daughters, the Shah sisters are pioneers in their own right!
By Indira Laisram