Refugee tech entrepreneur giving back
Balendran Thavarajah arrived in Australia in 2000 penniless and unable to speak English. Twenty-two years on, he is a successful tech entrepreneur who has founded multiple companies employing dozens of many people.
‘Bala’ grew up on Sri Lanka’s Jaffna Peninsula amid the chaos of the civil war that lasted three decades. Caught in crossfire during the brutal conflict between Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan army, he was wounded several times.
He lost his mother when he was just two years old and the war robbed him of any meaningful education and the chance of a bright future.
But Arriving in Australia allowed him to rebuild his life.
Now, his own experiences struggling to learn a new language and fit into a new culture, have brought Bala full circle with his latest tech enterprise GetMee; a world-leading artificial intelligence product that helps people learn the English language and core communication skills.
Like many refugees, Bala’s early life was a world away from his current circumstances.
“Mum and Dad married when they were 19 and 22 respectively in an arranged marriage. But Mum struggled with things and eventually took her own life when I was two,” Bala said.
“Dad worked so my five-year old sister and I grew up with my aunties and grandparents. My mother’s and father’s sisters both were incredible women who supported me, often through poverty, struggling to make ends meet with their own children.
Bala says that at 13, living in a small coastal village, he had no opportunity to go to school and soon became caught up in the civil war and was injured by gunshot and shrapnel.
Like many young Tamils at the time Bala fled to India seeking safety and some kind of future.
“I ended up going to India by boat. We were 24 illegal migrants on a dangerous journey. The Indian Navy caught us and we were put in a refugee camp in Tamil Naidu, in the south of India,” Bala said.
“I spent over a year in India. We were safe from the conflict and people weren’t dying but the camp was overcrowded with thousands crammed into unsanitary conditions,” he said.
Bala arrived in Sydney in 2000 following his father who had migrated earlier.
“There was a bit of a process to convince immigration that I was the legitimate son of my father because I had no documents,” he said.
“I also had to provide proof I had been shot and that I would be in danger if I returned to Sri Lanka – but that got me to Sydney.
“Life in Australia started for me at 25 but I quickly realised that I had nothing to give this country. So, I saw it as a mission and a challenge to build a new life in a new country amid a new culture.
“It was this realisation that made me work really hard. I know I needed to learn the language of my new country or I would not have the opportunities,” he said.
Bala connected with migrant and refugee settlement agency AMES Australia in western Sydney where he learned English at night classes.
“I spent 12 months intensively building my English and communication skills,” he said
“I thought I would go to university because at the time Google and the big tech companies were becoming big. I was interested in technology because of the way it was growing and the massive opportunities on the internet.
“But I was naive. I went to all the universities in New South Wales asking for a place and promising them to do everything necessary to get into the computer science program. But they all told me ‘it will be impossible for you to understand the lectures and the course content’,” Bala said.
At the time, Western Sydney University (WSU) was pioneering an ‘alternative pathways’ program aimed at disadvantaged students. It allowed students to attempt two units and, if they could cope, go on to complete the entire degree.
“This opened a door for me and gave me a chance,” Bala said.
He completed a three-year computer science degree at WSU and went on to gain a master’s Degree in Computing from Sydney University.
“Years later, I went to see the lady who had given me the OK to join the alternative pathway program at the WSU, I thanked her and we had a cry. It was an emotional time. We all need a helping hand sometime and someone to give us that one chance in life.” Bala said.
“I worked 16 to 17 hours a day over that time. I was attending lectures during the day and doing additional English and Mathematics classes at TAFE in the evenings.
“And luckily for me, I had people around me willing to help out. They heard my story and helped me to understand the coursework.
“Soon after arriving in Australia I realised there were opportunities on the internet, tech and the online economy for those who got in early. This was interesting to me because growing up in northern Sri Lanka, there was no electricity, let alone technology,” he said.
But Bala’s journey was not always smooth.
“I got close to giving up so many times because I just had too much to learn. People discouraged me as well because they thought I was on an impossible mission,” he said.
“But I said ‘no’, I want to do bigger things. I knew I had the aptitude and the drive to succeed and rebuild my life,” Bala said.
After finishing his university degrees, Bala set out on his entrepreneurial adventure, starting his first enterprise Softech.
“I had the skills and knowledge to build software, so I thought I would start my own business,” Bala said.
“I looked at small and medium supermarkets and point of sale software. Companies like Woolies were paying IBM hundreds of thousands of dollars for this software. But I was able to build software for smaller businesses that could not afford the heavy price tag.
“We sold the software to twenty supermarkets in eight months across western Sydney for just $6,000 each,” he said.
But without the business experience or the resources to scale up the business, Bala eventually gave up and sold the company to another business. It is so rewarding to see the product still being used by some supermarkets.
After spending two years working as a software engineer with Centrelink, in Canberra, Bala returned to the business world.
His big breakthrough came with ‘Bluedot’, a location technology business, established in Melbourne in 2013, that allows quick service restaurants and retailers to improve customer experience using location as the driver.
Among the company’s clients are McDonald’s, Transurban, Dunkin Donuts, KFC and other global brands.
“We saw a gap in the market and built a successful global company with offices in Sydney, Melbourne, San Francisco and Austin. It was a great experience over six years and a journey of learning.” Bala said.
His latest venture, and one closest to his heart, is ‘GetMee’ an artificial intelligence (AI) platform which helps people with English as their second language develop communication skills. By combining AI with expert human coaches, the technology personalises the learning experience for students.
“In 2020, I took a break from ‘Bluedot’ just as COVID was spreading through China. I realised my calling was not building software products for commercial applications,” Bala said.
“I saw people here in Australia going through the same struggles I did, learning about a new country, culture and language. And I thought about ‘how could I automate some of these processes through AI?’.
“That was the beginnings of ‘GetMee’. We built a prototype to help us understand patterns in someone’s communication.
“The idea was to bring the awareness to the surface so people could get insights into gaps in their communication skillsets, then coach them into better communicators.
“For example, a user can make phone calls through the app and get it to tell them about things such as speech clarity, energy, pronunciation, the types of words they are frequently using, and overall sentiment,” he said.
Bala and his team have raised a significant amount of investment to launch the product to the market in 2022.
So far, Getmee has five enterprise customers and 400 individuals on the platform but Bala says the product has significant global potential.
“We have launched it in South America and Asia, where there are millions of people wanting to learn English communication skills and we are working with education providers, including AMES Australia.
“I am grateful for the support we have received in Australia. Working with AMES Australia is important to me because of the critical role the organisation has played in my life,” Bala said.