Meet Sukhmeet and Aarti, two young Melburnians who have learnt to combine business with philanthropy.
Sitting in his cosy conference room on the fifth floor of a building that overlooks the scenic Flagstaff Gardens, Sukhmeet Singh Ahuja likes to talk about the value of service. After all, he was brought up in an ‘army household’ where the importance of discipline and service were drummed into him from a very early age. When he was young, his family travelled the length and breadth of India as his father’s job with the Indian armed forces allowed that to happen. And Sukhmeet’s memories are as diverse as his experiences. With good outcome.
In 2000, after completing his hotel management from Kolkata, Sukhmeet coerced by his mother, came to study MBA at Victoria University in Melbourne. After that he studied immigration law and became a migration agent, a career that lasted him five years. When his wife Aarti, who has her MPhil in Psychology, suggested they do something different and together, they founded Angad Australian Institute of Technology in 2007. At the age of 38, Sukhmeet is the CEO of the company. Both he and Aarti, 35, are today visible faces in the business of education among the Indian diasporic community.
But like all ventures, say the couple, Angad Australian Institute of Technology did not have an easy start. The institute which was set up in June 2007 was certified a year later in July 2008 and commenced training immediately. But with only one course to offer, Diploma in Community Welfare Work, and just six students on the roll, they wondered if they had taken the right plunge.
“It was also a time when the Australian education sector was facing some challenging times. We were not fortunate enough to catch the wave of Indian students coming here. We only had one course and it was hard to get students for that course. It is like starting any business fraught with challenges at the start,” says Aarti.
“After you have been there for a while, you develop your reputation, people then begin to know you and seek you out. So you start attracting good people and you offer them what you have. Thus you start building a raving fan culture – where you don’t have to go and promote yourself but the word of mouth spreads,” says Sukhmeet.
True enough, the feeling of excitement came few years later. After three years, they broke even. “Being a quality provider we survived the downturn and achieved rapid growth.”
Today, the institute offers 10 qualifications in marketing, management, human resources management, to name a few. More than two thousand students have passed out since and gained valuable career skills. “At the moment we have students from 28 nationalities studying with us,” says Aarti. The certificate and diploma courses are covered in six months while the advanced diploma courses go for one year.
“We believe our success is due to our passion for providing everything students need to succeed. We have highly qualified trainers, who genuinely care about their students, modern, comfortable classrooms and student lounges, well-equipped computer laboratories, plenty of student support and professional counselling services – and at a great location in the CBD,” claims Sukhmeet, adding, “We strive to be provider of choice for quality education services for international students. Our services are designed to assist students in realising their full potential in their chosen areas of learning to help them become productive and valuable members of society wherever they choose to reside and work.”
In the course of time, both Sukhmeet and Aarti realised this was where their hearts lay. The name of the institute – Angad – has a special attribution. It means ‘part of the body’ and it is also the name of their son. So both value the institute to the point where they treat the students and staff as their family.
This focus on quality is paramount to the business. “You have to go beyond the business to help the students and not focus on money. For some of us business is a way to make money, sure we have to pay our bills but if you are good, money will follow,” says Sukhmeet. “I want to add value and guide people in the right direction. I always believe if I can give them the added professional development they can go out and excel.”
By most marks, Sukhmeet and Aarti are a successful couple. They just completed their 10th anniversary recently and at the banquet place stumbled upon one of their students who was the manager there. On enquiring that he looked familiar, the manager proudly replied he was their student at which the owner of the banquet hall promptly talked about the manager’s efficiency.
Such testimonials and those from students themselves are gratifying for Sukhmeet and Aarti.
For a man not born to business, it is the drive to do something new and something good for others that drew Sukhmeet into this business, says Aarti of her husband. “This was a better way to earn, by giving quality education and churning out young students with the right skill sets in today’s competitive job market.”
Sukhmeet also gives the credit for his success to his team of workers. “We have a great team, some of whom have been with us for seven years. All our staffs, both in teaching and non-teaching, are passionate about their jobs. We are like a family and have fun working together. We would not have been here without the help and support of the team. I owe it to them, they are the one who built the business as we all worked and stayed together.”
Of course both Sukhmeet and Aarti can’t deny the advantage of being at the helm as a husband and wife team. Aarti, who has moved more into admin role says, “Since he needs to step out of the office most of the time, he does not carry so much stress as I am in the office. It balances out well.” But the couple’s decision to divide roles stems from pragmatism. With two young children, Aarti has taken a backseat and goes to the office a few times but is still very involved while at the same time looking after the domestic front.
The enterprising couple met at a Gurudwara in India and five months later were married.
Destiny is what brought me to Australia, says Aarti who was averse to the idea of leaving her hometown of Bhatinda in Punjab where her family lives. However unlike most migrants who rue about the hometowns they left, Aarti says, “It’s your parents and family that you miss so we go to see them often and so we have no reason to say we miss India. Australia is now our home. We have got our family, children and business here to look after. Once you are busy you don’t think about all that. You have to set your priorities for the family. We go back and see them every year that is our priority. If you keep saying you are missing India, you won’t be able to finally settle out here and be a part of a place where you are actually living.”
Looking back, God has been kind, reflects Sukhmeet. “We have received appreciation for what we have done but what is important for me is knowing that I have done the right thing more than the accolades. I am not driven by the outside, I am driven by the inside so if I know I have done the right thing I have achieved my goals. Real appreciation is those that come from the staff, the students, and family.” Aarti adds that seeing the students achieve success is the biggest trophy.
“No point getting an award when you are not doing the right thing. Say your staff or students or family not being happy defeats the purpose of an award,” says Sukhmeet. He believes one has to strike a balance between one’s spirituality, health, family, finance, career et al. “Everything has to grow at the same time, there is no point excelling in your career at the cost of a good family or personal life or good health. You might say I have done this well but what about the other parts which you have missed out.”
Sukhmeet is never happier than in his works of philanthropy. He supports charities both in India and even in Australia. “That means more for me than anything else. If I have some extra cash I will put it in a place which needs it more than I do because at the end of the day you only need so much, eat so much, drink so much, or can spend so much. When you pass away what you are left is what you didn’t need and if you can help someone else with that, it reverberates with good results.”
The duo has been blessed with plenty of goodwill from the community, apart from family support and encouragement. Even as a migration agent Sukhmeet always helped out people who would come to him with no money. “It was my passion to help others, something I learnt from my father who served in the army. Students used to come and ask me for short cuts, I always told them there is no short cut for success. You are in the right place but you have to do the right thing. I still get phone calls now asking for advice, which I do. Perhaps I am not a good businessman and I work from my heart and not my head. But I can sleep well, there is peace of mind.”
With regard to their partnership, Aarti says, “The strength has been standing together without blaming each other for anything. If the good time is going away even the hard time is not going to stay for long is what we always told each other. That kind of positive energy and support is key in our relationship.”
Determination overrides any doubt for both Sukhmeet and Aarti. Last year when they introduced English as one of the courses, the numbers were not big. It is still at a stage of growing. “It will happen gradually taking its own course,” says Aarti.
And that is the kind of philosophy that guides their business. “If you reach the top without going through the right process, you will also crumble fast. I have seen that with people not following the process and climbing the top too soon. To achieve stability, there is a path and a growth within a certain time and framework. We will get there at the peak for sure,” says Aarti. Of course, Sukhmeet could not disagree more. Clearly, there is a lot of substance in this young couple!
By Indira Laisram