Siblings celebrate 20 years of business in Australia

By Indira Laisram
Bina Shah (L) with her sister Seema Shah. Pic supplied.

Sisters Bina Shah and Seema Shah are familiar faces in Melbourne’s business and social circle. As part of an enterprise that caters to education and migration, they have completed a milestone riding on more highs and few lows in an industry warranted by principles of consistency in reputation.

Their company IAEC Education and Migration agency, was founded by their late father Navin Shah in 1991 from a small office in Mumbai. Carrying forward their father’s legacy, the sisters have just completed 20 years of their business operation in Australia.

While the pandemic has affected the business with nobody coming from overseas because of the pandemic, Bina says, “At the moment we are just managing with some offshore client base that we have.”

However, she wants to focus on the highs of the business more than the lows as she beleives IAEC has been a part of many success stories and transformation of lives. Bina is hopeful and positive that there will be a big influx of students once the economy looks up and borders open for international students. “People do want an experience of overseas universities, they want to visit and live here.”

The Shah sisters learnt the ropes of the business from their father to enjoy an unprecedented level of appreciation and entrepreneurship.

Recalling the story of their father, Bina says as the only graduate in a long line of family that was into business, he was not ready to step into the shoes of their grandfather, a wealthy grain dealer hailing from the Kutch region of Gujarat.

Instead, Navin harboured dreams to study abroad but that was crushed under the protective dominion of a family who did not want the only son to set off overseas. On the other hand, his peers held on to their dreams and Navin started helping them with the paperwork and university admission process. And that was how he found his calling.

In 1971, from a tiny office in Dadar, Mumbai, Navin started assisting friends, friends of friends and gradually strangers who wanted to study in the US, some in the UK and Canada. Australia was unheard of then.  His three daughters would also 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, the eldest of the three, completed her Master’s of Commerce degree, she joined her father full time as the business got bigger. “Those days everything was done by post. In fact, we had to write a letter and send it to the university asking for prospectus. It used to be a long process. After getting the prospectus, we would apply 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.

(From left) Bina Shah, Jitesh Chheda & Seema Shah of IAEC

Soon the business grew by leaps and bounds. Bina recalls how their first floor office had queues that stretched to the ground floor through the stairs. “It started with word of mouth. In India the general trend is when one member from the family leaves, the relatives also follow suit.”

Navin’s style of business was distinct that made his 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 desperate students and my father use to help out with some fees,” says Bina.

But for Bina and Seema, who now run IAEC at Collins Street, it was the 1990s that was the turning point in their lives.

“At the time, my father had an already established his business and reputation as an education provider. So, we were approached by some Australian universities to engage with the Indian market,” says Seema.

In 1990, Navin visited Australia as part of a four-member team sent from India to study the security and environment of Australian universities. “My father prepared a very big report on all the universities, he was like a pioneer for Australian education,” says Seema.

Subsequently in 1991, Bina was also part of a delegation to visit Australian universities. After that Australian university delegates continuously visited the Shah office in Mumbai to establish a long and steady relationship. Their company was named Australian Education Centre with the kangooro as its logo.

Breaking the Indian fixation with American or UK universities was, however, no cake walk but they broke the market nonetheless. “It was a big step. We put in a lot of hard work. We used to get video tapes of Australian cities and universities, of transport facilities and so on and conduct seminars as Australia was unknown territory then. That’s how we started marketing.”

The hard work paid off. There was a time when AEC was sending hundreds of students to Australia every year.

How the sisters set up the Australian chapter of the business came out of tragic circumstances though. When their father died of a sudden heart attack in 1999, they found themselves at the helm of the business. Australia became almost a full time focus and Seema, who had studied her Master’s of Business at Monash University, returned to Melbourne some months later. She opened their first Melbourne office in Little Collins Street in 2001. They named the company IAEC (Indo Australian Education Centre).

In the meantime, Seema also upskilled herself by studying Immigration Law at Victoria University. That same year, after a short stint in the US, Bina joined Seema in Melbourne and together developed IAEC into a bigger company here. Later, they would be joined by Jitesh Chheda, Seema’s husband.

“Our business goes back a long way. Our old logo is with the kangaroo which dad had decided upon,” says Bina. But it was not hard establishing business in Melbourne as they already had a good business relationship with the universities and people.

Although the India chapter came to an end with the death of their father and the subsequent change in business climate, the Shah sister had nonetheless inherited a mammoth business their father had built.

“We never thought we would inherit his business,” says Bina. “We don’t have brothers. Traditionally in India, the son helps out the father. But we were our father’s sons, he raised us as sons, he never distinguished us as girls who will just get married and leave the family home. He always encouraged us to be independent and educated.”

The business has no doubt seen its up and down. But their father’s words are their guiding factor.  “He told us, ‘if you do the right thing, money will come automatically and even it doesn’t come, you won’t be short of your day to day necessities. You cannot sleep peacefully if you ruin somebody’s career. This is an industry where you are dealing with people’s lives where you can make or break their career’. So, the principle we work on is offering the right advice,” sums up Seema.

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