From politics to business, Neelam Rai reinvents herself

By Indira Laisram
Neelam Rai

In 2018, Neelam Rai had an abrupt exit as Liberal Party candidate for the Upper House in Northern Metropolitan Region of Melbourne (more on that below). Three years on, while her political ambitions have not been laid to rest, Rai has built a career in the business of home care.

This November, Rai emerged as the winner of the Consumer Worker of the Year (Clinical) (2021) Award by Victorian Mental Illness Awareness Council Inc (VMIAC), the peak body for consumer advocacy in Victoria.

“I work a lot with the vulnerable class because I am passionate about helping these people out with whatever services I put through my business or through my philanthropic nature,” she says.

Rai senses her business acumen was there long before she even realised. Recalling the time spent at her grandmother’s home in India, she would pick fruits from the backyard and sell them to the kids in the neighbourhood. “The bargain was higher price for a big fruit and a lower price for the small one,” she says with a laugh.

Although she started off as an air hostess for British Airways for a year and a half, she realised that was not her calling. So, she got into fashion designing and even starting her own label Exclusive Exports attending independent exhibitions in London, the US and Hong Kong.

But with her brothers in Australia, she joined the family in 2010 and eventually stayed put. For a time, she dabbled in many businesses—from helping her husband in his property business to starting her own jewellery business to working as counsellor in the banking sector, but she felt something was missing.

Neelam Rai

Finally, under the influence of few of her family members who were physiotherapists, she studied mental health and got into the industry. It also aligned with her bent towards helping people, she says.

During the pandemic especially, Rai realised how essential services, particularly for the aged and vulnerable people, were important.

So in March, Rai launched Home Caring Craigieburn backed by a sound business plan and a network of high-quality support workers. Currently she has a staff of about 60 and over 100 clients, most of them fully funded by the government’s Home Care Package scheme and the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS).

In the eight-nine months since Rai founded Home Caring Craigieburn, she has had clients switch over from big companies because she believes the one of the most important things to progressing in the home care sector is a ‘client centred’ approach.

“I like to assess my clients and when I start their services, I make sure they have the most suitable person for the care. No phone calls get missed out,” she says, adding, “It is one of the best decisions I have made because seriously you just can’t go on the road and help people. I used to do that with my husband, go to the city and literally help people who were sleeping on the road.”

It is this naïve approach to helping earlier, Rai says, that cost her the Liberal Party seat. Her then charity organisation No Hunger was not registered. “Me and my husband started this organisation with passion and we didn’t think about registering because we were not taking money from anywhere and I was not even a director for the company anymore,” she explains.

“I get tears in my eyes when I think about this, I was so disheartened. We were just asking people to join hands with us and we had big plans even with the meals, we were connecting with the restaurants,” she adds.

Neelam Rai

Also when her political candidature came up, she was already working for the party. “I had no intentions of glorifying myself and I had no idea what would happen, but I suppose people’s focus was more on how someone relatively young and new to the country was endorsed by the Liberal Party and got a seat.”

Rai hopes to join the fray not in the coming elections but in the next. “I want to be in politics not just to be a politician but there are a lot of work I want to do. Right now, my focus is on my business and am literally learning how much flaws the system has. There are services for the vulnerable people, but nobody knows how to access them.”

Rai cites the example of gentleman who was told had a mild intellectual disability, but was in fact diagnosed with PTSD, schizophrenia. “He was an NDIS client, if we don’t do the right thing who is going to give him these services.”

She is advocating for home care packages. “Most old people want to be in their homes from my experience and somebody has to understand we are all going to age and this is going to benefit me and you in the future.

“The thing I love about owning a business in the care industry is giving people the opportunity to stay in their own homes for as long as they want to. They’re surrounded by the things they love and the people they love. It’s a business that’s all about personal care and making connections with people.”

Her political interests aside, Rai says she doesn’t worry too much about people. “I am too busy with my own work, if I am doing the right thing, I don’t have to worry about anything. I love to work where there is something for the future for all of us.”

There’s an earnestness to Rai. And she has learnt from her mistake.

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