How Nilesh Makwana reinvented himself after many failures

By Indira Laisram
Nilesh Makwana with his wife Lene // Pic supplied

Perth-based Nilesh Makwana serves up a lot of stories—from growing up in India to working and studying in London to finally settling down in Australia. In all this, the key takeaway his how he morphed himself into a successful entrepreneur from his failed lived experiences in life.

Makwana’s journey begins in Rajkot, Gujarat, in India. As a student, he always, invariably, failed in school and while his peers were busy studying and playing, he thought it was more fun selling stickers and pens. “Mathematics, history—were all a challenge, I didn’t like to be confined in a room, I was the worst student, and I learnt a lot outside the classroom,” he  candidly admits.

As he grew a little older, he “upscaled his business” to sell household appliances in his neighbourhood on his bicycle. Eventually, he did successfully complete his Secondary School Certificate (SSC) exams, and later found his niche getting into the information technology (IT) sector in Mumbai during the dotcom boom.

Nilesh and Lene Makwana with Gordon Flake, CEO Perth USAsia Centre // Pic supplied

The drive to succeed made him take big risks “like leaving my family and everything I’d ever known in India”. He had heard of London from guests who came to visit his family often with Bounty chocolates. Lured by the fascinating stories he’d heard from them, he made up his mind to go there.

After few failed applications, he did manage to get a visa and study a BA honours degree in Airline and Airports Management from the University of West London. Working with KLM Royal Dutch Airlines at Heathrow Airport, he would travel to 54 countries and made London his home for 10 years.

The travels, he says, enriched his life. It taught him about cultures, migration journeys and humanity at large, helping him connect with people at every level.

Heritage Walk with Dr. M. Mathiventhan, Minister for Tourism, Govt. of Tamil Nadu & WA Deputy Premier Hon Roger Cook MLA // Pic supplied

In 2011, as part of his South Asia tour, Makwana visited his childhood friend in Australia with whom he had planned to go to London. The plan fell out as both their visas got rejected the first time. So, the friend branched out to Australia, and Makwana headed to London. Given Makwana’s IT background and business acumen, the friend persuaded him to work in WA which needed people with skills.

“I also realised I preferred the WA weather to London weather. Besides, Perth had a two-and-half hour time difference with India, the state had a 1.3 per cent unemployment rate then, the highest amount of GDP contribution to the nation, and it was a regional area from the permanent residency perspective,” say Makwana. He finally arrived in July 2012 and went on to set up a company and taste big success (more on that below).

Makwana’s life story, a self-help memoir, where he fuses his personal narrative with key takeaways, is out in his book Terminal 4: An Entrepreneur’s Journey from Bicycle to Business Class. Released on July 12, it marks his ten-year anniversary of coming to Australia.

Nilesh Makwana at the  Invest and Trade Western Australia Evening Reception in Mumbai with West Australian Cricketer Brad Hogg and other delegates // Pic supplied

Indeed, Makwana is bullish on storytelling. Over Zoom from Mumbai, he tells The Indian Sun that his book gives an insight into an adventure that every international student or migrant goes through. But more importantly, it is the spirit of entrepreneurship that he hopes the book celebrates.

He reveals, for instance, how he honed his entrepreneurship again as a student in London where, in the initial days, he found himself eating frozen pizzas. “I called it the low of life coming from India where we are used to eating fresh food,” he says, which, ironically, is not viewed the same from a western perspective.

To overcome his food challenges, Makwana launched the, where he partnered with few restaurants and helped them connect with buyers like himself. He claims it was one of the most successful ventures for Indian food services. The result: for four and half years, he had free food coming to his home.

Nilesh Makwana // Pic supplied

As an entrepreneur, you can create your own opportunities, says Makwana. “Be it discrimination, education, loneliness, food or employment, you can overcome them by being entrepreneurial, which migrants are truly great at.”

In 2015, Makwana and business partner Vincent Lam founded illuminance Solutions. In 2019, Microsoft named the company a Global Partner of the Year for Social Impact. Meeting “role model” Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft, remains a highlight in his career, as he continues to be inspired by him.

Alongside that, he is also founder of West Tech Assemblage, an annual event for tech leaders, entrepreneurs and innovators to promote cross-industry collaboration in Western Australia. With Lene, his Norwegian artist wife, he co-founded Borderless Gandhi, an organisation promoting Gandhi’s message of peace, equality and non-violence through various artistic reflections. Incidentally, he met his wife the same year they both landed in Perth. “We met six months after. If you ask her how we met, she will give you her Norwegian cold version, I will give you the Bollywood spicy version,” he adds, with a laugh.

With Navdeep Suri, former High Commissioner to Australia and WA Deputy Premier Hon Roger Cook // Pic supplied

Amongst his other credentials, Makwana been recently appointed a T20 World Cup Champion for his advocacy work surrounding diversity and inclusion in Perth. He will be promoting the World Cup matches in October and championing cricket to bring Australia and India closer together.

Currently, Makwana is in India promoting his book as part of the Western Australian (WA) government’s largest ever trade mission to India. The book was launched in New Delhi by Deputy Premier Roger Cook to encourage WA as a destination for education, jobs and business. He will have the Australian launch of his book in August by WA Premier Mark McGowan.

Book cover // Pic supplied

The book accumulates to tell a story about what migrants can contribute to their new home country. Makwana wrote the book over two years during the pandemic and “felt blessed” to immediately find an Indian publisher, Popular Prakashan, who agreed to publish on time to commemorate his ten-year anniversary of coming to Australia. It is significant that Popular Prakashan found merit in Makwana’s story, a student who failed his SSC thrice—at a time in India when students were committing suicides over exam failures.

Clearly, Makwana’s journey also attests to the fact that Gujaratis are born businessmen. “Yes, we have a hustler approach no matter which part of the world we find themselves in,” he says, with a laugh. But more importantly, he says the book is his father’s wisdom come to life. “It’s about giving back, being a good friend, seeking to help people, and in return, achieving your own dreams. We carry the values of karmic management. My father has shaped the person I am.”

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