Hashi Kaar’s story is both uplifting and sad. A refugee from war-torn Somalia, he arrived in Australia as a 17-year-old boy without English, much schooling or an understanding of what the internet was.
Just five years later, he was in his third year of university and employed as a junior application developer at pharmaceutical valuation company Medici Capital.
Now, 13 years since he arrived in Melbourne with his five siblings and mother as part of the family reunion program, he is the founder of three tech companies and employs 15 people. This is the miracle of opportunity. When people are given a chance to make something of themselves, they can overcome immense disadvantages.
But Kaar’s success is also a depressing reminder of what the 10 million people in Somalia could be achieving given the opportunity.
“Things we take for granted here, they don’t have there,” he says. “I never went to high school or any formal school in my life.”
Once in Australia, after 10 years living as a refugee in Kenya, Kaar was able to take advantage of a number of government programs to learn English and study at TAFE and Swinburne University of Technology. These gave him the skills he needed to get started in a career that earned him a six-figure salary before he left to become an entrepreneur.
Help from strangers
But it was an act of kindness that may have made the greatest impact. On only his second day in Australia, a librarian took the time to help the young Kaar get started on the library’s computer.
“A lady asked me if I wanted to use the internet and send emails,” he recalls.
“I was very confused because I didn’t know what the internet was, or email, or how you use it. I thought it was something you buy from the shop.
“It became a fascination and, within a week, I was googling African music and things like that.”
Kaar needed to set up a Hotmail account but he didn’t know anyone to send emails to except the librarian, who worked at a Noble Park centre to help migrants.
“She was very nice. I’ve been trying to find her, any way I could, just to say thank you very much.”
Nine months after his arrival, he got a job, bought a computer and connected it to the internet. “From there, it was lift-off,” he says.
He spent his days stacking shelves at work, studying, playing soccer and writing computer programs.
“Even though I didn’t go to school, later I realised I was actually a quick learner.”
Building something new
Kaar spent almost six years at Medici Capital, which employed him first as an intern, then part-time through his university study, and later full-time. He then moved to a job as an analyst at consultancy KDIS, where he was able to spend a year observing entrepreneurs.
“I got a chance to see tech start-ups and how they work,” he says.
He was the software engineer for three Melbourne-based start-ups and relished the excitement of building something new.
“I was always the guy on call . . . I liked the whole fast pace and things happening very quickly.”
Kaar started the software development company Plycode last year with former colleagues Ahmed Yusuf and software engineer Tim Forrest. The start-up cost of $50,000 was covered by the partners.
The company, with 12 employees, has earned $150,000 in revenue since last March and has a target of $650,000 by June next year. In turn, Plycode has created two separate employment platforms, Kazileo and Employfy. Kazileo (due to launch next month) specialises in ICT recruitment in Australia, using skills tests and video interviewing.
It has a staff of three and a start-up cost of $120,000.
Employfy has just been launched in Kenya as the only online mentoring service for Africa (linking mentors globally with mentees on the continent).
It is an online recruitment platform with interviewing technologies. The start-up costs were low ($10,000), as the technology used is reliant on that of Kazileo.
Employfy is offered as a free service and will eventually adopt a freemium model.
“I always have a dream to make a difference to where I come from,” Kaar says.
In Africa, each job vacancy might attract 10,000 applicants. “The ratio between job-seekers and jobs is quite bad. We want to help the companies and put in some sort of structure and help job-seekers find jobs easily.”
Kaar says he has high hopes for his companies. There are plans for a bigger office in Richmond next year and to recruit more people.
He is very appreciative of the opportunities that have come his way.
“I think everyone can be successful, no matter where you are, if you have the right resources. In a country like Australia, opportunities are endless.
“You don’t have to run a tech company and you don’t have to kickstart your own company. Even when I was [an employee], I was offered equity in a company that I was working in . . . so I could stay longer.
“It all comes down to believing that this is a great country and there are so many opportunities out there. For me, Melbourne is like my home town.”
Kaar says he didn’t experience much hardship once he came to Australia because things happened very quickly for him.
“If I look back just 15 months ago, I had a full-time job and I was enjoying what I was doing. Now I am running a team of 15 people on two continents. I think things happen in a very quick way.”
Get help: Government-funded programs got Kaar’s family to the country and helped them with housing, and gave him access to courses that, with no formal education, led him to university and a bachelor of computer science.
Make friends: Kaar got his first hand up from a friendly librarian who helped him get started on the internet. He joined a local soccer team, which allowed him to practise his English and understand more about his new country.
Build ties with colleagues: He remained close to former workmates, who later joined him in his start-ups. “Often new migrants think they are not going to make it but, if you try hard and you surround yourself with the right people, you are always bound to get something out of it.”
Be dedicated: “I am always the first one in and the last one out,” Kaar says.
Employ people who need a start: Kaar’s start-up partner Ahmed Yusuf often gives talks to migrant job clubs, which can be a good place to find new employees.
“We often come across a young talented migrant.
If there is a fit in our company, we say ‘come and join us’.”
Lend a hand: Kaar is using his expertise to help others back in Africa, first with an education project and now with his business (Employfy), which will help match people with jobs.