Ghale Force

Shesh Ghale came to Melbourne as an international student in 1990. He and his wife are now one of Australia’s richest couples and they work tirelessly on commercial and philanthropic endeavours in education, health, social issues and reconstruction in their native Nepal.

By Peter Roper.
Photography by Marija Ivkovic

In a remote construction site in the mountains of Nepal, Shesh Ghale sits in an excavator, taking in the view. Three thousand metres above sea level, it’s a construction site so inaccessible it takes 12 hours to reach from Kathmandu – a shorter distance than from Melbourne’s CBD to Healesville. He and wife Jamuna Gurung are in Laprak Model Settlement, in northern-central Nepal, overseeing construction of the brand new village. Ghale is leading reconstruction efforts in his role as global president of the Non-Resident Nepali Association (NRNA) and Special Envoy for the Government of Nepal. From this vantage point, they have a panoramic view of the Himalayas, including the 8000-metre peak, Manaslu. Here you find nature at its purest: beautiful and unforgiving.

The couple, co-founders of Melbourne Institute of Technology (MIT), have lived in a tent for much of the year. Compared to the local residents, however, they have it easy. It’s now more than two years since a 7.8 magnitude Nepal earthquake killed 9000 people and destroyed around 700,000 homes, mostly in the mountains. While the world moved on to the next big story, locals are still living in makeshift housing to this day. The damage inflicted by the once-in-a-generation disaster is estimated to be equal to half the country’s gross domestic product. It left 3.5 million people homeless.

Ghale has been president of the not-for-profit organisation since 2013, leading efforts by 76 chapters around the world, including in Australia, the US, the UK, Western Europe, the Middle East and Asia. The diaspora organisation provides an important channel for advising the Nepalese Government on policy issues on behalf, and protecting the interests, of Nepalese-background people living all over the world. It’s a relatively large group – out of a population of 27 million, the past two decades have seen roughly five million Nepalese leave the country to seek opportunities elsewhere, driven by political and economic instability.

When the earthquake struck, the NRNA was quick to get involved in relief efforts. It raised money and Ghale led a month of relief work in the mountains. “We distributed blankets, food and things like that to the earthquake victims. When natural disasters happen, you go into the place along with organisations like the Red Cross, World Vision and others and the goal during the early days is to quickly collect donations and provide the relief.

“But relief is a brief phase – reconstruction is a very long process. It’s two years now since the earthquake, and the human tendency is to forget as new events take place. People are still living in camps. The job is unfinished.”

Raising about $3.5 million meant the Association could get to work on the lengthy reconstruction process. It’s now building the Laprak Mode Settlement, which comprises about 600 homes. “The Settlement is for locals who lost their village during the earthquake,” Ghale says. “They’re not allowed to rebuild in the same place because it’s unstable, so we’re building homes in a new area.”

It’s the most difficult charitable work Ghale has ever been involved with. “The location we were given is 3000 metres high and only accessible seasonally. During winter it’s too cold and everything is frozen. Then you have three or four months before the monsoon comes and wipes out road access,” he says. “When we can work, getting there takes about 12 hours from Kathmandu. Logistically, anything you build costs three or four times more than in Kathmandu because there’s no internet, no telephone service, no basic facilities and the roads are very bad.”.

Ghale knows roads. He achieved a masters of civil engineering from Kharkov Automobile and Highway Institute through a scholarship program of the Nepalese Government, then worked as an engineer for the Department of Transport Management on a highway project.

“We also didn’t have water to drink or to use for the construction, so we had to pump water from a source 800 metres down and store it in tanks we built ourselves. Now we have installed a solar system for heating water, so that workers can at least take a shower every few days.”

Despite the incredible challenges, the project is coming along slowly but surely, and the new homes will be much better than what the locals are accustomed to. Not only that, but they’ve been designed with sustainability and self-sufficiency in mind. “The residents can generate income,” Ghale explains. “They can use it as a tourist village, accommodating guests, like a homestead. It’s a very attractive area so we believe, after we’ve completed the project, people will visit the place to enjoy the natural beauty of Nepal in that area.”

When he’s not leading reconstruction efforts in his native Nepal, his day job is as founder and CEO of Melbourne Institute of Technology (MIT). Ghale and Gurung, the Institute’s managing director, set up the MIT Group Foundation in 2014. “After finishing at NRNA, we want to focus our time in our Foundation that helps in the areas of health and education,” Ghale says.

“It is associated with MIT, a business we started 20 years ago. MIT has grown and is well-established and running well. Some years ago we thought we should initiate a giving initiative – that is our social responsibility – not only in Nepal but also here in Australia. The idea of the Foundation is to allocate money from the for-profit Institute.”

Having the Foundation means they’re also able to raise donations to help communities around the world, starting with Nepal, in the area of health and education. Ghale is committing a billion Nepalese rupees – more than AU$12 million – to go towards health and education charitable work in Nepal.

It’s work that is starting where Ghale did. “I come from a tiny village, which has only 40 houses,” he says. “Many people left my village looking for opportunities, naturally, but there are people still living there who couldn’t go overseas or who couldn’t educate themselves and climb up the ladder.”

It’s the same village, in Lamjung, in which his 86-year-old mother still lives. The village is not far from the epicentre of the earthquake, but somehow escaped undamaged. Still, it took two stressful days to be able to reach her to confirm everything was OK.

“When I went back a few years ago, I saw the same school where I had studied being used for 200 students, the building crumbling. So we built a new school.” The school is now complete and the children are enjoying the facility.

It was in the mid 90s, after both Ghale and his wife had come to Melbourne as international students themselves, that they saw the opportunities in education and established MIT. After more than 20 years, international education is still a growth industry and one of the top few export industries by economic contribution.

“It’s a very resilient industry,” Ghale says, “and although online education has come a long way, international students still like coming to experience the Australian lifestyle.

“In 1996, my wife and I decided to set up a small college ourselves. At that time, the industry was quite closed. The barrier to entry was high, but we managed to get a licence to operate as an institute. These days, everybody’s jumping in and we have many providers, but still enough market for everybody. The universities have grown, small universities, institutes and community colleges have converted into universities. While super universities like the University of Melbourne and Monash University have become global universities; we look at ourselves as a private institution and haven’t become that huge in terms of revenue and student numbers.”

But MIT sees scope for growth. The industry is growing about four or five percent every year and having good brick-and-mortar facilities in a city like Melbourne, with its own special attraction for international students, is an advantage.

“We’re still in a good place,” Ghale says, “but our focus is more towards how we start giving to the communities. One day we want to become a university – we want to be able to engage in research degrees and PhDs. When you become a university your commerciality reduces a little as you become more for the public interest. We are happy taking that path because we lean towards social causes.”

Ghale and Gurung are also diversifying their portfolio into commercial property. “I like Melbourne and I’m very familiar with the city, so when there is a good opportunity in the city regarding office buildings, I take it. Sometimes I regret selling things when I shouldn’t have, but new opportunities always come along.”

The latest opportunity is a block of land near Flagstaff Gardens purchased during the global financial crisis (GFC) when very few would have done so. It’s now got planning approval for a mixed development with 470 apartments and a 210-room upscale hotel. With the City spending money to redevelop the Queen Victoria Market site, it’s a winning location.

It’s enough to keep anyone busy. “I have matured a lot in terms of social causes and politics within organisations,” Ghale says. “We have had to face a lot of challenges. It is never unanimous when you try to do things – there are always politics and differing interests involved, so you have to overcome those barriers, convince those people or, for some of them, make them shut up.

“My wife helped along the way in a big way – she still does. From four years of running this global organisation I am now well-equipped to do things through our Foundation. I will leverage my experiences and I will not diminish my social causes or social giving.”