In the Q&A portion of his presentation, alum Jack Zhang is fielding questions from students eager to grab some of his valuable time.
Jack is back on campus at the invitation of the Faculty of Business and Economics, presenting to third-year Entrepreneurial Finance students and sharing the story of his very successful fintech startup, Airwallex.
The real-time payments platform firm has made headlines in recent weeks for attaining ‘unicorn’ status – receiving a valuation of over US $1 billion thanks to its latest round of funding. As one of only three unicorns in Australia (300+ worldwide), the rapidly expanding business also nabs the title of fastest-growing unicorn, reaching this milestone in only four years since its launch.
Having Jack speak at the University is clearly a coup for the faculty. But the Airwallex co-founder and CEO is only too happy to get in front of an audience who will likely be thinking carefully about their own careers as they near completion of their studies.
“We are very interested in hiring Melbourne Uni alumni and grads,” says Jack. “We have 300 people now, we look to be 500 by the end of the year, we’re looking to be about 1000 next year. So we’re hiring a massive amount of people.”
With that kind of trajectory, Airwallex is an ideal case study for those with dreams of fintech glory. That’s something Jack is pleased to be able to share with students to help them figure out their own career plans. But despite his company’s current golden status, it wasn’t an easy route up to this point, says Jack.
“I wouldn’t call it a success story,” he says. “It’s more like a journey which is quite unique.”
“With Airwallex, which is such a long-term, bold, ambitious vision, I truly feel that I’m very happy and I’m able to enjoy day-to-day life,” says Jack. “If you think about it, you probably spend more than 60 or 70% of your life at work. If you don’t enjoy it, then that’s pretty sad.”
Arriving in Australia as a teenager from his hometown of Qingdao, China, Jack went on to skip a year of high school and enrolled at the University of Melbourne, where he eventually graduated with a Bachelor of Computer Science. It was during his time at uni that he faced an unexpected hurdle.
“I lost most of my financial support, so I had to figure out how to survive and pay my fees,” he explains. “I worked three part-time jobs. It was a lot of hard work back then, I did everything you can think of – worked in petrol stations, factories, restaurants … later on I would start bartending, working in a theatre, that sort of stuff.”
That drive and agility was echoed in his years after uni. During a decade working in investment banking in London, Hong Kong and Melbourne, Jack started around 15 different business ventures on the side, from a cafe, to an import-export business, a project management firm, and a real estate development company. It was an attempt, Jack says, to find true career satisfaction.
“I spent about five years between [the ages of] 25 and 30 to figure out what was making me happy and that’s why I started so many businesses. Every single one was making money but none of them really had a social impact and at some stage I didn’t feel like they were making me happy anymore.”
Deciding to devote all his attention to solving this “very large problem”, Jack resigned from his job. It was in 2015 that he found the solution, launching Airwallex alongside its four other co-founders, three of whom are also University of Melbourne alumni. In fact, it was Airwallex CTO Xijing Dai that Jack credits as helping him get through his assignments during his hectic uni years.
“We’ve known each other for over 10 years,” says Jack. “I would always talk to him about starting something – I persistently pitched to him for 10 years. This is his fifth startup, his last four startups all failed, so basically he told me this would be his last one and if he still failed he was probably just going to admit [defeat]. But I think that’s a good example of how you can fail four startups but still take a leap of faith to fly from China to here to join me to do another one.”
And that’s a leap that’s clearly paid off for everyone involved.
“With Airwallex, which is such a long-term, bold, ambitious vision, I truly feel that I’m very happy and I’m able to enjoy day-to-day life,” says Jack. “If you think about it, you probably spend more than 60 or 70 per cent of your life at work. If you don’t enjoy it, then that’s pretty sad.”