Michelle Wade: Forging closer ties between Victoria and South Asia

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Michelle Wade’s life has long been intertwined with India – ties traced back to her childhood in Woolgoolga, NSW which is home to one of Australia’s first Indian communities.  Having worked in multiple countries, Michelle is now based in Bangalore as Commissioner of South Asia for the Victorian government.

Growing up alongside a migrant Indian community in regional Australia developed Michelle’s appetite for international trade and influenced her decision to take her current role in India.

“It was a unique environment in that we were small fish in a big pond but we always knew that there was a bigger ocean,” said Michelle who’s very proud of her hometown for its uniqueness and achievement.

Michelle shared with us how her early exposure to the Indian community and culture helps her to build closer ties between Victoria and South Asia.

Interview by Tammy Lee, Marketing & Communications Officer, Advance

Can you describe your role and what you do?

I am Commissioner – South Asia for the Victorian government based in Bangalore.  I am the key representative for the State of Victoria in-market and lead our offices in Bangalore and Mumbai to promote trade, investment and education between Victoria and the region.

Our territory stretches from the Maldives to Bhutan, but our focus is the Southern India states as well as Maharashtra (Mumbai), New Delhi and Sri Lanka.

In what ways has Victoria strengthened its ties with South Asia, in particular Bangalore?

Victoria’s reputation as a quality provider of education to the region is unique.  Four of Victoria’s top ten education markets (India, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Pakistan) sit within our territory.  About half of all Indian students and 70% of all Sri Lankan students in Australia call Victoria home.  Also, Victoria is home to more Indian and Sri Lankan diaspora than any other state of Australia.

This obviously creates a lot of two-way business and engagement.  We also need to acknowledge commitment that families from India and Sri Lanka have made in Victoria and we work to ensure that our students and diaspora businesses are supported and their successes are recognised and celebrated.

In recognition of the strong and growing ties, Premier Daniel Andrews launched Victoria’s India Strategy in January 2018.  As it was in its final draft when I commenced my role, it was like being presented a big, fat job description.  The strategy outlines our commitment in terms of our geographic focus in India and then our sectoral focuses in education, health, liveability, sports and entrepreneurship.

With the launch of the strategy, we have had an unprecedented number of high level visits to Bangalore from the moment I stepped off the plane, including the Victorian Governor, Premier and Minister for Trade all within my first six months.  I was fortunate to arrive in Bangalore to work with an exemplary local team, including a number of Indians who have lived and worked in Melbourne.

In Bangalore, I have been particularly privileged to collaborate with Dr Kiran Mazumdar Shaw, one of India’s leading business people and a graduate of Federation University (formerly Ballarat University) who has been appointed Victoria’s Business Ambassador to India.  As founder, Chair and CEO of India’s largest biotechnology companies, Biocon, I am humbled by the time and connections she helps us to make, particularly in Karnataka. Editor’s note: Kiran was the Global Alumni award winner of the Advance Awards (formerly known as Advance Global Australians Awards) in 2013 in recognition of her innovative efforts in industrial biotechnology.

What's the most interesting aspect of your role?

The most interesting aspect has been learning about the unsung success that many Victorian companies, particularly services-based exporters are having in India.  Whilst India and particularly Bangalore is known as a location for outsourced businesses, most of the businesses we know are doing solid business in their own right.

There are Victorian companies with factory presences in India, largely to service the Indian market – from biscuits to sporting goods.  Also, we have Victorian companies with major contracts in logistics, architecture and design, cost surveying, air pollution monitoring and water management.  

I’m also fascinated to watch the roll-out of e-commerce in India as the market skips the desktop computer stage, goes straight to smartphones and reverse engineers traditional logistic issues.

You grew up in rural NSW - Woolgoolga - where you were exposed to Australia's earliest Indian community. How did your experience back then help you to better understand and engage the community in Bangalore?

My key motivation to take this role was my long-standing personal connection with India.  

My family think it’s my destiny that I should end up here (which is quite an Indian way to think about this!).

In terms of understanding Bangalore, the Punjabi/Sikh culture that I grew up with in Woolgoolga originates from the north – so my joke with the Bangaloreans is that I probably went to school with more Sikhs then they did – and that’s true!

Many of the Indian families in Woolgoolga are now fourth and fifth generation, some even more.  I’m very proud of coming from Woolgoolga, and having been educated in the town’s local public schools.  I’ve given a lot of thought to growing up in that small, relatively poor but unique community and the amount of success that has come out of the town, which includes Olympic medal winners, international entrepreneurs and key figures in publishing.  It was a unique environment in that we were small fish in a big pond but we always know that there was a bigger ocean.  I believe you are also exposed to a level of risk and resilience when you live as part of migrant communities that you don’t necessarily see in the mainstream.  

Having worked in several countries outside of Australia, how's your experience in Bangalore compare with the three other cities  where you have lived and worked?

We were offshore continuously working with Austrade for 14 years dating back to the late 1990s – in Milan, then Kuala Lumpur, then Madrid before we returned to Australia for four years from 2013, and I moved to Bangalore in late 2017.  

Each of these locations are like separate rooms in a house for me.  They have their own character and there are different people in each room in terms of friends we made and the growing family we had along the way.

Milan was memorable because we found a weekend place on Lake Como and got to spend almost half of our weeks in a small village and experience the quirks and wonders of Italian village life.  Professionally, I was transitioning my career from arts to trade so it was a great learning experience and also made me appreciate how skills can be transferred across industries.

Kuala Lumpur was great because we had a young family and so it was perfect timing to have additional support at home.  The culture was rich and multi-layered, and work was interesting as we arrived just as Mahathir Mohamad, the Prime Minister of Malaysia retired (the first time) which augured a new period of relations between Australia and Malaysia.  

Madrid was incredible - we almost died of fun!  It was a great local experience as we had three kids in local primary school, so were really a part of the community.  Also for me, it coincided with a massive growth in commercial interest from Spain to Australia in renewables and infrastructure, so professionally very rewarding.

The greatest difference with Bangalore is that I am here on my own.  We have kids in upper high school, so my husband and three kids have stayed in Australia for now.  That has slowed my grand entrée into a social circle, as my life is split between Bangalore and my family on FaceTime.  But the benefit is that my family visits full of enthusiasm and chasing their next big Indian adventure.  We’ve learned to think less about the absences and more about the next reunion.

What do you enjoy most working overseas?

I love the sense of perspective and reflection living overseas gives you.  India, for its regional differences, the sheer volume of people, its development challenges and its ambition, is fascinating.  I love learning languages and better understanding a society through the nuance of language.  

And fundamentally, I am in this business of international trade because I like to help companies and watch them transform, as I have personally, when they embark on new horizons.