Rangan Srikhanta has never known any other place as home apart from Australia. Born in Sri Lanka, at the time of the civil war, his family migrated to Australia when Rangan was just 4 months old.
Today, this Sri Lankan refugee is the founder of social enterprise One Education that supplies laptops to children across the country. The aim of the not-for-profit is to close the digital divide that separates children in different socio-economic areas.
His journey has not been without challenges. I spoke to Rangan about his work and what inspired him to start One Education.
Q. What do you do in the company?
I’ve been working with One Education for over a decade. Our major focus is on identifying low-cost educational computers for classroom settings. Our work revolves around logistics, software and support, troubleshooting, providing teachers with training opportunities to improve their professional practice and the use of computers for the classroom.
We also look for new and exciting pieces of technology from which we can evolve our product.
Since 2009, we’ve distributed over 70,000 computers around Australia, thanks to funding from major companies. Australian federal government funding in 2012 helped us deal directly with schools who order our product. As a not-for-profit, we’ve had to raise over 25 million dollars to make that happen.
Q. Was it a conscious decision to choose a not for profit model rather than a commercial one?
As a not-for-profit, we are free to focus on our mission and not see the schools as a market. That decision filter impacts the way we operate some of the programs we run, because many of the things we do may not be profit-making, but have great social outcomes.
Q. Going back to the beginning, how did you even go about designing the computer in the first place and what challenges did you face?
We started as One Laptop per Child (OLPC) Australia, the local partner of OLPC, a spin-off from the MIT media lab in the USA where a group of scientists and engineers proposed to design a machine which would only cost $100 at a time when computers cost over $1000!
I focused on bringing that device to remote Australian communities. One of the biggest challenges here in Australia is the scale and remoteness of the communities. Some communities we worked with had 12 children and a part-time teacher for 3 days a week.
Q. Why did your parents choose Australia when they decided to migrate?
We left Sri Lanka in the middle of a civil war so we weren’t too picky about where we wanted to go. We were lucky because we had family here who had migrated from New Zealand to Australia.
At that point, no one really knew the nuances between Canada, the UK, New Zealand, and Australia. There was no internet in the 1980s so you couldn’t Google it, you couldn’t see videos or photos of where you were going.
It’s clear to me that of all the possible places that we could have ended up, we really hit the lottery. The scale of the opportunities I’ve had here far exceeds what I would have found in Sri Lanka and even countries like the US. Australia is miles ahead when it comes to quality of life.
Q. You grew up in Homebush, NSW. What was it like there?
It was multicultural and suited us well having a large Sri Lankan Tamil population. I went to the local schools and felt that strong sense of community. It was like a gateway suburb for many Tamil migrants.
Q. Did you feel conflicted between the two cultures when you were growing up?
When people have to leave a country because of war, not by choice, there’s this kind of time warp effect that happens. In our case, we were stuck in 1984. So, there’s a strong desire to hold onto culture and customs belonging to 1984. Interestingly, going back to Sri Lanka now, they’ve moved on and are living in 2018!
Q. What are your fondest memories of your Australian childhood?
I remember we used to live in a flat in Strathfield and coming home from school, having my meat pie, and then watching ABC TV!
Q. What’s your top tip for migrants?
Understand you have an identity but also embrace the Australian way of life. The big challenge for folks is relearning things from scratch and there’ll be many opportunities for that.
Follow One Education’s projects on Facebook and Twitter. Interested in exploring their products for your school? Contact them here.