University of Melbourne Magazine

Making a billion in real time

  • By Lani Thorpe

    Jack Zhang standing in front of a wall of graffiti.

    Jack Zhang

    Back on campus, alumnus Jack Zhang (BEng 2007) is fielding questions from students eager to grab some of his valuable time.

    Zhang is in Melbourne 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.

    This year the real-time payments platform firm made headlines for achieving ‘unicorn’ status – a valuation of more than $US1 billion. As one of only three unicorns in Australia (300-plus worldwide), the rapidly expanding business also nabs the title of fastest-growing unicorn, reaching this milestone in only four years since its launch.

    Having Zhang 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 University of Melbourne alumni and grads,” says Zhang. “We have 300 people now, we’re looking to be about 1000 next year. We’re hiring a massive amount of people.”

    “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.”

    Airwallex is an ideal case study for those with dreams of fintech glory. But it wasn’t an easy route to success, says Zhang.

    Arriving in Australia as a teenager from his hometown of Qingdao, China, Zhang 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. I did everything you can think of – worked in petrol stations, factories, restaurants … ”

    After uni, he remained driven. While working in investment banking in London, Hong Kong and Melbourne, Zhang started about 15 different businesses on the side, including a cafe, an import–export business, a project management firm, and a real estate development company. It was an attempt, he says, to find true career satisfaction.

    “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”, Zhang resigned from his job. In 2015 he found the solution, launching Airwallex with its four other co-founders, three of whom are also University of Melbourne alumni.

    “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 Zhang. “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.”