Today Ratheesan Yoganathan is the co-founder and CEO of Lebara Group, one of Europe’s leading telecoms operators for ethnic and migrant communities. But in 2001 while travelling in Norway with his two friends, and soon-to-be business partners, Lebara was just a business venture waiting to happen.
“I believe it’s not necessarily what you know, or what you don’t know—it’s about what you believe in that’s important. If you pour your heart into your dreams you can make it happen.”
Leon R. Ranjith, Baskaran Kandiah and Ratheesan were “inspired by the imposing sight of the Telenor building on the road to Bergen airport” and got to talking about establishing a business that they could be proud of. They wanted to serve customers first and foremost through international calling services that would enable ethnic and migrant communities to stay in touch with their families and friends back home. The guiding principles for developing their products? Always keeping quality high, and the cost to customers low.
Lebara has become one of the world’s fastest growing mobile companies with more than 3 million active customers, over 1,000 employees worldwide, and operations in seven European countries as well as Australia. The company is also the 3 time winner of the “Best Mobile Virtual Network Operator (MVNO)” award, which recognizes excellence, best-practice and innovation in the UK’s mobile telecommunications industry.
TC had the chance to connect with the entrepreneur extraordinaire who helped to spearhead this success story. Check out our interview with Ratheesan below!
TamilCulture: Tell us a bit about yourself.
Ratheesan Yoganathan: I was born in Jaffna, went to boarding school in India and came to the UK when I was 15. After school I studied aeronautical engineering at Kingston University in Surrey. I chose aeronautical engineering because I have always been very numbers oriented and it involved more numbers than any other subject. After university I then worked selling calling cards in a shop in East London to fund my Masters. I was always interested in starting my own business so actually didn’t finish the Masters by the time I decided to set up Lebara when I was 25 years old along with 2 friends.
TC: How has your education impacted your career?
RY: I have been very fortunate with the opportunities I have had. Access to a strong education system has provided me with the skills to set up my own business. My parents taught me the importance of morals and values and my teachers taught me the basic academic principals but it is our experiences that then give us the confidence to choose the path for our future.
I wanted to apply the basic principles I learnt from my parents and my teachers and from there build a company that I could be proud of. I have done this with the support of my co-founders, Leon and Karan and the employees of Lebara who have worked hard to help make our dream a reality. It has not been easy but it has been deeply satisfying.
I believe that education is so important to young children by providing the skills and knowledge for a better future. I feel very fortunate for the opportunities that I have had and I feel privileged to be in a position now to help others who are less fortunate through the Lebara Foundation. Education, along with the provision of food, water and shelter are the main ways that the Lebara Foundation aims to assist communities around the world.
TC: What inspired the formation of Lebara?
RY: In 2001 we founded Lebara because we wanted to provide a better quality of service for customers calling their friends and family internationally. 10 years later we have more than 3 million active customers around the world. I am particularly passionate about the work of the Lebara Foundation which was set up in 2008. We have already helped over 200,000 children and I have great ambitions to look after many more disadvantaged children around the world.
TC: How does the Lebara Foundation fit within the Lebara Group’s goals?
RY: The Lebara Foundation is very close to my heart and a fundamental part of Lebara’s values and culture. I am passionate about giving back and making a difference to the communities of our customers and their families and friends.
We first had the idea for the Lebara Foundation in 2005 after I saw for myself the impact that the 2004 Tsunami had on young children and their communities who were no longer able to access water, food, shelter and education. Children are the future of communities and for the thousands of kids around the world who live in poverty without access to education, their future and that of their communities seems very bleak. That’s why it’s so important that countries and companies work together to deliver opportunities for better, more sustainable futures.
The aim of the Lebara Foundation is to provide sustainable solutions to help displaced children around the world by giving them access to housing, food, clean water and education.
TC: What would you consider to be milestones in your career so far?
RY: A key moment for me was when we signed our first MVNO (Mobile Virtual Network Operator) contract with mobile network operator Telfort in the Netherlands in 2004.
Last year we celebrated our 10th anniversary with over 1,000 employees at a special event and this was another significant milestone for me in terms of recognising how the company has grown and developed over this time.
Of course the other major moment for me was setting up the Lebara Foundation in 2008. In three years we have already supported over 200,000 vulnerable children around the world. We donated €10million to the Foundation in 2011 as part of our 10th Anniversary celebrations.
TC: Is there an ultimate goal that you aspire to for Lebara and for yourself?
RY: From a business perspective, our goal is to be the brand of choice for one billion people by 2020. We want to diversify and expand geographically, by continuing to help make our customers’ lives better. Any new product that we launch in the future must help us with this ambition by touching both people in the transaction. For example, if you are a Lebara Money customer, then both the person transferring the money and the recipient know they have benefited from the service that Lebara offers.
My personal ambition is to continue to grow the work of the Lebara Foundation and in particular I want to support 100,000 children on a daily basis by providing them with basic needs such as food and water, shelter and education.
TC: What advice can you share with those who are pursuing their own business?
RY: My father always said that I should get a proper job – he wanted me to be a pilot! I remember him sitting me down after Lebara’s 5th year anniversary celebration, where he met many of the staff, saying that it’s good that I didn’t become a pilot. At this point, all the hard work felt worthwhile. I had finally managed to convince my father that I had a real job and that it was better than being a pilot.
The point I want to make is this. We get a lot of advice from our parents, teachers and other role models in life and while it’s important to respect this advice it might not be right for you and if you have a dream you should work hard to make it a reality.
I believe it’s not necessarily what you know, or what you don’t know—it’s about what you believe in that’s important. If you pour your heart into your dreams you can make it happen. Everything is possible as long as you put your heart and mind to it. I often tell people to learn to dream with their eyes wide open because dreams do come true.
Listening, understanding and leading by example are also important to the way I approach my business. Customers must always come first. At Lebara, I encourage all staff to spend one day every month out in the market talking directly to customers. It’s this customer knowledge and understanding that will help us continue to serve our customers in the best possible way.
Finally, you can learn skills and acquire knowledge but cannot learn ethics and attitudes that are right for your organisation. Our culture is the set of characteristics that uniquely defines Lebara. Anyone starting their own business needs to know what values and ethics are important to them and will define them as a brand.
TC: Who would you consider to be the most inspiring person you’ve met or worked with?
RY: My grandfather.
TC: A quote that inspires you:
RY: “We must be the change we want to see in the world”. Mahatma Ghandi
TC: If you were stranded on an island, what 3 things would you need to have with you?
RY: A mobile phone, a pillow and water
TC: If you could live anywhere in the world, where would you?
RY: My hometown where I was born – Point Pedro in Sri-Lanka
TC: When you’re not working, what are you doing?
RY: When I’m not working, I play golf with friends and spend time with my family. I particularly enjoy cooking.
TC: “To me Tamil culture is”:
RY: A set of principles consisting of respect, values and family
—Nive Thambithurai, Editor (Entertainment, Spotlight)