Strangers on a train rub shoulders every day, mostly without consequence. They get on and off, stare at their phones, jostle for limited space or worry about the time and whatever trials await them at their destination.
What they don’t often do is strike up a conversation. A journey by rail is usually a private affair, conducted without fuss with the standard assortment of social shields: headphones, sunglasses, even the odd face mask.
There is an exception to this rule: the kind of person that cares so much about their fellow humans that they reach out, even in such a fortress of solitude as a train.
Years ago, on a day like any other, Yasser Zaki was riding the rails and contemplating his corporate career. Zaki’s job offered financial reward, but little in the way of personal gain, and he realized it was making him unhappy. It was while he was having these thoughts that he saw her.
“There was an elderly woman,” Zaki recalls. “I could see she was going through a tough time.”
Glad to give his own dilemma a rest, he sat down with the woman and they began to talk. “She told me all about her situation,” he says. “It brought her to tears.”
“We all share the passion for changing lives and making waves in the sector.”
The woman’s experience cut to the heart of Zaki’s dissatisfaction with his own life. “Initially, I was working in a government role managing funding and services to help people live their best lives, but eventually I joined the private sector,” he says.
“By the time I met that woman, I was dealing with very heavy corporate services and getting nothing out of it. I ended up helping her, taking her home and cleaning her house for her.”
For two-and-a-half years, Zaki regularly returned to her house to clean.
“She became like family. It made me feel so much better about myself. After she passed, I realized it wasn’t about me helping someone. She was the one helping me.”
Inspired, Zaki quit his job and took on a new direction. “It was only worth about a quarter of my previous wage, but I started working in the disability sector supporting and helping people,” he says.
“From there, I built upon my education and grew my career to help even more people.”
That effort culminated in 2016 in the establishment of Tender Loving Care (TLC), a service provider registered with the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS). Headed by Zaki as CEO, TLC has branched out from its south-west Sydney origins to become a global entity.
“We run in eight different countries,” Zaki says. “We mainly deal with those with disabilities, and then we have initiatives where we employ people with disabilities.”
Sure enough, in one of TLC’s entities, 70 percent of employees are living with a disability. “But we all share the passion for changing lives and making waves in the sector,” he says.
To do that, TLC lives up to its name through a wide range of person-centric services. TLC Disability Services helps enhance quality of life for people with disabilities who require help in their homes, by providing comprehensive assistance, personal care, meal planning, therapy, transportation for appointments and even social activities.
“We deliver the best service because we have exposure to the best qualities around the world. It sets us apart.”
As an NDIS-registered business, TLC also provides access to allied health services, while day programs – including fitness, sports, martial arts, dance, expeditions and art therapy – bring a greater feeling of independence to the lives of clients.
By covering such a gamut of services within the disability space, Zaki has built TLC into an organization designed to provide services that empower people with a disability to live their best lives.
“The offerings are broad. I’d never be able to talk about it all in one sitting,” he says.
It may be a lot to cover, but by comparison, delivering on those promises is a breeze. “Delivering is not usually the challenge. Delivering the best way we can is what we put a lot of effort into,” he explains.
Even though TLC has expanded into other countries, Zaki says there’s a uniformity to the business’ high standards. “We deliver the best service because we have exposure to the best qualities around the world. It sets us apart.”
Making a difference in the disability space was a daunting task, as was determining TLC’s point of difference.
“We came to the conclusion that if you’re 100 percent reliant on government funding, you have to follow certain guidelines,” Zaki says. “It’s quite limiting in terms of innovation. How can you be innovative if you’re being told how to spend?”
Zaki and his team decided that diversification was key. “If we took our side of that and gave people platforms to flourish without the need for purely government funding, they’d have so much more freedom to do what’s necessary,” he says.
“We ended up commercializing arms of the business; now we have a travel agency that handles accessible travel for those with disabilities.”
“We have a travel agency that handles accessible travel for those with disabilities.”
TLC also entered into discussions with tourist destinations regarding the improvement of accessibility.
“If you’re a country that relies on tourism, have you done enough to make your destinations wheelchair accessible, for example? Things like that increase tourism. This is a big piece of what we’re doing around people with disabilities to empower the community as a whole, beyond just TLC as a business.”
The organization has also made inroads to change the narrative surrounding employment for those with disabilities.
“We’ve done a lot to raise awareness of the importance of hiring people with disabilities among businesses and governments, both in Australia and internationally. If someone can do the job, they should be hired and paid the same wage is people without disabilities are paid.”
This kind of branching out has helped TLC to grow. Zaki describes his vision for the provider as a brand that can provide assistance to those all along life’s spectrum, from young children to elderly care.
The initial remit of TLC was to service adults from 18–65 years of age under the NDIS. “Then we grew into youth, which is from 9–17 years old. Then early childhood, so zero-to-seven. It felt like natural growth,” Zaki says.
“And now we have aged care, one of our newest initiatives. Running that entire gamut allows us to create a legacy, which people can join as babies and, should they so choose, continue receiving services until they don’t require it anymore.”
“It’s a lot of work, but once you have the team right, the implementation itself is not a problem.”
The rest of the TLC offerings are just as varied. Its disability services include accommodation, life skill centers, day programs, community participation, in-home care, therapy and case management as well as accessible travel.
There’s also a food and beverage arm, which imports and exports food in and out of Australia.
“It would have been easy to start and find a plateau and say we were happy to be in that exact place, but no. I knew we were going to grow,” he says.
“We don’t just randomly grow, either. We build entities that are standalone and sustainable, and then we move to the next venture.”
The latest initiative under the TLC umbrella is a series of schools for children with autism.
“They’ll launch very soon,” he says. “They’ll have a curriculum that’s designed to support kids with autism to live the best life they can by incorporating AI and therapeutic methods to help them to better integrate into the community.”
TLC is currently in the process of partnering with Gersh Academy International, an autism education provider in the United States and Puerto Rico, to further enhance this project.
“They’ve developed a curriculum with a proven track record of helping kids with autism integrate comfortably into the community, and we have access to that,” Zaki says.
The first of TLC’s schools will open in Dubai, followed by another in Egypt, with a potential launch in Australia in early 2024.
“It’s a lot of work, but once you have the team right, the implementation itself is not a problem,” he says. “We’re very good at what we do, but that’s because we put so much effort into finding the right people who can deliver what we promise.”
Taking the TLC cause beyond Australia’s borders quickly became a necessity after the business was founded in 2016. While TLC does maintain an office in Bankstown, south-west of Sydney, new branches are in the works around New South Wales and across the country, as well as the impending overseas ventures.
“Going international was a crucial part of differentiating ourselves,” Zaki says. “It was a part of our blue ocean strategy, which is all about delivering things differently to how they’ve always been done in this space.”
Despite the overseas expansion, Zaki says TLC continues to apply a localized approach and is still paying significant attention to its Australian operations.
“Every country in which we’re situated has something unique about it, and we bring all of that back to Australia,” he says. “We’re all around Sydney with a series of sub-branches, but we recently opened in Newcastle, next year we’ll also operate in Adelaide, Melbourne and Canberra, and by the end of 2024 we’ll be heading to Perth.”
These offices house a staff of 1,100, a number that continues to grow.
“The bigger we get, the more positive impact we deliver,” Zaki says. “That’s the motivation behind the growth. It’s certainly not financially motivated, because we were running a multi-million dollar business before we went international.”
The idea behind TLC has always been, Zaki says, to make waves through success and do good while remaining profitable. “I can sit down now and say that I’ve done it,” he says.
“I wanted to lead the way so other businesses could learn from our success in impact investment. We know the larger entities are doing it, but there’s just not enough promotion of the concept and that’s what we want to change.”
How does that change come about? Through conversation, something Zaki does not shy away from.
“Every interview I do, every podcast, every discussion, I talk about it very significantly. It needs to be told so people can see and hear it, and only then can they reflect on it. Then they can know that it’s actually possible and can deliver almost double the return on investment.
“It’s a business decision that makes sense. You can get just as much work done while helping people, while employing people with disabilities. Why wouldn’t you give it a shot? If you need a computer to do your job well, you’re not going to do well without one, no matter how good you are.
“It’s the same for people with disabilities. Give them the tool that suits their disability and they will deliver the right work.”
“The bigger we get, the more positive impact we deliver.”
The business world’s embrace of such change needs to take a more solid form, Zaki adds. Before that can happen, however, he says there are some questions that need to be asked.
“What are we doing in business to change the narrative? Are we interviewing people with disabilities the same way we interview people without? Are we taking the right amount of social responsibility? Are we educating ourselves? Do we have the right resources for disabled people to succeed, or are we automatically setting them up for failure?” he asks.
People with disabilities can, if given the opportunity, do much to change the narrative on their own. “They are extremely loyal, and they’re very hard workers. They don’t cut corners, they just get the job done. If you can tap into that, you’ve got a workforce to be reckoned with.”
Zaki’s road to philanthropic success wasn’t always clear. Having studied at Stanford University, his career began as a computer engineer. “I’ve studied management, I’m a qualified accountant, I’ve done social work,” he says. “Everything I do involves education and knowledge.”
By applying an educational filter to his work, Zaki believes he’s found a groove that sets his efforts apart.
“I appreciate innovation. I always try to make sure that what my clients receive from me can’t be found anywhere else,” he enthuses. “How can I do that? By delivering a very powerful ecosystem unmatched in Australia.”
How Zaki achieves that is, in his words, a matter of following “the steps of success”.
“We put strategies in place and create an implementation plan that delivers those strategies. We add it to a balanced scorecard. We apply an education approach to everything. We create a platform for success to happen,” he says.
“Innovation, determination and perseverance are the core qualities we keep pushing and embedding. Every day we’re doing something to help reach our goal and there’s no end of motivation since it’s all about changing people’s lives. It’s never been about if, but when and how.”
At the heart of the matter is the unimpeachable cause of changing a life. “When you talk about someone’s life and improving people’s wellbeing, you should only ever think about how you can make it work,” Zaki says.
“Failure is not an option.”
With innovation so close to his heart, Zaki quickly determines how the latest technology can be used by TLC.
“AI is a big one,” he says. “We’ve already implemented in our British operations an in-home robot that monitors depression, loneliness and temperature, and then reacts to these elements in different ways.”
Also in the works is a partnership with a telecommunication company to produce hearing aids and other general communication tools.
“We’re seeking different sources of revenue that can support an ecosystem where we can help our clients the best way we can.”
“The plan with that is to incorporate AI technology that can monitor behaviors and feedback to clinicians and use them to develop strategies for preventative measures so people can live an enhanced life,” he says.
This is where Zaki’s skill at expanding TLC’s revenue sources comes into play. “Relying completely on government funding is a risk and, as I said, it’s limiting to innovation,” he says.
“Instead, we’re seeking different sources of revenue that can support an ecosystem where we can help our clients the best way we can.”
While some would keep such advanced technology under lock and key, Zaki says the TLC approach is collaboration. “We don’t believe in competition,” he says.
“The way we position ourselves is beyond competition or relying on aggressive campaigns against our peers. Instead, our model revolves around collaboration and building relationships.”
When dealing with its partners and suppliers, TLC works to change any competitive mindset. “That’s not what we’re about. We’re going to create our own demand.”
Marketing, in particular, is a fine balance to strike. “We aren’t going to pursue sales when we’re talking about peoples’ lives. What we want to do is create campaigns that showcase what we deliver and what the benefits are for people, and let them make the choice.”
It’s just another way by which Zaki hopes to change the narrative within the sector. “Creating demand rather than chasing it, that’s always the plan,” he says.
“You do that by answering the why. We don’t say, ‘If you join us, you’ll get a free gift’. In my opinion, that takes away from the value proposition.”
Given the work Zaki and his team have put into building TLC, it’s understandable that they’ve put just as much effort into maintaining it.
“Building a business is one thing, but keeping it successful is completely different,” he says.
“Nurturing relationships with partners and suppliers is a recipe for survival, so that’s always at the top of our list, but then there’s also a balance between growth and maintenance. If you focus only on growth, you might jeopardize quality, while if you only focus on maintaining, you could jeopardize growth.”
The solution is a clear set of strategic pillars. For TLC, these are quality, people and culture, growth and diversification. “We believe that without those four pillars, we go backwards.”
“Building a business is one thing, but keeping it successful is completely different.”
Zaki says he’s a firm believer in the old business adage that whatever brought you here isn’t going to take you there.
“Running a business from zero–100 is different from growing it from 100–200. You have to go back and reflect, restructure, reskill and re-strategize to be ready for the future.”
Diversification is particularly important in this regard, Zaki says, and it’s also where partnerships come to the fore. “We’ve partnered with SPC Foods and Jabra Telecommunication, and they, among others, allow us to offer greatness to our clients.”
Additionally, TLC works with a variety of recruiters, lawyers, printing companies and chartered accountants to make its vision a reality.
“It’s a business that needs everything, realistically speaking, so they’re all partners.”
Diversification isn’t simply a strategy for TLC. Over the years, Zaki has branched out in ways that have satisfied his passion for impact.
“I’ve got a motivational company called Impact Plus,” he says. “We need to not just do good on the side. A lot of people will donate a small amount here and there, or do little things every now and again, but there’s always more that can be done.”
For Zaki, that meant Impact Plus, which is specifically designed to create social impact.
“One of its initiatives is a coffee shop model that’s entirely run and owned by people with disabilities,” he says.
“We set it up, we grow it, we train them and get them job-ready and then we hand it over. From then on, we’re not involved.”
Currently, Zaki is looking at franchising that model so it can be scaled up. “It’s so critical for me to create impact and help others do the same. That’s how we change lives.”
He has also established the TLC Impact Foundation. “The vision is to be the catalyst for transformative change by providing relief, support and empowerment to vulnerable groups within our society, leveraging the collective power of businesses, communities and individuals,” he explains.
At the heart of all of Zaki’s efforts is the concept that ‘a ship without goodness sinks’. “That’s my motivation,” he says. “And another: one hand can’t clap. No one can deliver impact and goodness on their own. We all have a part to play.”
Zaki was inspired to take on his role by Virgin billionaire Richard Branson, whose own philanthropic efforts have helped countless people all over the world.
“He’s so inspiring,” Zaki says. “I’ve been lucky enough to spend time with Richard and some amazing people on Necker Island, and the way he changes lives fascinates me.”
Wherever that goodness comes from, it brings a buoyancy that can keep any effort afloat no matter how stormy the blue ocean becomes.
“Any person, any business, any entity, any family unit that doesn’t have goodness can sink quite easily. I’m not about to let that happen.”
Today, TLC is akin to that train from long ago, carrying as it does Zaki and his team’s limitless positivity and goodwill to communities in need.
As a finalist in The CEO Magazine’s 2023 Executive of the Year Awards, Zaki’s influence is set to venture even wider. But it’s the purity of TLC’s intent that Zaki believes is its greatest strength.
“The biggest thing for us is not our size, our finances or how much revenue we generate,” Zaki says.
“Yes, you can do good while making money. You can become a very successful business and help others. I think we’ve done that. But profit is not what we celebrate. Instead, it’s the work we’ve done, the number of lives we’ve changed, how many families we pull out of very tough situations.
“That’s how we measure success, and we’re very proud of what we’ve achieved.”