He used to work at Hungry Jacks. Now Laurence Escalante — whose tech empire last year made more in profit than Atlassian, Canva and Envato combined — is worth more than $2 billion.

Meet the one-time Hungry Jack’s teenage employee who would spend hours playing arcade games and is suddenly worth $2.15bn. Laurence Escalante, 39, is at the helm of Australia’s latest tech “unicorn” success story and vaults into the billionaire ranks for the first time in this edition of The List – Australia’s Richest 250.

Escalante embodies the tech boom taking place in Australia and across the world, the pace of which has accelerated in the past 12 months during the COVID-19 pandemic.

His Virtual Gaming Worlds may have its headquarters in Perth, but all its revenue is derived outside Australia – almost all in North America. VGW has had a good pandemic as customers in lockdown had more time to play the online games and sweepstakes the company heavily promotes via social media.

So stunning has the success of VGW been that its profit of more than $200m during 2020 was higher than those of better known Australian tech success stories such as Atlassian, Canva and Envato combined.

“The Australian technology sector is changing the world,” Escalante says in an exclusive interview in The List, published in The Weekend Australian in a special edition this Saturday, March 21. “VGW is part of that emerging success story.”

Almost all of VGW’s customers are in North America, playing virtual games such as its Chumba Casino suite of online poker machines, poker and blackjack table games, and Luckyland Slots.

They pay real money to buy virtual “gold coins” to play, with VGW operating under a sweepstakes model that allows users the chance to win promotional sweepstakes prizes that can be redeemed for cash.

Escalante is the majority owner of VGW and has expansion plans for the business.

“We are all still adjusting to the challenges and preparing, fingers-crossed, for a post-COVID-19 world. We expect the broader trend towards online commerce accelerated by the pandemic will continue and consolidate.”

Escalante also has a passion for fast cars, which started when he would play arcade games such as NASCAR and Need for Speed for hours. The first car he owned was a Mitsubishi Lancer GLI in 2001, modifying it heavily with chrome rims, 3 inch exhaust and a stereo system.

His first job was working at Hungry Jacks for $5.65 per hour as a teenager and he later worked at The Reject Shop while undertaking actuarial studies and economics at Macquarie University in Sydney. Escalante started VGW from shared office space in Perth in 2010. His fast car passion has seen Escalante invest in a car modification business, Beyond Custom, and training and coaching business Arise Racing.

Escalante also supports the SheCodes (formerly Perth Web Girls) organisation that aims to get more women to pursue technology careers – a noted problem for the industry.

“Getting more women to study and pursue careers in technology will help ensure the vibrancy and success of the sector,” Escalante says.