Dino Varkey is CEO of the Dubai-based GEMS Education, the world’s largest K-12 education provider, founded by his grandparents. He talks with Brunswick’s Simon Pluckrose about the pandemic and GEMS’ targets for 21st century schooling.
Six decades ago, two passionate teachers, KS and Mariamma Varkey, left Kerala, India, and headed for Dubai, now part of the United Arab Emirates, seeking a better life. They set up a small school inside a villa teaching math and English. And so began a 60-year journey over three generations that has seen the family business, GEMS Education, grow to become the largest K-12 private education provider in the world.
Today, GEMS Education has 42 schools in UAE and Qatar, educating more than 119,000 students, with more schools in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Europe, Africa, India, Southeast Asia and North America.
Like all education providers, GEMS experienced fundamental challenges during the pandemic, and had to act decisively to continue delivering courses and maintaining its core business. According to the United Nations, classrooms are still closed in 19 countries, affecting more than 156 million students, while less than a third of low- and middle-income countries had returned all students to in-person schooling. The UN warned that the impact on the children’s education may never be recouped.
Brunswick’s Simon Pluckrose sat down with the CEO of GEMS Education, Dino Varkey, now at the helm of the business founded by his grandfather, to find out more about the company’s story as well as how it is addressing the challenges of the pandemic while, at the same time, preparing for the future. The delivery of education will continue to change, aided by technology, he says. But at its core, the goal of a good education for every child remains fixed.
Can you tell me more about how the Varkey family arrived in the UAE?
I’ve reflected on this question a lot recently given the passing of my grandmother, Mariamma Varkey.
For me, the story of my family very much encapsulates the story of a highly educated, ambitious, lower-means family that took a courageous step. That is something that I’m drawn to: What were the values, the attributes, the decision points that my grandparents had to make to even contemplate that journey?
Of course, there is always good fortune. The late Sheikh Rashid [bin Saeed Al Maktoum, Ruler of Dubai] said he needed someone to teach his people to speak English and there was someone in his court who was from Kerala, where my family is originally from, who put up his hand and said, “I know a guy.” That guy happened to be my grandfather.
So my grandfather came in 1959 and my grandmother in 1961 to initially teach the adult population English and mathematics so that the economy could start to grow, internationalize, diversify.
My grandfather was the intellectual—the mind that drives the purpose of GEMS Education—but the teacher was actually my grandmother. As a couple, they were an incredibly powerful team. One was very much about knowledge and rigor and the other about character and values and humanity. And those are all things that are embedded in what we do today.
Since our inception, our vision and purpose have never changed, the purpose of trying to provide every child with a great education no matter where they are, what they can afford, where they come from—that’s what we strive to do each and every day.
The heart of this organization is that we are educators first; we’re all teachers at the end of the day. That’s never changed and that is something of which I am very proud.