INTERVIEW: Investing in education a 'long-term commitment', says GEMS CEO

In the latest of a series of articles on philanthropic activities undertaken by families of UAE business leaders, Dino Varkey, the son of GEMS Education founder Sunny Varkey, discusses the role of the firm and Varkey Foundation in broadening access to learning

Dino Varkey, the CEO of GEMS Education

Dino Varkey, the CEO of GEMS Education

GEMS Education/Handout via Thomson Reuters Zawya

Dino Varkey, the CEO of GEMS Education is the third generation of a family of education entrepreneurs who have been in the business of providing knowledge for over 54 years.

Varkey's grandparents, Mariamma and K.S. Varkey, moved from the Indian state of Kerala to Dubai in 1959. Armed with Arabic-English and Persian-English dictionaries to overcome the language barrier, they set up a coaching centre for Arab students in Bur Dubai area. That marked the beginning of the GEMS journey into the world of education in the UAE.

The couple opened their first school in Dubai’s Bastakiya area in 1968 - Our Own English High School. Decades later, Dino Varkey attended the same school and he delivered the CEO’s address on the occasion of the school’s 50th anniversary celebrations on April 9.

As the son of Sunny Varkey, the group chairman of GEMS Global and the founder of GEMS Education and Varkey Foundation (a not-for-profit organization), who is listed by Forbes as 65th wealthiest Indian, with a net worth of $2.5 billion, Varkey says that he tries to learn something from his father every day.

In an interview conducted via email in March, Varkey explains that it is his father's dedication towards philanthropy and a passion to provide underprivileged children hope for the future, through education, which keeps him motivated.  

He says: "I aspire to fulfil my father's dream of providing access to quality education within the reach of every child."

Starting with just 27 students, GEMS Education today has close to 120,000 students in its network of 44 schools in the UAE and one nursery. The group runs 29 schools in Dubai, six in Abu Dhabi, five in Sharjah, two in Fujairah, one in Ras Al Khaimah and one in Al Ain.

Dubai Crown Prince attends GEMS Our Own English High School Golden Jubilee celebrations

GEMS is the largest privately held K–12 education company in the world. The company employs over 20,000 professionals from 115 countries, and on Wednesday the company announced a 9.5 per cent growth in revenue for the six months to February 28 to $602.6 million. The company also said it had signed an agreement with Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Education to “explore opportunities” in the Kingdom.

Varkey oversees all operations at GEMS Education. He says: "Investing in education is a long-term commitment, and at GEMS we are proud to be a UAE-born company."

Delivering Quality Education

In the UAE, there is a growing young and diverse population that requires high-quality international education.  In an effort to make this accessible to more students in the UAE, GEMS Education launched a UniConnect programme in 2017 to provide financial aid through partnership with prominent universities.

The programme includes a series of strategic partnerships designed to provide scholarships to GEMS students seeking admission at universities within the region and across the globe.

"So far, we have signed agreements with a total value of over 100 million dirhams ($27.2 million) with six colleges and universities that will offer scholarships exclusively to GEMS students.”

These include: Middlesex University, SP Jain School of Global Management, Canadian University Dubai, Skyline University College, Vision Concepts Aviation Training Institute and University of Modern Science. 

Additionally, GEMS has actively launched initiatives to support the Emirati community.

Varkey says: "Our origin and roots are from teaching English and Mathematics to Emirati students. Today, we have schools that are specifically designed to nurture Emirati students – our National school for girls and National school for boys in Dubai are very specifically targeted at supporting Emirati families that want the best of International curriculum but also want a very strong foundation in the Arabic language, in their national identity."

Spotlight on Giving

In 2017, as part of the Year of Giving initiative, the education provider launched the GEMS Rewards Programme. "This initiative was our way of giving back to parents and thanking them for their loyalty to the GEMS community of schools."

The group also partnered with UAE lender, Emirates NBD, as part of the rewards programme, to offer the option of converting Plus Points (Emirates NBD’s card loyalty programme), into cash for school fees.   

And on Wednesday, GEMS Education announced a new merit-based scholarship programme for Grade 6 / Year 7 and above students who excel in areas such as creative and performing arts, academics, Arabic studies, sports or innovation and digital technology. The company said that the candidates awarded a scholarship will benefit from concessions ranging from 25 percent to 100 percent of annual school fees.

Dubai Crown Prince attends GEMS Our Own English High School Golden Jubilee celebrations

Focusing on Teachers

Shining a spotlight on teachers, in 2016, the group introduced the Mariamma Varkey Award for Inspirational and Outstanding teaching at GEMS.

In 2017, five GEMS teachers were recognised with best teacher awards in different categories – of which four teachers were given a cash prize $24,000, while the winner of ‘Most Inspirational Teacher’ award was given $60,000.

Other awards that either GEMS or the Varkey Foundation are involved in include the GEMS Teacher of the Month award which takes place at every GEMS school in the UAE, the one million dirham ($272,260) Emirates Innovative Teacher Award, an initiative organised in partnership between the UAE Ministry of Education and GEMS Education, and the $1 million Global Teacher Prize, established and managed by the Varkey Foundation and supported by GEMS Education.

Varkey says that GEMS the group has never wavered from its singular purpose of providing quality education.

"Whether it is the work carried out by the Varkey Foundation or GEMS Education, we believe that we will have the ability to change our world for the better," he adds.

(Reporting by Mily Chakrabarty; Editing by Michael Fahy)


To view earlier articles in this series, click here for an interview with Aster Healthcare's Alisha Moopen, click here for an interview with Shafeena Yusuff Ali and click here for another interview with Dubai Sikh temple’s Vice Chairperson Bubbles Kandhari.

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