Dubai: I am sitting with the CEO of the world’s largest operator of private kindergarten-to-Grade 12 schools headquartered in Dubai, just ahead of the new term at that, and I find myself asking him the unaskable: Had he ever visualised himself in a different field of work?
Absurd as the question may seem, the response I get is candid. “There was a period in my life when I actually wanted to be a professional golfer,” the dapper Dino Varkey lets on.
But the 1980-born is quick to qualify his statement: The context is strictly outside the realm of his business.
As the elder of the two sons of Sunny Varkey, founder and chairman of GEMS Education, which runs a staggering 150 schools with over 200,000 students across several countries, Dino being on board the hugely successful global educational enterprise was perhaps a foregone conclusion.
Now that is precisely my point: Were we talking of a possible burden of legacy here?
The answer is an unambiguous no.
“From a career point of view, I remember doing some soul-searching when I was in my first semester in university in the UK. In 20 minutes, it was pretty clear I wanted to further the ambitions, aspirations and purpose of GEMS. I couldn’t think of anything that would allow me to feel as fulfilled,” says Dino.
The Varkeys very rarely talk about their private lives. As Dino himself admits, “We’re very intensely personal. Usually, when we do media interviews, we are focused on education and are guarded about personal anecdotes. They don’t come to me naturally.”
But today, he makes an exception.
Dino winds right back to his early years when he lived in the UK from the time he joined boarding school at the age of 11 until he graduated with an honour’s degree in business studies.
“I navigated my own path and learnt to be self-sufficient and mature. I learnt to critically look at myself and at the world at large.”
Evidently, Dino spent enough time on his own to explore and prepare himself for any vocation. But being an educator was a natural choice – albeit made after considerable soul-searching. “I came from a family that prioritised, above everything else, the value of education and the impact it can have in enabling families and communities to lead a better life,” he reasons.
The beginnings were very modest, Dino reminds me.
“A lot of people forget or are unaware that my family hails from a lower middle-class background from the south of India. My grandparents Mariamma and K.S. Varkey were very educated and chose to travel to the UAE from a small village called Ranni near Kottayam in Kerala 62 years ago. Like other expats of the time, they took up an apartment in old Dubai and set out to make a better life for themselves. They later moved to Jumeirah, although the place they lived in no longer exists.”
Considered pioneers in education in the UAE, the couple rose to a call for English and Math teachers for the locals of the day, including some royal family members. Soon, they extended their services to expat students. By 1968, they were ready to take on the biggest adventure of their lives and set up their own school - Our Own English High School - in Bastakiya.
In 1979, the school was moved to Karama where its porta cabins served as a breeding ground for at least half a dozen other schools, including Dubai Modern High School, Cambridge High School and Kindergarten Starters in the next few years.
There was no looking back since. As Dino says, “My grandparents were essentially teachers and not necessarily business folk. The real acceleration of the vision came when my father, who was bold and ambitious, saw the opportunity of taking that one school to where we are today: the world’s largest private K-12 education enterprise; one of two global homegrown champions along with Emirates that Dubai can lay claim to.”
So what is it like to be the son of Sunny Varkey? Back then and now? And what kind of a relationship does Dino share with him?
“Back then, we had a very normal father-son relationship. The difference today is that it has become professional. He is the founder of the business and chairman of the group, so I have a professional relationship inevitably with him as the CEO. It’s a relationship that has grown and matured over the last 18 years,” says the frank Dino.
Sunny Varkey and his two sons complement each other, adds Dino. “I always talk of how my father is the consummate entrepreneur, while I am the typical professional and my brother Jay Varkey (who works with the group from the UK) the techie.”
On the home front, however, the Varkeys have not lost their personal touch. “As time has evolved and I have my own family with two kids (aged 12 and seven), I am exposed to another aspect of my relationship with my father: Seeing him around the grandkids. There’s always a time when parents tell you that you’ll only know what it is to be a parent when you become one. So these areas of commonality have become the foundation for another dimension of the relationship.”
Quiet rock of the family
Dino makes a special mention of his mother Sherly too and her place of pride in the house. “My mum is the quiet rock of the family as most women tend to be. She is the connective tissue who silently carries the load and proves that family comes first.”
He shares a very cherished memory of his mother from his younger days: A picture of her wiping back her tears when she and her husband were leaving after dropping Dino off at school in the UK. “It was a sad moment, but a cherished one as it gave me a sense of how much my parents and family cared for me.”
It was a hard moment for his mother too. “It can still make her cry,” says Dino.
Passion, ambition, humility and faith
Having done his earlier schooling in Our Own and his “favourite” GEMS Modern Academy, Dino says he grew up on a sumptuous diet of values. “In terms of how I was raised, it was very much about living a life that was filled with passion, ambition, humility and faith.”
He says he is driven by the same passion as his grandparents to be teachers. “While my grandfather was the intellectual, the mind that inspired GEMS Education, my grandmother was its heart. Her attributes as a teacher are something I carry through and hope is embodied in every teacher who teaches in GEMS today.”
Of course, Dino didn’t need a finer example than his father to know what ambition meant and how to make a difference with it. But even as the family went from strength to strength, they lost no opportunity to remind the children to remain grounded.
No entitlements in life
Turning a page from his mind files, he recollects how as a four or five-year-old, he once finished school when the driver came to pick him up. “I got into the car and as he was pulling out of the car park, I inexplicably chose to open the door of the vehicle. The driver was naturally agitated and put the car back into the car park. He took me to see my grandmother who was in a meeting and she scolded me like I had never been scolded before,” he says.
Although Dino cried when he was reprimanded, he remembers giving her a big hug when she got home in the evening. “I realised she was right. She taught me that day that there are no entitlements in life. ”
Sharing other precious moments from the Varkey household, he says one custom that the family religiously follows from their early days is to pray together every evening. “The family prayer serves as a strong anchor ... faith also helps us stay on course.”
The learning never stops
Dino says life - and all the experiences that come with it - is the ultimate teacher. And nothing has underlined this better than the pandemic. “Among other things, it reminded us that we need to take a break, rest and reset. And do something we love. This is one of the life hacks I talk to students about.”
As a passionate educator, Dino has worked harder than ever as GEMS CEO during the pandemic. But he has also carved out precious time to listen to the electronic music he loves, soak in the arts and of course, play his beloved golf.
He claims he was “simply not good enough” to have been a professional golfer. But those who know him will tell you he’s still better than a scratch handicap player. Some achievement that, in a game that drives many to near despair, such are its myriad challenges on the body and mind.
Clearly, Dino knows what it takes to be in the right zone – both on and off the course.