Learning and paying it forward

Learning and paying it forward

SINGAPORE - We were not rich. At least not in monetary terms. My family comes from Kerala in southern India, but moved to Dubai in the 1950s when it was little more than a desert. My parents had a teaching background and spotted an opportunity to set up a school for the children of the first waves of bold expatriates that moved to Dubai.

The school went well. They started a new life in a new location. It would have been easy for my parents to leave everything about their modest lives in Kerala behind as they started to prosper and Dubai's skyscrapers started to multiply. But although they had left India, India did not leave them. Some things remained. It was these things that were to have the most significant impact on my life.

It started early. I often saw my father earn 500 rupees and then give a hundred away. Frankly, our family could have done with the money. But he still made it a habit to donate a proportion of his earnings. This was considered normal. In Indian culture, as in many cultures, it is important to give back to your community. My father made it clear that a community is not defined by its race, creed or class, but is simply the place where you live. It is a lesson I have never forgotten.

Now, I am the chairman of GEMS Education, which operates a global network of award-winning schools providing high quality education to more than 130,000 students from 151 countries.

We employ over 11,000 education professionals, specialists and staff. It is my contention that there is a positive feedback loop between introducing children to the concept of philanthropy and the kind of person they turn into in adulthood.

At the end of the day, education is about character. Our responsibility does not stop with the basic educational requirements that help a child to pass exams. We must do more. We must inculcate a sense of responsibility and provide a sturdy moral compass. Surely this is the core of education. To form character and to instil values.

I do not believe that giving back to the community makes me - or my company - in any way special. Many people do it, many companies do it. But the lesson I learnt from my father changed my identity in a positive way. By being exposed to philanthropy, I became philanthropic.

By learning at an early age that I had a responsibility to those less fortunate than myself, I inherited a set of values that has defined my business philosophy. This is the GEMS difference. We believe that if we are able to offer our students exposure to philanthropic works, then they too will inherit a set of values that would help shape their identities for the better.

Nurturing the right values

At GEMS Education, we do exactly that. In 2010, I established the Varkey GEMS Foundation as the philanthropic arm of GEMS Education to address the needs of the more than 70 million children who do not have access to a school.

Moreover, we have deliberately created strong links between the foundation's work and our schools in order to put into practice my conviction that exposure to philanthropy will nurture philanthropic values in our students.

Before I provide a couple of examples, I would like to clarify exactly what it is that we regard as philanthropy. In short, we want to see our money work. Trophy donations garner publicity, but they do not change peoples' lives. When we make a philanthropic contribution, we expect it to have an impact. We demand concrete measures to improve the opportunities available to less fortunate people.

Let me illustrate the point by telling the story of Kibera. Our students, their families, and the staff at our schools have jointly organised over 140 events to help rebuild a block of classrooms in Africa's largest slum.

Together, they raised a staggering US$373,157. What message does this send to our students at GEMS? It tells them that we live in a global society and that there are members of this society that are underprivileged. It encourages them to try and understand their plight and do something concrete about it.

What did they do? Many things. One of our primary schools converted their school into a tented community and lived in it together to better understand how the children in Kibera were living. That is an example of raising awareness and inculcating values that we believe will encourage children to think and behave philanthropically.

But for GEMS it is not all about fund-raising. We recognise that money will only get you so far. So we also ensure there is time for our students to participate in community service through something called Sewa Day.

This allows children to engage in activities in their local community that bring about three consequences: relieving hardship and poverty, protecting the environment or bringing joy to others. In 2012, about 26,000 of our students took part. This year, that number will be around 50,000.

It is my conviction that making these initiatives a part of schooling will change fundamentally the adult that emerges from the education process. Can I prove this statistically? No. But my own experiences as a child and my observations of the children I have helped educate provide all the proof I need.

I have chosen Singapore to be the home of our first GEMS school in South-east Asia, highlighting this country's excellent reputation as an education hub.

It will open in September 2014. It is the values described above that will lie at the core of our curriculum - ensuring that the children that attend GEMS in Singapore emerge more rounded individuals, more empathetic towards others and more aware of their responsibilities to the global community in which they live.


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