1957 born Sunny Varkey, a non-resident Keralite from India, is a well-known Dubai-based entrepreneur and education philanthropist. He is both the founder and chairman of global advisory & educational management firm ‘GEMS Education,’ by far the largest operator of private ‘kindergarten-to-grade-12’ schools in the world, with a network of over 130 schools in more than a dozen countries. He also chairs the umbrella organisation ‘Varkey Group,’ and is founder and trustee of the philanthropic Varkey Foundation. Recognising his contributions, India had honoured him with a Padma Shri in 2009, and as of 2012, Varkey is also a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador. NRI Achievers features and profiles this remarkable man for your reading pleasure …
Sunny Varkey was born to Kerala Christians Mariamma and KS Varkey, who were both teachers and educators. Their sincerity and dedication to the cause of educating and nurturing young minds found reflection in Varkey’s psyche right from infancy. As a two year-old tot, Varkey moved with his parents to then undeveloped Dubai in 1959, where his father had taken up an assignment for the British Bank of the Middle East. It was a time when Dubai had no electricity, water or schools. KS and Mariamma Varkey’s passion for teaching found manifestation in their initiative to teach English to local Arabs. They opened a small coaching centre in Bur Dubai, to groom locals in the intricacies of the English language for a monthly tuition fee of INR 25 – Indian currency was apropos legal tender in Dubai that time. A tutorial college with no name, it was simply known by word-of-mouth as the ‘Varkey’s school’. So successful were they that even members of the royal family were among their students. Their unstinting effort ultimately culminated in the founding in 1968 of a school – ‘Our Own English High School’, to cater to the boom spurred by the 1966 discovery of oil in the Gulf, which brought in wave after wave of foreign workers, including many from the Indian subcontinent. With demand for English-language education spiralling, the school was in retrospect but a natural consequence. More about that later, let us now get back to our protagonist …
When he turned four, Sunny was sent back by his parents to Kerala to get a well-rounded education. Enrolled with the Infant Jesus School – a Catholic boarding school in Kollam city, enterprising Sunny soon took his first tentative steps in creating wealth, if only to bolster his pocket money. At the young age of 11, he sold fresh fruits by the roadside to augment his allowance. It was not until 1970 when he and elder sister returned to Dubai, where Sunny completed his O-Levels from the St. Mary’s Catholic High School there, before he was packed off to the UK to pursue his A-Levels at the Bembridge School. His sojourn all of a year, and he returned to Dubai to complete his A-Levels at the British Council over there. The year was 1977.
Sunny had found gainful employment with the Standard Chartered Bank; and also had his fingers in a few more pies – a small trading company and a maintenance firm; becoming the part-owner of the Dubai Plaza Hotel, making an entry into the healthcare sector, and involved in the affairs of at least another six companies. All was well until some three years later when an ultimatum from the Dubai authorities arrived. One fine evening Varkey comes home to find his parents in a depressed state of mind. They had received yet another missive from the Dubai Municipality (there had been several such letters earlier as well) unequivocally telling them either to construct a purpose-built facility for their school or close it down. Getting on in years, his parents felt they could no longer cope, and had decided to shut down the school, which had under 400 students at the time. Varkey decides to take a hand, and tells them he would purpose-build a facility for the school if they permit him to run the school his way, without interference. Deal done, and he takes over operations, and soon enough finding his task quite a handful, dumps his other businesses to concentrate on expanding the education business. Armed with the foresight that the Gulf education scenario was poised for explosive growth, Varkey goes the full monty by opening many new schools, offering quality education under multiple curricula – Indian CBSE & ICSE, US, British, and later also the International Baccalaureate Programme.
His schools thrived and soon grew into strong and close-knit network of educational institutions in the GEC states. Sunny, still dissatisfied with his handiwork, takes the step of setting up GEMS (Global Education Management Systems) in 2000, an advisory and educational management firm, as a precursor for worldwide expansion. The first GEMS schools abroad came in 2003, first with the Sherborne House School in Hampshire followed by Bury Lawn School in Milton Keynes, both in England. Very soon, the Sherfield School also in Hampshire, came under the GEMS umbrella, with Sunny Varkey not stopping just there, he went on to acquire another 10 schools in England, mainly in the north.
On the India front, the advent of the first schools run by GEMS came in the year 2004, and Varkey continued to add more schools in the subcontinent, also purchasing a controlling interest in India-based Everonn Education, which today is jointly managed by the Varkey Group and GEMS. Subsequently his serial entrepreneurship took Varkey to Kenya, Uganda, Egypt, Jordan, Libya, Singapore, the US, Switzerland and some other corners of the globe as well, making GEMS the largest operator of private ‘kindergarten-to-grade-12’ schools in the world, with over 130 institutions functioning in over a dozen countries as of 2014.
He attributes his success to faith in God and sheer hard work. “I make decisions on the spot,” he says. “When I go home with a problem I dwell on it for maybe 15-20 minutes, decide on a solution and implement it immediately. After the deed is done, I don’t regret my decision, whether it is right or wrong. A businessman must accept gains and losses with equanimity,” he avers. “Today, as in the olden days, Dubai is a place where when you see an opportunity, and if you have the courage, you take it,” he asserts.
His phenomenal successful in the domain of education has earned Varkey many accolades as well as immense wealth, pushing him into the A-List of Asian billionaires. Varkey is married and lives in Dubai. His two sons – Dino and Jay – have chosen to take up leadership roles in GEMS, giving Sunny the elbow and headroom to focus and pursue his philanthropic bent of mind, and occupy himself with the affairs of his not-for-profit foundation. Varkey’s sister Susan Mathews runs pre-schools, with his wife and octogenarian mother working behind the scenes, oft posing tough questions about his endeavours. Sunny’s personal interests outside of work include a passion for keeping physically fit, and custom-made fashionable attire.
Sunny Varkey, at 58-years today, recently took a step that put him in the same league as fellow Indian and chairman of Wipro Azim Premji and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, when he signed Bill Gates’ “The Giving Pledge,” committing to give away more than half of his personal wealth for helping teachers around the world. “I am delighted to sign the Giving Pledge. It was indeed fortunate that I grew up in a family where charity ran in our blood, ingrained in us from a very early age. I recall, even when my father earned some small amount, a large portion of it was shared with the community we lived in, sometimes at the cost of our own comfort,” says Varkey. “To this day, our underlying philosophy remains that good giving ‘pinches’, meaning that the sacrifice you make has to be felt. Therein lies the appeal of the Giving Pledge to my family. I have also always believed that education is the key to fixing so many of the world’s great problems: violence, poverty and health,” he adds.
The Giving Pledge was founded by American magnate Warren Buffett and Microsoft founder Bill and his wife Melinda Gates, to help address society’s most pressing problems by inviting the world’s wealthiest individuals and families to commit to giving more than half of their wealth to philanthropic and charitable causes. Varkey joins some 136 billionaires from around the world who have signed the pledge, including Richard Branson, chairman and founder of Virgin Group and Ted Turner, founder of CNN.