In a colourful classroom filled with energetic students, Navin Valrani greeted the class with a warm smile and engaged in banter on a range of topics: from entrepreneurship to journalism and the importance of reading. He addressed every child by their name as they sat up in excitement, answering Valrani’s questions with enthusiasm and in turn picking his brain. When he mentioned that their evaluation results will be sent out through email, the kids oohed and aahed. Their teacher assured them: they’ve been an excellent bunch and performed impressively. All is well.
It’s nearly impossible not to get drawn into Valrani’s passion for education, learning and entrepreneurship: he’s equally fascinated by it all. The 48-year-old is the CEO of Arcadia Education and Engineering Services at the Al Shirawi Group, one of the largest conglomerates in the UAE. His school, The Arcadia Preparatory School, is a vibrant space in a quiet, residential complex in Dubai. “Arcadia means the world to me,” Valrani told Re:Set. “I want to make sure every child who comes through those doors meets their aspirations.”
‘Mr. Valrani Junior,’ as he is fondly addressed by his students, is meticulous and stylish. His friendly demeanour is hard to miss. “I take care of both my physical and mental health,” he said. He’s mindful about his diet and follows a dairy-free, gluten-free routine coupled with regular sessions at the gym, including workouts with his family.
A positive home environment has been a game-changer for Valrani. His parents made a conscious effort to teach him and his brothers the importance of working hard. His mom taught them unconditional love and was determined to get them ready for the real world. The family started from scratch: staying in a small apartment and working hard. His parents led by example. They never quarrelled in front of the kids and ensured a safe, loving space at home. Valrani often looks back fondly at those memories. At age 18, he moved to the United States to study at his dream Ivy League school, the University of Pennsylvania. “It [the experience] was tough but it taught me some really important lessons. It taught me to survive on my own,” Valrani said. Battling homesickness and adapting to a new culture made him realize one crucial truth: family comes in all shapes and forms. A friend’s mom went out of her way to make Valrani feel safe and included; he’d found family thousands of miles away from home.
“I take care of both my physical and mental health.”
Years later, when it was time for Valrani’s sons to start university, Valrani and his wife, Monica, went with their kids to help them set up and stayed back until the first day of classes, including just recently to drop off their younger son. Valrani thinks moving abroad to study is a completely different scenario now compared to when he went to university. “Separation anxiety means something totally different today than what it did when I went to school,” he reflected. “You get to see them, talk to them. What I’m hoping is common is when [my sons] graduate, they will also believe in themselves.”
Valrani brings the same mindset to education and focuses on teaching his students to be confident. For him, teaching is not a limited role and he even applies those skills in business, encouraging his employees to strategize. He started the Junior MBA program for his students in 2017, an initiative that allows them to brainstorm and discuss their business ideas at length. The program, the first of its kind in the world, lasts for 12 weeks and encourages collaboration, critical thinking, financial literacy, corporate social responsibility and more. The classes are inclusive, filled with bean bags and cater to children of all abilities. “The idea behind the program is to encourage dinner discussions,” Valrani explained. “My job is to get them to start thinking creatively, to go home and have [these] discussions.” He also pays attention to teaching his kids how businesses can make a social impact by doing something as simple as tweaking their hiring practices and being inclusive.
One of Valrani’s students, a girl with Down syndrome, found the program exciting but scary. She had a great business idea but didn’t want to present in front of an audience. Valrani told her that it was OK and she could choose to not do the presentation. Slowly, he watched her enthusiasm grow and urged her to try presenting. She hesitated and eventually agreed to present with Valrani as her business partner. On the day of the event, she felt confident enough to pitch the idea on her own as her parents watched in amazement. “That was probably my proudest teaching moment,” he said. According to him, a milestone like this gives parents and children a huge boost. “That sense of confidence means the world when you’re a child of determination,” he added.
In the current education space, Valrani sees room for improvement. He is mindful about including parents in the learning process and emphasizes on teamwork. “What happens at home is probably more important than what happens in school,” Valrani said. He believes that as educators, it’s their job to do their research and communicate with parents. Many school leaders didn’t grow up in the millennial generation and should be willing to adapt to a world where the internet is so huge, he added.
“There is no fixed age where you’ll find your calling.”
Valrani is an innovator and he doesn’t plan on slowing down. He’s tied up with R.E.A.L Discussion, a teaching company that focuses on roundtable-style conversations in class. Valrani loved the idea so much, he went to Atlanta and attended one of the classes as a student, reading Macbeth on the flight over.
At 48, he’s also done his second master’s degree — in education this time — gone skydiving and recently enrolled in a college counseling course. Valrani’s also due to start his doctorate in education next year. His advice for young entrepreneurs? “Don’t be in a rush. There is no fixed age where you’ll find your calling,” he said. He’s also keen on living life king-sized. Currently, Valrani is training to climb Mount Kilimanjaro and plans on adopting a puppy. His wife and him were inspired by a student’s business plan at the Junior MBA program and couldn’t resist getting a pet. “I want to experience life to its fullest,” he said. “I want to do it all. I want to make sure when I look back, I don’t have any regrets.” Arcadia’s tagline perhaps aptly sums up Valrani’s personality: “Nurture lifelong learning.”