International Women’s Day is a chance to celebrate and champion the lives and achievements of women in every walk of life. It is also a chance to highlight the challenges still faced by women in order to facilitate and encourage change wherever possible.
What links all the WhichSchoolAdvisor.com's Inspiring Women is that they have moved past common pressures and challenges and into school leadership and ownership positions in the UAE.
How have the achieved their goals? What motivates and inspires them and were the pivotal moments in their life which changed their path? Just how have they overcome some of the typical challenges and what advice to they have for their younger counterparts?
Today, on International Women’s Day, we highlight the career, life and exuberant personality of Aparna Verma, a lifelong UAE resident, a passionate educator and a woman who, since a very young age, has faced and positively knocked back challenges that many might have found insurmountable.
Our team met Aparna in the beautiful surroundings of her third school, Clarion (Aparna also runs Dubai Scholars Private School and Scholars International School). Warmly welcoming and with a keen sense of humour, Aparna is quickly ready to share her life story - and just what a story it is…
Aparna, who or what inspired you to become an educator?
I’m not sure if it was really inspiration, I think it was circumstance. My parents passed away in a car accident when I was 17 and my Mom had a nursery school. Until she passed away I worked in the school part time to help out with the art work, because I was very artistic, so I was always involved with the school [Dubai Scholars was a nursery school at the time, it is now a thriving primary and secondary school in Al Ghusais].
Really, I wanted to be an architect, because I was very interested in design. But when the accident happened, well it was something inside me to do with legacy and with wanting to keep my parents memory alive. The only thing that I felt that I could handle was maybe the nursery school, because she had a team of teachers I knew, especially Mrs Miranda, [recently retired, Mrs Miranda was Principal of Dubai Scholars] and had grown up with. I thought that if there was anything that I could hold on to, it was my Mum’s nursery.
The story of creating the Dubai Scholars of today is also the story of a fearless young woman, can you tell us more about that time?
Dubai Scholars – well, we started in one villa and the school kept on growing. In the end we had eight villas. The teachers had to get in their cars and drive from lesson to lesson! Eventually, I said ‘we need to get a piece of land and build a proper school’. I was 22, a young woman – no one listened to me. I heard no over and over again. I must have met like 100 people, and every single door was slammed in my face.
So this, this was really my turning point, my risk taking.
Not only did I want to build the school, I had to, had to finish my education. This was another part of my parent’s legacy. My mum was always saying ‘you are going to study and study and if you think you are getting a boyfriend – nothing doing! You are going to stand on your own two feet and get an education’.
My parents had given me 17 amazing years and I thank God for that. I could take risks because of my parents. They were like – if you want to do it, try it. Just do it. If you fail, it is ok – you will stand up again and try harder. Everything I am - that resilience, that grit, that confidence. I think that it has come from how my parents brought me up. We were constantly challenged. We were constantly put into situations where we had to learn.
I studied for my degree in Georgetown University in the US. I had been trying and trying to get the land – nothing doing. Then out of the blue, just after my graduation, an Emirati guy called me and asked me to meet him. He came with some papers and he said – ‘here, this is the land’. I just laughed. Everyone had taken me down this road, and then slammed the door in my face. He looked at me and said ‘you want it or you don’t want it?’
I said ‘no, no I want it – but is it real? It’s not you.’ I said. ‘Everyone has lied to me.’ He said ‘I believe that you can do it, you are a smart girl.’
I knew then that this was real. I knew I wanted to build the school for the kids. I would look at them in the villas – they had no real play areas, no facilities except the classrooms. I knew I had to do it for them.
When I got back to Dubai, I went to banks – nothing. Eventually I made a phone call to my brothers and I said ‘I am taking all the money we have in the whole world and building a school’. One was just finishing his schooling and the other was in college.
‘Two things’, I said, ‘one – if it doesn’t work out, we will be on the street and you will have to get a job’ and then they waited with baited breath because they knew that they couldn’t even argue with me! ‘So what’s the second?’ they asked...
‘The second is not going to happen. I won’t let it. I will work and work and I will make sure that I will not let you down’. And they haltingly said – ok Aparna, whatever you want to do’.
Which was good, because I wasn’t asking them, I was just telling them!
And that’s what I did, I took everything we owned and I put it into Dubai Scholars.
Even today, I get that warm fuzzy feeling inside as I look at that building. I remember when it was finished, finally, standing there looking at it and Mrs Miranda and I saying to each other – we did it! It was one of those things that seemed so far away, we couldn’t see it. We just kept on persevering. I would not take no for answer. Slam one door in my face? I’ll go find another door. I knew I wanted to do this for the kids.
Today, and as we have prepared for this interview, you have consistently mentioned Mrs Miranda as a formative woman in your life – can you tell us a bit more about her?
For a long time, my Mum kept asking Mrs Miranda to take over as Principal of the school and she kept on saying no! She said ‘I want to be a teacher, I won’t give that up’’ because at heart she was always, always a teacher. That’s just who she is in her heart. That was an inspiration to me. Even until just last year when she left Dubai, she was still teaching in class as well as having the role of Principal of Dubai Scholars.
After my parents passed away, during that traumatic year, I went to Mrs Miranda and I said, I cannot, really cannot take over as Principal of the school. My Mum trusted you. I will be with you throughout and when you want to teach, you teach. Train me and show me the ropes. She looked at me and said ‘deal’. And that was that! We believed in each other – always, and she and I had mutual respect. She knew that I was much younger than her, but that didn’t matter. She learned from me too.
Was there a moment or event that changed your career, life or outlook?
My parents put so much trust in me that when they passed I knew that I had to give to my brothers what they had given to me. Literally there was no compromise. I was like "I have to give them exactly what my parents gave to me". To the point that I took them on a holiday across Europe when I was just 18! We went on Euro-rail, all over Europe. I was 18, my brothers were 14 and 11. And recently a friend of mine said – Aparna how did you get legal approval? But we just did it, we had no fear! There was no thinking!
We bought the tickets, we went on trains, we slept on trains, we used to organise it so we could get the night trains and use the empty seats to sleep. It was such a great lesson, even until today I made my brothers understand that you won’t always have a roof over your head, there’s not always a 5 star hotel, that’s not how you are supposed to see Europe as teenager! It was just amazing.
We did it without fear and we did it because we wanted to stay together as a family. That was important. It was such a learning experience in every way – learning about money – how much we could spend or not spend – all those things came into play at a very young age. I became fearless during this time.
You were diagnosed with breast cancer at 36, how has that changed you and your outlook on life?
It's changed my outlook on life completely. It's only when you are faced with a situation not knowing whether you are going to live or die, do you realise the fragility of life and how short and precious it is. I spend more time with my family, I am passionate and give all to everything I do, I prioritise what's important to me, not worry about the trivial and be grateful for what I have. That's how one needs to live life always.
Do you feel that the next generation of female educators have specific challenges? If yes, how would you advise them to overcome these challenges?
I think all young educators have the challenge of being able to educate the way they want to. Because education is changing very fast at the upper levels, but not so fast at the grass roots. When you come into a school and it is very structured – well it’s better when all teachers have a voice. I challenge all my teachers to lead children to outcomes and to really value the processes of learning, experimenting and hypothesising.
Who supports you and how?
Today, my brothers are my biggest support. Without them I wouldn't be able to achieve what I have.
My parents left me with the legacy of being good people. Even to this day, people know that as the daughter of my parents, they can do business with me. That is the reputation of my parents. They couldn’t support me later in life, but they gave me that. For me, I have had to live to that reputation. I can’t let them down. This is why I try to be a good person.
What keeps you moving forward and how do you set your goals?
It’s only now that people have begun to talk about children being the participant in their own education and not being told what to do. That’s what we do at Clarion. We want the children to THINK. To be honest with you, when I think about what I went through and I think about all the challenges I faced, I really want to see that resilience in the younger generation. That motivates me.
My Dad [Aparna’s Dad was a civil engineer] and I would go to his sites, I met all his workers. I always knew who was doing what – everyone was an ‘uncle’ to me and they loved this little girl coming around, because you know, I was so curious. He would tell me ‘you need to go for perfection. He couldn’t even have one wall out of line, if he did, he would say knock it down! And so all those lessons, they’ve made me who I am today.
What is next for you?
One of the reasons we are building Clarion quite slowly – well, if we had a whole campus now – we are set in time, unable to change. The reason we want to go slowly is that next year, the year after, things in education will change and change drastically!
Soon, universities will pick up on that and they are going to start changing their selection criteria – there has to be more to you than just grades now. Because right now they want thinkers! I want the Clarion of the future to be able to respond to that.
WhichSchoolAdvisor.com was talking to Aparna Verma, CEO of Scholars International Group.
The women selected for this long term WhichSchoolAdvisor.com feature have all agreed to take part in a mentorship programme. A select group of UAE schools have been asked to nominate young and ambitious female educators to link with our Inspiring Women and we will follow their relationships and ambitions for one another over the coming months. Last month, we began by looking at the life and career of Rebecca Annand, an advocate of lifelong learning, an entrepreneur, a teacher and a mother of three.
If you would like to take part in this project or would like to nominate someone, either as an Inspiring Woman, or as part of the mentorship programme, please contact email@example.com.