Inspiring Women in Education, Nargish Khambatta

This International Women’s Day, we celebrate the career of Nargish Khambatta. As Principal of GEMS Modern Academy and Senior Vice President at GEMS Education, this highly regarded leader in education is a source of inspiration to many. We learn about her rise to leadership, her inspiration for working in education, and her views on female leadership.
Inspiring Women in Education, Nargish Khambatta
By Susan Roberts
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This International Women’s Day, we celebrate the career of Nargish Khambatta, Principal of GEMS Modern Academy and Senior Vice President at GEMS Education. We learn about her rise to leadership, her inspiration for working in education, and her views on female leadership. 

A conversation with Mrs Khambatta is a reassuring experience, one that provides an infectious feeling of calmness and confidence. Perfectly composed yet exuding warmth, it is easy to understand why Nargish Khambatta is such a popular figure...

Mrs Khambatta, who or what inspired you to become an educator?

I come from a large family, we were nine siblings and I was number eight. My eldest sister has always been an educator, and she was a great source of inspiration to me. When I was still in school myself, she was teaching in a boarding school. 

Other teachers were quite staid, but my sister approached her work with a bit of humour, a sense of fun. She found joy in the relationships she built with students, and was able to make such an impact as a result. She would come home to see us and she’d share these inspiring and hilarious tales, about how fun and cheeky the kids were, and I’d want to hear more and more.

The impact she was able to have on the lives of her students utterly fascinated me, and ultimately planted the seed that lead me to a career in education. 

Can you describe your career so far for our readers?

Working in education had always been in my mind, from being inspired by my sister, to experiences I had at school, explaining Shakespeare to other students and finding I had a talent for helping them to understand. My initial career plan though, was to get into medicine in the armed forces. I applied to sit the Armed Forces Medical College exam, but I didn't get through, so I did my master’s in microbiology instead.

After I graduated, I worked in microbiology for a short time, and held two posts in higher education, as a college lecturer, which I loved. Then I got married, and after some time, we moved to Dubai. Continuing this career path unfortunately was not an option here, as they required college lecturers to have a PHD, so I joined a school instead, as a biology teacher. I quickly discovered that I loved teaching in a school. I had no interest in leadership at this stage, I simply enjoyed working with the kids. 

Nargish Khambatta with children at GEMS Modern Academy

I found I was offered junior leadership positions quite early on, but starting a family meant that I had career breaks and did not immediately move forward on this path. We also traveled a lot, to Oman, back to India and then back to Dubai. I felt we were traveling too much and I wanted my children to get a stable education, so I applied for a job at the Doon School, which is a very very prestigious boarding school for boys in India.

It was there that I gained my first leadership role, as housemaster. I was the first female housemaster in the school’s history. 

This was quite groundbreaking at the time, and so there were some raised eyebrows from the old timers. Some people also had some preconceptions about me because I was coming from Dubai. I think they expected me to be pompous, but having always been the outdoorsy type, I took the kids out on the toughest treks, I roughed it out with them, and those views of me quickly changed. It was a strenuous role, teaching full time and being housemaster, but I really enjoyed it. 

I returned to Dubai and set up Deira Private School as a consultant. Setting up a school from scratch is a hugely rewarding experience. I really cut my teeth there, and recognised what I was capable of. 

And then I joined GEMS Modern Academy as Vice Principal in 2009 and became the school’s Principal in 2018. 

What challenges do you face as a woman in leadership?

When I joined GEMS Education, the leadership team was largely made up of men, but over the years this has really changed and currently there are more women than men. At GEMS Education at least, female leadership is really celebrated

In my experience, in this field of work, women actually have the advantage. I love my male colleagues, I absolutely do, and they are brilliant at what they do.

I do think, though, that on the whole, women bring an element of empathy to the job which is greatly needed. And of course, we're as sharp as they come, and our male colleagues acknowledge this. 

I genuinely believe that gender bias does not exist. I'm not just saying this, I really do believe it. Within my leadership team, we complement each other with our differing strengths, our differences provide the ideal balance. 

Nargish Khambatta with senior students at GEMS Modern Academy

Who supports you?

Speaking honestly, very rarely do I feel the stress. I don't emanate it because I don't feel it. My team will tell you, and it’s true, that the school can run itself without a principal for one year. Everything is set and runs smoothly. We have a strategic plan that I'm fully aware of, but the leadership team here are fully empowered and highly capable. 

I have a wonderful support network in the GEMS Education senior leadership team also, and outside of the GEMS network, I have a fraternity of female principals, a really strong group of education leaders who stay connected. 

My biggest source of support, though, is my family. My daughter is my best friend. She's 30 now, and a professional in her own right, and always my confidant. My husband is extremely supportive as well, and my son, although he lives in Canada now, always makes me think, he raises my expectations of myself. 

What advice would you give to girls with leadership aspirations? 

What I see is that 60 to 70% of girls are natural leaders. But I worry about the other 30 or 40% who lack self-confidence. My message is for them really, the ones who are unsure, who doubt themselves, who face imposter syndrome: You are enough. Never apologise for who you are.

Find that strength within, and there will be no stopping you. 

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