Oil has been the key to prosperity in the Middle East – but it is a finite resource. As alternate energy sources gain traction globally, the long-term sustainability of the MENA region will depend the quality of its human capital, says Navin Valrani, CEO of Arcadia Education. For Valrani, the top priorities are providing children access to quality education, equity and inclusion. Arcadia Education is Al Shirawi Group’s foray into K-12 education. In a recent conversation with Knowledge at Wharton at the Arcadia Preparatory School in Dubai, Valrani spoke about his vision for Arcadia and the future of education in the region.

Following is an edited transcript of the interview.

Knowledge at Wharton: I am reminded of a conversation that I had with a leader of this region almost a decade ago. He said that if you look at the economy of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, the oil will not last forever. The only thing that will ensure the long-term sustainability of this region is the quality of its human capital. What are some of the special features of the economy and the demographics of this region, and what do they mean for human capital?

Navin Valrani: The MENA region consists of 17 countries with a population of more than 400 million. In fact, when you look at population growth across the world, the MENA region has been one of most prolific. This is because of steady birth rates and declining mortality rates. There has also been a fair bit of migration, particularly to countries such as the United Arab Emirates (UAE) that have experienced tremendous growth. Reducing dependence on oil has been a priority for the nation and for the region; there are clear signs that dependence on oil is declining globally. With various alternative energy sources coming up, the region is extremely conscious of the fact that something needs to be done.

In 2015, our Crown Prince, his Highness Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, in a very famous speech at the government summit, said: “We will celebrate the day we produce the last barrel of oil.” That speech created an impetus for not only this nation, but the region. In 50 years, when we will be close to that last barrel of oil being produced, we will have 700 million people in this region. That is a little less than double of what we have today. With this increase in population and declining oil revenues, we must figure out ways to deliver education to hundreds of millions of youth, not only of today, but of tomorrow. That is both our opportunity and our challenge.

Knowledge at Wharton: What special challenges does this create for education in the MENA region? What are some of the strengths that you see in the education system, and what are some of the challenges?

Valrani: For me, one of the biggest strengths of the MENA region is the Arabic language and history. Over the past centuries, the Arabic language has been a language of knowledge. Not many people globally know this, but there have been times when the Arabs have been at the forefront of education.

In algebra, Al-Khwarizmi is considered as the father of algebra. He was the first individual to write out algebraic equations. Until that point, mathematics, which came from the Greeks, was largely focused on geometry. In physics, way back in the ninth century, the sons of Ibn Shakir published an entire manual on technical constructions. Ibn Al-Haytham is known as a godfather of physics. These are stories that need to come out, need to be shared, need to be learned, need to be taught in our classrooms. We can seek inspiration from these educators. The Arabic language and culture are huge strengths for this region. It gives us faith that the region can rise again to the forefront of education.

“With this increase in population and declining oil revenues, we must figure out ways to deliver education to hundreds of millions of youth, not only of today, but of tomorrow.”

In terms of challenges, I see two big ones. One, the region has certain war zones. In times of war, how do we deliver education to children in these areas? Two, governments need to be innovative in their thinking on how to provide education to the masses, regardless of whether they are in a war zone or not.

Knowledge at Wharton: The wonderful thing about challenges is that if you think about them deeply enough, every challenge contains the seeds of opportunity. What opportunities do you see for education in the MENA region?

Valrani: Providing access to education is an area where governments can play a huge role. Governments in the region don’t have to look far to see successful models that have played out. Dubai, for instance, under the guidance of the Ministry of Education and the Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA), has managed to attract significant capital to the education sector. We have almost 200 private schools in Dubai. The question is, how do we take that model, the model of Dubai, and scale it across the region? We have the leadership and I believe the UAE will lead by example.

We can also use certain technologies to provide education in times of crises. We know, for instance, that in the remotest villages of India, there are children with internet bandwidth who can access [educational sites such as] Khan Academy. With technology, we can provide internet access for children to gain an education even in war zones where cable networks are destroyed.

I believe leaders need to rise to meet these challenges. I am a big believer in the good nature of the human heart. I think there will be educators across the world who will take it upon themselves to provide the basic need of education to children, and to bring these technologies to the forefront.

Knowledge at Wharton: What was the opportunity that inspired you to do what you are doing today?

Valrani: I would not be doing justice to the answer unless I mentioned our Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum. He is an inspiration not only for me but for millions across the nation and across the world. He has provided opportunities and guidance like none other. When I look at him and see what he has achieved in a city like Dubai, which has gone from being a desert to one of the global cities of the world, when I listen to his Highness, or when I read his books, I feel I have a duty to make an impact in my own small way.

My vision for Arcadia really started from my father’s vision. It is his brainchild, and I would be doing a disservice to him if I tried to take credit for it. My father has been an educator for a large part of his life. He was a founding trustee of the Indian High School which is the largest non-profit school in the nation. Some 13,000 children pay less than US $150 a month to get an outstanding education. Arcadia was his brainchild to take that further. My father, along with the Al Shirawi Group, decided to get into education, and I was fortunate to be selected to lead this venture.

My own vision comes down to three things. One, as I have mentioned earlier, is access. It is hugely important for me to be able to provide access to education to those who normally wouldn’t get it. How do we plan to do this? The Arcadia Preparatory School is our first school. It is a primary school. We have established the Arcadia brand at the upper end of education. We now want to take that brand to the masses. We have plans and a land bank to do that with the blessing of the government of Dubai and the KHDA. The second priority for me is equity. Once you get the children into school, it becomes our responsibility for them to be treated fairly and equally regardless of their background, race or religion. We also consider ourselves a fully inclusive school. No child, regardless of any illnesses they may be experiencing, any disabilities that they may have, should ever be denied an education at Arcadia. That is important to us. In terms of my vision, it comes down to providing access, equity and inclusion.

“Reducing dependence on oil has been a priority for the nation and for the region, because there is a clear sign that the dependence on oil is reducing globally.”

Knowledge at Wharton: You said some 200 private schools operate in Dubai. What role do you see Arcadia playing as part of this broader ecosystem? How will you position Arcadia in a way that can really make a difference?

Valrani: What drives Arcadia is innovation. That has been a driving force since Arcadia’s inception, and it will continue to be a strong driver in the future. We look at innovation in various aspects. For instance, innovation in curriculum. We have a program that I founded and am very passionate about. This is a Junior MBA Program, where we teach entrepreneurship skills to elementary school students as young as seven. In fact, I teach this to children even of the age of five and six. We also have a happiness curriculum that focuses on overall well-being. Again, extremely important to us. This is not only about physical well-being; it includes mental well-being as well. We focus on things like nutrition, meditation, and yoga.

We will keep innovating as we go into the future. One of the exciting things in the pipeline is discussion-based learning for middle school and high school students. Secondary schooling is important for us, and discussion-based learning is a critical part of that. This is not necessarily discussion-based learning in its traditional form where in an English language class for example, the teacher says, “Okay, it’s time for discussion,” and students rearrange the tables and have a discussion. Discussion- based learning for us would be ingrained in our DNA. Every single class — be it English, history, social studies, even math and science — should have the ability to bring discussion in. It should be ingrained in our curriculum. Then there is entrepreneurship. We are already known as a school for entrepreneurship, but we are going to take this to an entirely new level. We are building spaces in our new school that will allow science and arts teachers to participate in entrepreneurship. It will be a collaborative effort, rather than just the entrepreneurship teacher doing entrepreneurship. We will also have a full-blown engineering department.

The last piece, which is important, is what happens after high school. Where does life take our children, our students, after school? Parents want the best universities for their children. They want the Ivy League. They want Oxford and Cambridge. But not every child is going to get into these universities. It is important for us to meet every child’s aspirations, whether the child wants to be a welder or a professor. It is important for us to understand, appreciate and respect those aspirations, and then to do what we can as educators to meet those aspirations. That piece will be the crown jewel of Arcadia’s offering and the ecosystem we will create.

Knowledge at Wharton: What have been some of the challenges and some of the most rewarding moments you have experienced in trying to realize this vision?

Valrani: Arcadia is a new brand in this space. We opened our doors in 2016. Globally, for many parents, the history of a school plays a very important role. Our biggest challenge has been to convince parents that it is not the past that you should be looking at, but the future, and that at Arcadia, we are building schools of the future. We are building this innovative approach to education that we believe will not only be good for the careers of the children that go through Arcadia Schools, but to their overall well-being.

In terms of my most rewarding moments, it’s interesting that they have not come as a CEO or as an investor, but as a teacher. As I mentioned earlier, I teach the Junior MBA Program. It is a program where I teach young children how to make investment pitches, how to stand up and present in front of audiences, how to create spreadsheets, and so on. We have one child who has Down syndrome. She is a wonderfully bright child, and I worked very closely with her in class to create her presentation. On the day of the presentation, I was to be her business partner. But she is so independent that she created her own pitch, and on pitch day, she decided that I would not be her business partner. She stood up and delivered a presentation of a lifetime. For me, my entire 25-year journey was worth that one moment … where I saw this girl who was a product of my teaching be able to do that. That really has been the most rewarding moment. I don’t think I will ever be able to beat that.

Knowledge at Wharton: Where do you think that Arcadia will be in the next few years? How do you measure Arcadia’s success?

Valrani: In the next five years, we hope to touch the lives of at least 3,000 children. We have concrete plans for achieving this. In terms of measuring success, it comes down to a value that is deeply ingrained in me, and that is the right of access. There is nothing more painful for a family or a child than to be told that you cannot get an education. I want to make sure that this statement is never ever made. If it is made in this city, or in this region, our job is not done.

“In terms of my vision, it comes down to providing access, equity, and inclusion.”

Knowledge at Wharton: What do you think the future of education in the MENA region will be in the next five to 10 years?

Valrani: I am confident that the UAE will lead by example. The Emirates are currently celebrating the ‘Year of Tolerance.’ It is a year where all religions are being celebrated across the nation. In today’s day and age, with all that is happening in the world, and the rhetoric that we are seeing coming out of political leaders in other regions, this is extremely important. I think it bodes well for the future of education here that we have leadership that is farsighted. Tolerance will be the underlying theme of everything we do.

Our Prime Minister, as part of his global initiatives, launched an e-learning platform called Madrasa to increase access to millions across the MENA region. It was launched with mathematics, but today it has math and the sciences. It is available free of charge to millions of Arab students. That is changing the face of education in the Arab world.

The UAE has also led by example on moral education. Its moral education framework teaches students and educators to be respectful, to show gratitude, to show tolerance, and the meaning behind that with real, live case studies. Dubai has a cutting-edge inclusion framework, where every school now must be an inclusive school. We are taking elitism out of the equation. Students from privileged backgrounds will no longer hold an advantage in the education framework that this city and this nation is creating. It will be about equity, access, and inclusion.

Knowledge at Wharton: What are some of the main lessons the rest of the world should learn from what is happening in education in the MENA region?

Valrani: When you look at UAE specifically, nine years ago, as part of its Vision 2021, the UAE set a target that it must be in the top 15 nations in the PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) and TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study) international assessments. We are making tremendous progress towards that. Every school in the nation has a plan in place to meet those targets. Dubai has done phenomenally well. The KHDA recently released the TIMSS 2015 targets and Dubai is well on its way to being among the top achievers in those tests. In terms of attracting private sector investment also, Dubai has done an unbelievable job. It is a model not only for the region but for the whole world.

You have different ownership models in the K-12 space. You have the nonprofits, which have challenges in terms of creating incentive structures for their leadership. You have private equity that has entered the space and wants a return. You also have what I call patient and educated capital. Capital that has gone towards education and says that we are here to make a difference, to provide access and to give quality education. We don’t want a return in five years. We are here for a 10-, 15-, 20-year cycle. That type of thinking is what the world needs to learn from Dubai. How do we attract that type of capital to the education space?

At a micro level, what the world can learn from the MENA region is that teachers come in all shapes and forms. A large part of the world is obsessed with teacher certifications and qualifications and teaching degrees, going to a university to be a teacher, or doing a master’s degree. But teachers are there in all walks of life. I think the MENA region has been good at bringing out some of these teachers. Today I consider myself a teacher first, and a CEO second. And that is true not only in the school environment but even in the corporate environment. This is thanks to a nation that promotes inclusion in all aspects, including in the role of a teacher.

Knowledge at Wharton: What are some lessons you have learned from the students in your life?

Valrani: I am convinced that all across the world there are plenty of occasions where teachers learn from more from their students than vice versa, although many won’t admit it. In terms of lessons that I have learned from my students — when you get feedback from students of all ages, they could be as young as a four-year-old — there is a pureness to that feedback. That feedback is not filtered in any way, shape or form. They tell it as it is. And it could be on anything. It could be the way I look today, to things in the curriculum, to things happening in the world, different perspectives on different things.

My best ideas come from my students. When I look at them, I see hope. I see that intelligence exists pretty much across the board regardless of background. I also see a willingness to change the world for the better. I think if we nurture that and take that into the real world as a force for change, it can be powerful. We need to look at our children of today for our solutions of tomorrow.