Mohan Valrani was born in 1940 in an affluent family in Sind, then part of undivided India. The country was partitioned when Valrani was seven, and the family went overnight from being landlords to refugees. The Valranis left most of their wealth behind in Pakistan and went on to build a new life as immigrants in Gujarat, India.
Today Valrani, at age 79, is co-founder, senior vice chairman and managing director of the Dubai-based Al Shirawi Group, one of the largest private conglomerates in the United Arab Emirates and the Arabian Gulf region. The group’s companies operate in industries ranging from manufacturing and engineering services to logistics, among several others.
Valrani now focuses on providing a high-quality education to children through his legacy venture, Arcadia Education. “What is important to me is what you do with your money and not how much you make,” he says. In a conversation with Knowledge@Wharton, Valrani talks about life’s most important lessons. This is part of a series in which senior executives discuss what matters most in life. An edited version of the interview appears below.
Knowledge@Wharton: Could you tell us about your mentors? Who molded your most cherished values?
Mohan Valrani: My mentors were my parents and also my partner, Abdulla Al Shirawi. In 1947, when I was seven, our family had to leave our home in Sind due to the partition of India. Overnight, we went from being landlords to refugees within our own country. After partition, we first settled down in Gujarat, in a small town called Baroda [renamed Vadodara in 1974]. Our family moved from a life of luxury to a life of frugality.
My father had to start his entrepreneurship journey from scratch. He worked like never before — 10 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. It was a difficult time for him — and also for all of us. From age 12, I would accompany him to the plant during my school holidays and summer vacations. It was there that I learned my early lessons of entrepreneurship. It was fun. I enjoyed it. I never regretted that I was missing my holidays. My mother’s role during this time was also important. She was ambitious and wanted us to prosper. Mother made sure we were well educated. It is through my parents that I learned about the value of hard work and dedication.
I cannot possibly answer this question without talking about my dear friend and partner, Abdulla Al Shirawi. He had the courage to face adversity; he did not believe in giving up when the chips were down. He is a charismatic leader. We have been together for the last 51 years; we have seen many ups and downs. My friendship with him taught me the value of being resilient.
Knowledge@Wharton: A business partnership that lasts more than 50 years is unusual. What is the secret to building a long-lasting partnership?
Valrani: Transparency is the key. Transparency creates trust. Everything is an open book. That leads to collaboration and cooperation, not competition. This creates the power of one. Not only the first generation but also our second generation works on this basis. They collaborate and cooperate and work as a team. They work as one member rather than seven. This has been the reason for our success. We have gone through good times, bad times, difficult times, and we have worked together, we have not given up on each other. It’s basically all about trust and transparency.
Knowledge@Wharton: Which books shaped your outlook on life? When did you read them and why do you think they meant so much? Did you re-read them later and discover something new?
Valrani: The Internet has been a blessing for me. At my age, I think the Internet is my friend. Every year, I take a reading holiday for 15 days. I try to avoid being in touch with anybody.
McKinsey Insights is one of my favorite apps for business management, international issues and the future of effective technology in our everyday life. I subscribe to podcasts from prominent university academics. I spend on an average two hours a day reading and listening to various audio books and podcasts.
The list of books that have shaped my outlook is endless and keeps growing. But some of them, which I have re-read, include Siddhartha, Sadhana: The Realization of Life, Book of the Way, The Art of Communicating and the Bhagavad Gita. These books have allowed me to reflect and prioritize what is important in life and why. They have also taught me to seek a higher purpose than the pursuit of money.
Knowledge@Wharton: What were your deepest aspirations when you were young? What are they today? Have your aspirations changed? If so, how?
Valrani: Yes, my aspirations have changed. When I was young, I wanted to focus on making money. I wanted to make money at any cost. Over the years, this has changed. What is now important to me is what you do with your money and not how much you make. Money beyond a certain point loses its utility.
What remains of my life is now dedicated to the education of children. My next project will be a school that will provide a top-notch British education to those who normally could not afford one. Thousands of students will benefit from the education that we will provide through the Arcadia network of schools.
Knowledge@Wharton: What choices have you made that had the most pivotal impact on your life and that of others? Why did you make those choices? In hindsight, were they the right ones?
Valrani: The most important decision of my life was made in 1986. With the start of the Iraq-Iran war in 1982, our companies began their decline. Our construction site in Basra was bombed. Ten people died, and we had to report it to 5,000 people. To compound our problems, oil prices crashed from $23 to $8 [per barrel]. Our group went into negative equity. All the oil-producing countries refused to pay or delayed payments.
I had to make a choice — whether to stay in Dubai and work for the next decade to meet my liabilities or to take the easy route and skip town. Some of my well-wishers advised me to leave. But I decided to stay on. History has shown it was the right choice.
Knowledge@Wharton: What has been your guiding philosophy in dealing with people? How did you arrive at it? If a protégé asked to learn that philosophy, how would you teach it?
Valrani: Transparency is the key. Your actions will never be unethical if you are transparent. With transparency being one of my key values, I have to be mindful and compassionate in my thoughts, speech and actions. As a result, I am able to avoid conflict and concentrate on what I wish to do. I always practice Ashtanga yoga. That has benefited me tremendously. I would suggest to all protégés that they take up yoga. It puts things in the right perspective.
Knowledge@Wharton: Could you tell us about an experience that might have seemed devastating when it happened, but which you came to see in a different light in retrospect? What did it teach you?
Valrani: This experience also had to do with the Gulf War. The first Gulf War in 1991 was devastating in many ways. Saddam Hussein had taken over Kuwait and was a threat to the whole region. We thought the United Arab Emirates would be next. There was a major population exodus in UAE. About 90% of the expat population either left or at the very least sent their families back home.
We decided to stay. My partner Abdulla Al Shirawi and I came to the conclusion that Saddam could not defeat the U.S.-led coalition. The rest is history. Saddam was defeated in 1991 and Dubai began its march towards becoming a global city. These experiences have made me realize the importance of remaining calm. Even under the most trying of circumstances, one needs to have calmness within oneself in order to keep others around us calm.
Knowledge@Wharton: Could you describe an ethical dilemma — professional or personal — that was difficult to resolve? How did you deal with it? What did you learn from it?
Valrani: The decision, in 1986 — of whether to skip town or stay back and pay the banks off — was very difficult for me. On one side, I had my duty towards my wife and children. On the other side, I had my responsibility to my partner and all my 9,000 employees. I used my wife and children as a source of strength to take on the responsibility of saving the company. One draws strength from sources that one cannot imagine. It is important to have an open heart that welcomes different sources of strength.
Knowledge@Wharton: If you were to think beyond your professional accomplishments, what has been your life’s mission and purpose? When and how did you discover it? Have you been able to fulfill it?
Valrani: My professional accomplishments have been tied to the growth of the Al Shirawi Group. But for the last decade, my mission and purpose has been to educate students. I was chairman of a non-profit school of 12,000 students for four years. Now I am building and operating schools under the Arcadia umbrella. I am enjoying the journey and want it to continue. I would like Arcadia to always be known for an innovative style of education. Although I understand that it’s not possible, I would not like this journey to ever end. The journey is more satisfying than reaching the goal. Once you reach the goal, it’s boring.
Knowledge@Wharton: What are your ideals? By ideals, I mean a standard of perfection that you set for yourself. Have your ideals changed over time? How and why?
Valrani: I have always tried my best to lead a virtuous life. However, over the years, there has been a shift from external achievements to internal peace. I now focus on the mind, body and the intellect through the practice of yoga. From money making, I am now spending my time educating students and staff. The education sector globally, as you know, has challenges. Teachers need to innovate. They need to change and adapt to a new norm of students having the same access to information as they do. Technology has to be adapted in the right manner.
Knowledge@Wharton: What life lessons would you like to pass on to future generations to guide them on their journey?
Valrani: Having seen so many ups and downs, I would say, accept the unpredictability of life. Do not be afraid of the unknown. Move out of your comfort zone and walk the extra mile. Allow yourself time to nurture your natural talents. Learn how to learn. Be a life-long learner. Aim to be financially literate before leaving high school. This is very important. I made sure that all my three boys had basic knowledge of accounting before they left school. Reverse mentoring is important. You can learn a lot from the young. Associate with the right people. Don’t waste time. It is finite.
Knowledge@Wharton: What advice would you give to young people about how to be happy?
Valrani: Remain curious. It makes life wonderful. Curiosity leads to creativity. I’m enjoying life because I have never lost touch with curiosity. Be transparent; you have nothing to hide. Aim to lead a conflict-free life without compromising on your principles. Conflict is a waste of time. Take care of your emotional and physical health. Practice meditation. Be flexible. Change is the only constant in life.
Knowledge@Wharton: What role does giving back play in your life right now, and what forms does it take?
Valrani: I believe the shortcut to eternal happiness is in giving. Apart from donating your wealth, giving of yourself is equally meaningful. I aim to be in a giving attitude all the time. I’m giving when I’m praying; I’m giving when I wish someone good luck. And I am also giving when I communicate with compassion and love.
One of the best forms of giving is forgiveness. If people learn to forgive, the world will be a better place. The moment I have forgiven, my enemy becomes my well-wisher. I don’t have to focus my time on hatred, on revenge. All that is out, and all that time is saved. You are at peace because you have forgiven. It is so simple, and it costs you nothing. It’s free.
Forgiveness is often hard because of attitude, ego and living in the past. To think of someone that “he has done this to me, so I have to take my revenge,” is not the right approach. [That attitude] has more to do with living in the past than in the future or the present. The past is gone. The future is unknown. Enjoy the present and move on.
Knowledge@Wharton: What matters most in life?
Valrani: It’s very simple. Be grateful for what has been bestowed upon you. It is only in gratitude that you will find peace. It is gratitude all the way.