Teach Your Children Well

Nyla Khan ’14 has built a network of progressive schools in the United Arab Emirates with a mission to educate even children of little means.

Illustration of Nyla Khan

As a child growing up in Dubai, Nyla Khan ’14 wasn’t afraid to stand up against the norm, a trait she picked up from her parents, who married across religious borders. Her Catholic mother and Muslim father left their home country of India, where interfaith unions were largely frowned upon, for better opportunities in the United Arab Emirates. “The rebelliousness of my parents played a big role in shaping my view of the world,” Khan says. “I was pretty opinionated as a young woman, which probably came across as being stubborn. In many ways, I found myself feeling very different from everyone else.”

Khan has channeled that independence into an entrepreneurial career driven by her passion for education. Today, she is the co-founder and executive director of Kids World Nurseries, a UAE-based network of Montessori schools that focus on child-centered education. She also co-founded Mirai Partners, a learning and development organization. In 2018 Forbes Middle East recognized her as one of the top second-generation Indian leaders in the Arab world. Khan’s work aims to close the gap between the current state of education in the UAE, where high-quality schools remain accessible only to those who can afford them, and what it could be. Instead of profit-driven, exclusive schooling, she envisions a world where affordable education is available to all children.

“My dream is to create sustainable, accessible models of education that create a measurable impact in terms of learning outcomes for students, and building the nurseries is part of that.”

She credits her education at Sarah Lawrence, where she studied child development and gender studies, as extremely influential to her work. One of her boarding school teachers in India recommended the College, thinking Khan would fit in perfectly. She was right.

“At Sarah Lawrence, I really learned that if you have an idea to change the world, you can do it—and the school will give you the tools to work on it,” Khan says. “My dream is to create sustainable, accessible models of education that create a measurable impact in terms of learning outcomes for students, and building the nurseries is part of that.”

Khan’s commitment to education and entrepreneurship comes from her mother, Lovita Chauhan, who established the first Kids World Nursery in 2004. Chauhan witnessed the benefits of a progressive educational model for little Nyla, who enrolled in a Montessori classroom at the age of 2. This experience sparked an interest in starting her own specialized teaching nursery.

Khan took the helm from her mother in 2016, revamping the business model to reduce the high cost of the Montessori curriculum. “Private education, which is the only education available in this expat-majority country, is heavily centered on profit and merit,” she says. “We have worked very hard to create a system that is able to offer a great education that is accessible to all.”

“Private education, which is the only education available in this expat-majority country, is heavily centered on profit and merit. We have worked very hard to create a system that is able to offer a great education that is accessible to all.”

The company uses local storefronts as classrooms and trains teachers in-house to cut costs. Profit is invested back into the business, which allows the nurseries to maintain high standards without charging top dollar. Khan wants to expand the number of nurseries in the UAE to 20 in the near future, with additional plans to franchise the business throughout India.

Kids World Nurseries adheres to the curriculum created more than a century ago by Maria Montessori, an Italian physician, scientist, and educator. The Montessori model emphasizes the creative potential of children and their natural desire to learn. The three existing nurseries have enrolled almost 400 students, ranging in age from 4 months to 6 years old. A typical classroom has one teacher, one assistant, and 12 students.

“Everything we do at Kids World Nurseries is research based,” Khan says. “The focus isn’t necessarily on academic excellence, but rather on things like stronger social-emotional skills, resilience, and practicality.”

It was at Sarah Lawrence that Khan developed her alternative view of education. She cites the College’s conference-style discussions, the freedom to explore through research, and professors’ one-on-one dedication to students’ work. She also performed observations at SLC’s Early Childhood Center, which involved tracking student behavior over time for assessment purposes. She’s transferred some of the practices she learned there directly to her nurseries.

Khan’s second venture—and main focus at the moment—is Mirai Partners, a strategic learning and leadership consultancy that works closely with businesses, education leaders, and governments. Founded in 2018, the firm has started with projects bringing the latest educational technology to places that ordinarily would not have access to it.

One of Mirai’s first clients is Lexplore, a reading assessment startup based on research from the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden. The system uses eye tracking and artificial intelligence to accurately measure a child’s reading level in only two minutes. It can more easily identify students at risk for dyslexia and other reading difficulties for early intervention. Khan and her co-founder, Christine Nasserghodsi, have brought Lexplore to schools in Ghana, Nigeria, and Ethiopia. They have also created educational content for adults, such as digital learning solutions for corporate clients and leadership development programs for schools in India.

“Our focus is on bringing contemporary solutions to the human side of change, which is really the heart and soul of our work,” says Nasserghodsi, who is completing her doctoral studies in organizational learning at the University of Pennsylvania. “We’re at the convergence of learning, leadership, organizational dynamics, and technology—so our work is quite diverse.”

“At Sarah Lawrence, I really learned that if you have an idea to change the world, you can do it—and the school will give you the tools to work on it.”

The co-founders met in 2016, when Nasserghodsi, who has more than 20 years of experience in education, gave a talk at UAE Innovation Week about the future of the field. Afterward, Khan joined her for coffee and career advice. They kept in touch, and two years later, during another coffee meeting in New York City, the two established Mirai Partners.

“I knew that if I started a business, Nyla was absolutely somebody I wanted to work with,” Nasserghodsi says. “It’s great to bounce ideas off of someone from a different generation, and we have complementary skills. I’m not a businessperson by training, but Nyla grew up in a family of entrepreneurs and really has a knack for it.”

Khan and Nasserghodsi share a core set of values— focused on learning, transformation, trust, honesty, and family—that they often refer to when making business decisions. Khan regards her co-founder as a mentor of sorts. Nasserghodsi is not so sure.

“At Mirai, we all develop each other in different ways,” Nasserghodsi says. “I don’t necessarily see myself as Nyla’s mentor, since I’ve learned so much from her. One of the things I really admire about Nyla is that a challenge or problem is never a dead end—it’s always an opportunity.”