We had the good fortune of connecting with Vijay and Jay Shah and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Vijay and Jay, what was your thought process behind starting your own business?
Vijay: It’s funny, to this day I have never thought of myself as “starting a business.” I just feel like a curious child, (some would say I look like one too!) engaged in an amazing educational experiment. Also, I don’t like thinking of The Humanist Academy or any educational setting as a “business.” When “businessy” terms like “profit, revenue, etc.” overshadow the infinite potential within each child, or the sacred learning process, then the noble work we are trying to do becomes suspect. There has been a lot of thought behind starting The Humanist Academy, but I think the biggest aspect of our thought process is this: children, the future leaders of the world, deserve so much better than the accepted norm we call “school.” Being able to provide an environment where children can explore, collaborate, develop character, nurture virtues, and be on a Hero’s Journey that goes beyond test scores, grades, transcripts, four years of college, etc. is not only a dream, but a moral imperative to me. And it’s just so much fun. Jay: I echo the same sentiments as Vijay. I’ve always been passionate about education, even before going to medical school I always knew I wanted to be involved somehow in education. Then with my wife being a teacher, my brother, his wife, my mom, and having gone through a phenomenal experience at a philosophical institute overseas, and having discovered Acton… I could feel a bigger, more divine hand at play… It was just the right thing to do knowing all the pieces were in place….
Can you give our readers an introduction to your business? Maybe you can share a bit about what you do and what sets you apart from others?
Jay: We are like a “micro-school” but more than that, we identify as a “learner-driven” school, part of the Acton Academy network. There are a lot of other innovative educational models out there, but none challenge the role of the adult and place the amount of trust and responsibility on children the way we do. We truly believe children are more capable than we can ever imagine, and we see them exceeding expectations every single day. Vijay: To build on Jay’s point, there are so many educational initiatives and other innovative schools emerging nowadays that have very similar concepts to us: play-based, Montessori, project-based, self-paced, adaptive digital curricular platforms, Socratic discussions, etc. But I have never seen an entire model comprehensively integrate all of these best practices the way Acton and THA do. Moreover, the secret is really that it’s not about finding the latest “new thing” but really just about trusting the children. It’s not about seeing them as inferior and incapable, but seeing them for the infinite potential they possess, knowing that these young geniuses are truly going to change the world, and find their calling in the process.
If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
Jay and Vijay: There are some really great places to visit in the city, but the most important thing to us would be just to really catch up and have some deeper conversations about what’s been on our plate, how our journey through life has been going etc. That being said here are a few things we would definitely want to do if our best friend visited: We’d definitely want to do something in nature. Weather pending, we’d go to Rockledge Park, boating at Lake Grapevine, Arbor Hills nature preserve or maybe a visit to the Arboretum. It would be great to catch a Mavs, Stars, or Cowboys game if possible or depending on the age of their kids maybe the Perot Museum or ice skating at the Galleria Mall. We would definitely want to take them to Bombay Sizzler, Torchy’s, and/or Taste of Chicago for some Chicago Style Deep Dish! Something we’ve recently enjoyed is ordering food and hanging out at The Sound in Cypress Waters (Irving).
The Shoutout series is all about recognizing that our success and where we are in life is at least somewhat thanks to the efforts, support, mentorship, love and encouragement of others. So is there someone that you want to dedicate your shoutout to?
Jay and Vijay: The list for this is way too long and we want to apologize to all the amazing people we didn’t mention because so many people have supported both of us in so many ways. Here’s a short list: 1) Our family: Our dad, Pravin Shah, a retired pharmacist who came to the United States in the 70s, comes every morning to the school, greets our students, works on the school garden with them, and plays with them during recess. Our mom, a retired teacher, heads our after care program voluntarily. After living in Chicago for 35+ years, our parents decided to drop everything move with us to Dallas. Both of our parents made it a point to raise us with values, cultural identity, and a commitment to spiritual progress inspired by the Swadhyaya movement; they encouraged us to attend Tattvajnana Vidyapeeth, an unparalleled life-oriented institution after we graduated college. These experiences have shaped our principles, values, and desire to live a meaningful life. We would have none of this if not for our parents, so we are immensely grateful to them. Jay’s wife, Devki, plays an immeasurable role for the school. She has dropped everything on several occassions over the years to come and work as a guide or take care of administrative tasks whenever needed. Vijay’s wife, Deepa, has also been an integral part of the school from the beginning. As an AMS certified Montessori Guide, she established our entire Spark Studio (Montessori program) during our early years. She also worked with architects and led the design of our new location. She has designed and redesigned our website and continues to monitor and regulate our social media platforms. 2) Our Staff: We have been blessed with incredible Socratic guides, some who have been with us from the first year we opened, who work day in and day out, put the children first, and sacrifice so much of their time and embrace the uniqueness of their role. They spend hours preparing the right discussions, finding the right questions to ask, setting up the environment, preparing hands-on projects, and providing life-oriented experiences. They have graciously rejected the traditional role of “teacher” and embraced being a Socratic guide, who humbly learns from and with our students, while being on their own Hero’s Journey. 3) THA Parents and Community: We have to give a huge shoutout to the parents and families at our school who continue to place so much faith in us and go out of their way to share the cool things happening at THA with others. Not only have they taken a chance with this educational experiment, but they are patient and embrace struggle as a necessary part of the Hero’s Journey. We can never forget those 16 courageous children and their brave families who decided to take a chance in August of 2016, to go outside of the status quo, and start with is in 2016. Since then our school has almost quadrupled in size, and the families we’ve welcomed into our community have been outstanding. Every family that makes the courageous decision of joining THA is a blessing and we are truly grateful. 4) The Acton Community: When we founded The Humanist Academy, around December 2015, there were only seven Acton schools in operation around the globe. Currently there are around 300! We were the first one in the DFW area and there are 6 now! It is amazing to see so many courageous parents who are committed to providing a better education for their children. Moreover, the Acton network is full of amazing and dynamic people who are willing to genuinely support one another because it’s the right thing to do, not because they have some hidden agenda or incentive. Really grateful to the network. 5) Jeff and Laura Sandefer: If not for them, there would be no Acton and no THA. They opened our eyes to the possibilities of this educational experiment and of an amazing almost magical world that we never knew existed. They had the courage to experiment with their own children and create this amazing model. They had the generosity to share that model with the world and take a chance on us as one of the earlier owners of the network. They continue to Shepard the Acton community with their vision out of the pure goodness of their heart. They have already done so much and yet continue to share, support, and guide us. We are eternally grateful for these two visionaries.