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Making an impact: I had big shoes to fill

By Jacqueline Mahugu | Jan 23rd 2022 | 6 min read

Sarova Hotels & Resorts Director Pravir Vohra during an interview at their Head Office in Nairobi on January 18, 2022. [Boniface Okendo, Standard]

Pravir Vohra is half Indian, half Italian. His Italian side is Sicilian, as in from Sicily, like the characters of the Godfather. And like the acclaimed book and blockbuster movie family, his is renowned for shrewd business but legal. It is also what his Indian side, who are Sikhs, are renowned for in Kenya.

His friends jokingly call him Iron Man because of the amount of metal he has in his body, thanks to injuries he has sustained over the years.

“I used to do a lot of kickboxing and MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) when I was younger. So I’ve broken fingers, I’ve had three or four knee surgeries,” he says.

“I started shooting competitively at the age of 13 in the Air Pistol category. So it was the Olympic-type shooting. At the age of 13, I became Kenya’s Under 21 target shooting champion.”

He then stopped the Olympic-style shooting and started doing other kinds of training, which were paramilitary training in Eastern Europe, including counter-terror, combat training, maritime, sniper school, medic, combat medic, among other shooting training.

Last year, he won the African Championship award for the Marks Man division.

Pravir also happens to be an impact investor, the Director of Sarova Hotels and Aion Properties. He sits on various boards in Kenya and London. We are at one of those hotels, the Sarova Panafric, where he tells me his story.

It starts many decades ago, when his great grandfather, Sardar Singh Vohra, a man of few means, decided to hop onto a dhow from India. The dhow landed in Mombasa, changing the fortunes of the Vohra family forever.

On landing in Mombasa, Sardar tried his hand at whatever he could, eventually starting a bicycle shop in Nairobi that sustained the family of 10 children, who all shared one room.

Among the children was Gurcharan Singh Vohra (also known as Chani), Pravir’s grandfather, who worked in the bicycle shop growing up and would later go on to be one of the founders of the Sarova Group of hotels together with John Ngata Kariuki.

Chani’s son, Pravir’s father, Sandy Vohra, would, later on, become the managing director of the hotel chain. 

Now Pravir, 28, has giant shoes to fill in continuing the family’s legacy. The shoes were handed to him at only 19 when Chani died in 2013.

He started managing the family’s businesses then, but, even though a daunting prospect, he had the ability to do it, thanks to his father and grandfather showing them their ways.

“There was a couple of very interesting lessons from my father,” he says.

“One of them is to always be truthful to yourself and never feel sorry for yourself. Just because you had a bad day or something bad happened to you, never feel self-pity. Self-pity is the worst thing you can ever feel. That is not the mentality of a winner. A winner never has self-pity.”

His father was no-nonsense about the lesson, which has come in handy several times.

“That has been whenever I’m feeling, ‘Ugh, life is hard’, something tragic has happened or somebody has lost someone. I’ve broken many bones and I’d always remember my father’s words: Never feel self-pity. If you carry out life and you’re feeling sorry for yourself then you’re never going to achieve what you want to achieve. Because there will always be something that you can blame,” he says.

His father tragically died when Pravir was only 11, which forced him to grow up very fast. It was his life’s most defining moment.

“I was forced to become someone that I was not at the time. Because every household has ‘the man of the house. I was the firstborn and then there was my little sister and my mother,” he says.

But his grandfather stepped up, filling the much-needed role of a father figure, with Pravir becoming his faithful apprentice. He was always with his grandfather from the age of 11 onwards, and how he handled people taught Pravir a lot.

“I learned how to be compassionate from him. I saw how people would find him on the street when he didn’t even know who they were, but they would come up to him and say, ‘Bwana GS, how are are you? I just want to say thank you so much.’ Because when they were 12 years old, he had sponsored their high school or had bought them shoes so that they could go to school.

“He would go to Bata, buy lots of different pairs of shoes and then go to the roundabout just up the road here, open his boot and start handing out shoes to the people barefoot, because my grandfather’s one thing was that you need shoes to walk to work.”

His grandfather Chani would pass on only eight years later, pushing Pravir headfirst into the business.

“That one really got me down because then I felt like I was completely alone. Yes I had my aunts, but it was like I was the one who now had to take care of the family. It was a difficult period,” he says.

That, and the expectations that were now on him.

“I definitely felt pressure because they were two larger than life characters. For me it was like, ‘How on earth am I going to fill those shoes?’”

Today, there is little doubt that has managed to do that, seeing as he manages the family assets. Their blood runs in his veins equally.

“I might have taken some things from both. My father was definitely more of a professional. He is the reason Sarova became a professionally-run company.

“My grandfather was the one who was the more out-of-the-box creative, made a lot of friends – so maybe I’ve picked a few things from both of them and that’s how I’m carrying on their legacy,” he says.

I spot a bit of his grandfather in him, the giving side, when he says that considers his biggest accomplishment to be the fact that he has helped companies around him grow as an impact investor, adding professionalism and coming up with the marketing strategies to put the companies out there.

“I look for startups that will have some sort of social or environmental benefit and then I help those startups grow. That’s another passion I have.

“I love seeing small businesses and companies start to become big. So I’ve invested in several different startups, which I work very closely with, try and streamline them,” he says.

His love for shooting sports has never waned, however, since his grandfather introduced him to it at age 11.

Today, Chani would probably be pleased to hear that in addition to helping carry the family’s business legacy, he has also excelled in their other shared love, with several certifications and awards. He has also invested in security solutions and some security companies.

“In my free time, I train in lots of different martial arts. I live by the warrior ethos, which is that you’re continuously training. You’re never good enough. If you think you’re good that is when you will be taken out of commission.”

“So you’re always trying to keep better, you’re always trying to develop. So whether I am spending my time at the range, spending my time in the gym or I’m training in hand to hand combat, I’m always trying to develop myself.”

How would he like to be remembered?

“I think with my family and friends, I would definitely want to be remembered as the guy who, ‘Yes, he was strict with us, but he was very loving and everything he did was for us.’

“By the public, it would be a little like my grandfather. I want to be remembered as the guy who was compassionate, who ended up being a philanthropist, helping a lot of people, giving people a second chance in life and a dedicated professional.”

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