Shakuntala Mankani with her Excellence in Education – Lifetime Achievement award

When Shakuntala Mankani arrived in Dubai in 1964 as a 22-year-old woman, she couldn’t have imagined the path her life would take. Alongside her husband, Shyam Mankani, and their baby, she embarked on this new chapter, arriving by ship from Mumbai, India. Armed with a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Bombay University and a deep love for children and education, Shakuntala aspired to more than just the traditional roles of mother and wife.

Now 82 years old, Shakuntala is a successful businesswoman who remains as passionate about life as when she first set foot in the UAE. She stands as the torchbearer of Fortes Education – a part of the larger Fortes Holdings – embodying the enterprise’s vision and values of love, tolerance, integrity, humility, lifelong learning, positivity, giving back, and excellence. She ensures the schools and nurseries stay true to her vision and values of working hard to ensure that children get the best education. “A child has only one chance to go to Year 1 or Year 4, we must ensure we make it the best year for them,” she always says.

Setting up business

In 1965, driven by a desire to create something of her own, she left the job with National Bank of Dubai to start one of Dubai’s first beauty salons, Figurette. Alongside her husband, she ventured into various businesses, including a maintenance company and trading in building materials. In 1970, they started a construction company, STAC (Steel. Aggregate. Cement. Concrete), further solidifying their entrepreneurial footprint in Dubai.

At that time Dubai had only some schools and very few of them were providing international education. Shakuntala wanted the best school for her son Sanjay, therefore she decided to send him to a boarding school in England at the age of nine. Flights were not easily accessible as they are today, so they had to send Sanjay alone. She only saw her son 10 months later. This separation broke her heart; she couldn’t comprehend why mothers have to send their children away for better education or families being separated when husbands worked in Dubai and wives stayed with children back home for schooling. She wanted Dubai to be a place where families can happily live together and go to schools that are world-class. As many times in her life, she decided to solve it herself.

It’s an incredible honour to win the Excellence in Education – Lifetime Achievement Award. It signifies recognition of the passion, dedication and hard work invested in nurturing young minds and creating a platform where children can thrive. This award is a testament to the collective efforts of our entire team and the unwavering support of parents and the community. What truly matters to me is the love and trust that parents have for us, which keeps them coming back. My father, a dedicated doctor, always told me, “Your love for children will lead you to success.” His words have been a guiding light throughout my journey.

- Shakuntala Mankani, Founder of Fortes Education

Building an educational empire

She started with a nursery. In the end of 1970s she launched her first Jumeirah Nursery in the villa next door to hers. The nursery has become the home away from home for many children, including in 1983 Shakuntala’s future daughter-in-law Devika Singh.

In 1993, Shakuntala and her daughter Veena Vaswani started the Regent International School (RIS), which moved to a purpose-built campus in Emaar’s The Greens in 2006. In 2016, she expanded her educational endeavours by opening Sunmarke School in Jumeirah Village Triangle and currently operates nine Jumeirah International Nurseries (JINS). Today, she oversees these institutions and inspires her children and daughters-in-law, embodying a commitment to exceptional education and working hard without consideration of age.

Her philosophy that happy children make successful learners and adults guides her approach. The low turnover rate among staff reflects the strong community and family ethos she has built. Shakuntala views running her educational institutions not as a business but as a labour of love, driven by her enduring passion for making a positive impact on children’s lives and the community.