When Shakuntala Mankani came to Dubai in 1964 as a 22-year-old woman, she had no idea where life would take her.
She came to the country in a ship bound for Sharjah with her husband, Shyam Mankani, and a baby.
Armed with a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Bombay University, a love for children and a passion for education, Shakuntala always knew she wanted more from life than the shadow role of mother and wife.
The fashionable successful millionaire businesswoman is now 77 years old, and she is just as passionate about life and everything around her as she was when she first stepped into the UAE.
The torch bearer today
Today, Shakuntala is the torchbearer of Fortes Education; she's a person who embodies the enterprise’s vision as well as values of love, tolerance, conduct, humility, personal enterprise, lifelong learning, positivity, giving back, and professional and personal excellence.
She is actively involved in the initiative, ensuring the schools remain true to her vision and values, and taking care of staff wellbeing.
Fortes Education is part of a larger group, Fortes Holdings, which is run by her sons. The group is involved in several verticals: education via Fortes Education (the ownership, development and operation of K-12 schools and nurseries); property development via Lanbanc (which has developed and sold two-million-square-feet of residential space); construction and facilities management via Emirates Universal Construction (that has constructed 250 projects so far); the trade of building materials and chemicals via Blue Water Enterprise; and MyBus, a bus management company.
Each company is run by a professional team, with the group using its financial strength, synergies and entrepreneurial spirit to grow the business.
Turn back the clock
So how did it all begin for the bubbly entrepreneur?
“I came on a ship with my very handsome looking husband,” quipped Mankani in an interview at her plush villa in Jumeirah Islands.
“Back in the days I was thought to be pretty as well!,” she added quickly. “We made a friend on-board the ship – the Kriplanis. They offered their house for us to stay in before we took up a little pad of our own in Deira,” she recalled.
Shakuntala said a day after reaching Dubai, there was a function at the India Club. “There was a gathering of the Indian community and we attended that. It was such a wonderful gathering and I got to meet so many fellow Indians living in Dubai. The event was a real ice-breaker for me as I was lost as to [where] my life was headed in a desert with a baby to take care [of].”
The Indian community was close
But back in the 60s, Shakuntala said the Indian community was very close knit. “There were several parties held in expatriates’ homes just so everyone would get to know each other. I remember when my husband and I attended our first party, everybody was curious to know who we were and what our background was. Decades later we all continue to be one big family.”
Recalling the days of the past, Shakuntala said Dubai was not on anyone’s radar. “People knew Sharjah but not Dubai. When I told my sister I was going to Dubai, she asked me, 'where is this city on the world map?' I told her, 'just think I live in Sharjah'.”
Getting a secretary job in Dubai
Shakuntala said when she and her family were staying with Kriplanis, the chairman of National Bank of Dubai (NBD) Abdullah Al Saleh used to visit them for parties. “He was such a humble person that he would sit on the floor and have meals with us,” she said.
It was during one of those parties, that Shakuntala had a breakthrough. “I was casually telling Mr Saleh about my background and how I wanted to work at some point in my life. He invited me to his office. I told him that I had never worked in my life, but he insisted I visit his office. The next day I went to his NBD office in Deira.”
This was the beginning of her career graph.
Learning to type
At the interview, Shakuntala was introduced to a top banking executive who was a British national. “He called me to his chambers for an interview. He put me in front of a typewriter and asked me to type something. I said I don’t know typing. He said type your name. I typed my name from my right forefinger, letter by letter. By the time I was done he was convinced I did not know typing after all!)"
Yet she was given the job. “Everybody deserves a chance in life. And this was mine. I took it up, gave it my best and turned my life around for the better. The world is competitive today. You are required to have a certain degree of academic merit and job proficiency to land a job. Back in the 60s this was not the case. Not that people were hiring losers back then. It is just that people had faith in each other just like Mr. Saleh did in me.”
So Shakuntala started work as an executive secretary to the chairman of NBD in 1964.
“It was amazing. Mr Saleh was a great boss to work with and a great leader.”
Becoming an entrepreuner
In 1965 Shakuntala left NBD to start her own business.
“I loved my job, but I had a burning desire to start something on my own.”
And so she started one of Dubai’s first salons, “Figurette”, which also offered slimming services. [Her husband, in the meantime, joined Dubai Municipality as chief engineer.]
Four years later, Shyam followed his wife’s footsteps and started a business - a maintenance company, Bunty & associates. Shakuntala helped him manage his accounts. The couple also started trading in building materials, steel and timber.
Then in 1970, Shyam started a construction company and building materials company called STAC (Steel. Aggregate. Cement. Concrete).
Starting nursery from a villa
Around this time, Shakuntala, with her daughter Veena Vaswani, launched Jumeirah International Nursery (JINS), and so began her stint as an educational entrepreneur. "My daughter and I love children and education was always important to us. We put the two together and started the nursery. My father, who was a doctor, encouraged me to start a nursery as he knew how much I loved children.”
“I was living in a villa, Veen and I rented another villa beside my place where we started the nursery. My daughter-in-law, Devika, was one of my first students.”
Soon JINS became the popular the ‘go-to nursery’ in Dubai.
But Shakuntala wasn't done. In 1993, she and her daughter decided to start a school. Her oldest son tried to get funding for the school from various banks. When this fell though, she saught out an old friend, her former boss Abdullah Saleh. “Like a guardian angel, he came back in my life."
“His office was on the eighth floor of the NBD building in Deira. Without an appointment, I landed in his office one day. His secretary informed me he was busy. Just then Mr Saleh came out of his office, he was surprised to see me. After our courtesies were done, I told him the real reason I was there. I told him straight. I want to build a school and I want a loan. Guess what? He said ok. Just like that.”
And so the Regent International School (RIS), a K-12 British curriculum school, was born.
In 2003, RIS was moved to a purpose-built campus at Emaar’s Greens community. Today, it's rated ‘very good’ with ‘outstanding’ features by KHDA.
In 2016, Shakuntala opened another British and IB curriculum school, Sunmarke School in Jumeirah Village Triangle (JVT). The same year, she opened her fourth JINS nursery and followed it up the following year with another one.
In total, as part of Fortes Education, Shakuntala manages and runs three educational institutions in the UAE: Regent International School, Sunmarke School and the Jumeirah International Nurseries. “My goal is to be a leading education provider in the region by building truly exceptional schools which inspire, empower and enlighten students, and enrich the communities that we are part of. The ethos in all my schools is'happy children make successful learners and adults'. I seriously believe that if you develop a child’s values, character and wellbeing, both academic and non-academic success will follow.”
In keeping with this spirit Mamaji - as Shakuntala is popularly known - has ensured there is a sense of belonging in every entity she has set up in the UAE. “There is a deep sense of loyalty amongst our staff. This is something I learnt from people living in the UAE – whether they were my Emirati local friends or expats.”
It is this reason why Fortes Education records a very low turnover of staff. “One of my Irish staff [members] who came on board decades ago is now head of primary. She has grown with just as our brand of schools has. We take pride in this. Of course people do leave us for the want of more money. But you cannot help that. As an education brand, we are a community, one big family.”
On a final note we ask Shakuntala to name a challenge that comes with the running of the ducation business. Quick comes her reply - it is not a business but a labour of love.