Matriarchs make their mark on family businesses

Meet the women behind the female-run family businesses in the UAE.

From left: Devika Mankani, Shakuntala Mankani, and Katrina Mankani of Jins. “The young blood has come in; they are really smart and working hard, and I’m letting them get on with it,” says Shakuntala Mankani. Pawan Singh / The National
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Most would associate Fortes Holdings, a diversified group with interests in education, property development and health and fitness, with Sanjay Mankani – and before that his father, Shyam Mankani. But the lesser-known story behind this Dubai-based Indian family business is the women who have been running the company’s early years education venture for the past 35 years.

“What makes us quite different is that we’re a female-led family business – but with the full support of the men,” says Sanjay Mankani’s mother, Shakuntala Mankani, 75, who founded Jumeirah International Nurseries (Jins) in an Al Wasl villa in 1981.

Together with her daughter Veena Vaswani, now 50, the mother-daughter team founded a branch of Jins next to Al Safa Park in 2000. Today Veena is married to Ashok Vaswani, the chief executive of Barclays UK and lives in the United Kingdom – but she is still involved in Jins at an operational level. And the story of the matriarchal nursery business doesn’t stop there.

Jins has since opened a second branch in Al Safa Park and a third one in Downtown Dubai in 2013.

Shakuntala Mankani’s daughter-in-law, Devika Mankani, 36, once a Jins pupil herself, now conducts psychology workshops and seminars for parents at Jins. And the other daughter-in-law, Katrina Mankani, 30, from Russia, is the managing director of Jins Russian, Dubai’s first Russian-English bilingual nursery, which opened in Al Wasl in 2015.

“The young blood has come in; they are really smart and working hard, and I’m letting them get on with it,” says Shakuntala Mankani. “I’m just there supervising everything.”

Jins is one of several female-run family business in the UAE. Others include the Emirati-run regional franchise business Bedashing Beauty Lounge, managed by Bodour Al Tamimi from Abu Dhabi and two of her sisters. Ms Al Tamimi also cofounded the female empowerment platform Qiyadiyat, which provides training and networking opportunities for Emirati women in business.

Through Qiyadiyat, the entrepreneur has noticed a rising number of Emirati women joining up with female family members to launch ventures.

“This is because Emirati women are capable, they have the financial means to do so, and our families and even our religion state that if we have the money we can start our own business,” says Ms Al Tamimi. “The stability of running your own business is preferred by many women to having a job, especially if you’re starting a family, because being an entrepreneur gives you that flexibility.”

The field of women's beauty is one female entrepreneurs undoubtedly have a natural edge in. As well as Bedashing Beauty Lounge, other beauty-themed businesses run by Emirati sister teams in the Emirates include Color Me Spa in Khalifa City and Sisters Beauty Lounge, which now has seven branches in Abu Dhabi and Dubai. And a mother-daughter duo, Sharifa and Nadia Sehweil, run Bodytree Studio, a yoga, Pilates and dance studio in Abu Dhabi.

“Usually, women-led family businesses cover the areas that aren’t really men’s areas of expertise,” says Ms Al Tamimi. “For example, female fashion, spas, coffee shops, bakeries, nurseries, flower shops and also wedding planning.

“I think there was a big gap in the market in the past where those businesses were either covered by non-nationals or not catered for very well, because the men didn’t have the taste of an Emirati woman.”

The entrepreneur says women can offer unique skills to ensure a business is successful. “When it comes to emotional intelligence and soft skills, particularly creativity and negotiation skills, women are naturally really good with those things,” she adds.

According to a 2015 report by Al Sayedah Khadijah Bint Khuwaylid Business Centre and the consultants Strategy&, family businesses in the GCC will have more women on their boards over the next five to 10 years as they transition to the third generation of control.

One of the market advantages of being part of a family business is that the key stakeholders are in it for the long term. “It makes it a stronger business, because we want to survive the bad times as well as the good,” says Devika Mankani.

“Jins is not something we would consider selling if the going gets tough. The business makes the family stronger and the family makes the business stronger.”

The latest Jins branch opened in Fortes Education’s new Sunmarke School in Jumeirah Village Triangle last September. “Right now, it’s a constant family celebration,” says Devika Mankani of the company’s continued success.

But Katrina Mankani concedes that, as with all family partnerships, there are also the occasional arguments.

“It’s a very healthy thing when people are passionate about something to argue, and we just learn that we all have to compromise,” she says. “But we don’t fall out, because at the end of the day, we know that we’re stuck with each other forever.”

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