The UAE's Educational Influencers 2018

If you want to know who has made the biggest impact on education in the UAE over the last year, read on for's Most Influential People within education in 2018.
The UAE's Educational Influencers 2018
By C Hoppe
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Educational Entrepreneurs

The UAE's vibrant and billion-dollar private-education sector has always been fertile ground for education start-ups, more than a few of which, have gone on to become global brands.

Whether they're entirely 'home-grown' or been attracted to the UAE by its exponential growth and unique opportunities, this year we celebrate five educational enterprises making the news and of course, a difference- this year...


Jeffery Smith: Copperstone Education

After working his way through the ranks at US Sylvan Learning to CEO of the MENA region, Jeffery then establish his own company, Copperstone Education in 2016.

The consultancy offers unique K-12 educational resources. In his first year as CEO, Jeffrey teamed up with some of the biggest names in US blended learning and innovation such as Calvert International, Curriculum Associates, and ActivEd.   

He then went on to create the first annual US Schools Leadership Reception in Dubai, which brought together some of the UAE's most influential voices in US curriculum education.

Jeffery and Copperstone are not only active in the UAE either, with an operational centre in Egypt and schools set to open in Turkey, Oman and Saudi later this year.


How long have you worked in the UAE?  

I am proudly celebrating my 10th year in the UAE.

What made you choose the education sector?  

Prior to my current work, I enjoyed a successful career in retail business management.  I learned early in my career that I love training, coaching, and mentoring others.  Education was a natural fit for me.  Nowadays, on a daily basis, I interact with hardworking and dedicated teachers, counselors, and administrators, who share my passion for empowering others.  Working in the field of education is one of the best choices I have ever made.

What do you think are the greatest challenges facing the industry in the UAE? 

I would have to say, attracting and retaining top talent is the greatest challenge.  Proper mentoring and ongoing training and development can help the UAE retain the best and brightest.  

Ensuring that students receive a quality and competitive education at every price point is also important.  I am thrilled to see minimum standards being put into place.  Schools must go further and partner with organizations that can help make sure that each and every student finishes school with the skills and confidence to pursue their dreams.

What are the key milestones in your career so far?

As a learning centre director back in the US, I still remember my first parent conference.  There was lots of laughter and a few tears.  

In 2008, I was named, Founding Director of Sylvan Learning in Dubai and moved my family from Parkville, Maryland in the US to the United Arab Emirates.

Organizing and hosting the Dubai Spelling Challenge at Arabian Center in 2012.

Working in collaboration with MetaMindz, Curriculum Associates, Calvert Interantional and ActivED opened up new doors in 2017.

Expanding my work into Saudi Arabia and East Africa in 2018.

What do you think is your greatest achievement, in education, to date - and why?

My greatest achievement will always be the lives touched through the work of the organisations I have managed.   At the end of the day, it is about empowering students with hope and opportunity through education.

Name three things which get you up and motivate you each day?

Knowing that there is a child out there with a dream that I may play a role in fulfilling.

Knowing that there is a mother and father out there with hopes and fears who can benefit from what I offer.

The desire to set a good example for my children and my community by living a rewarding and productive life.

 What would you still like to achieve in your professional life?

Through partnership, I look forward to paving the pathway to a university education to more students in the MENA region.  

 What is your advice for others hoping to emulate your success? 

Three things for entrepreneurs in eucation:

Volunteer in a school classroom at least once a month.  It will keep you grounded and focused on why you are in this business.

Never let your smart phone or lap top take the place of building relationships with people. You will get more satisfaction from your work when you take the time to really know the people around you.

Learn something new every day.  It doesn't happen automatically.  Always read books and articles. Surround yourself with knowledgeable people who are willing to share.

What is the most enjoyable aspect of working in education?

I am a people person.  I'd have to say the people I meet and work alongside.  From the 2nd graders who give me high-fives when I read in their classrooms to the teachers who share their success stories, filled with pride.  It never gets old.

Jeffery Smith was nominated by our 2017 Influencers


Zeena Assam: Creative Nest Nursery

Zeena has created an impressive and thoughtfully designed nursery in Al Mizhar, an area not previously well served for Early Years education.  

Creative Nest Nursery teaches universal Islamic values, nurtures and celebrates Arab culture whilst implementing the most up to date Early Years teaching styles and championing child led learning.  She's also brought together a highly qualified, all Muslim team of educators to ensure this weaving of core Islamic learning and best practice in early years works seamlessly.  A mother and teacher herself, Zeena has incredible passion for early years and great ambition for Creative Nest Nursery.


How long have you worked in the UAE? 

I've worked in the UAE for 19 years, 15 years of them have been in education.  I've worked as a primary class teacher, a secondary math teacher, while the past 5 years have been in Early Years. 

What made you choose the Early Years sector? 

My passion for education and educational reform, inspired by my role as a mother and educator. Changing the lives of children means changing our own lives first, by listening carefully to children and giving them a chance explore, research, marvel, and make sense of the world around them.

How do you see the Early Years industry evolving over the next three years?

I see the Early Years Industry slowly moving away from academia, and teacher led activities and focusing more on child initiated activities based on their interests and play based learning.  It's time to follow the principle "less is more". 

When children play, they develop intrinsic motivation and develop their cognitive, social, emotional, and physical development.  I hope to see numeracy and literacy learnt naturally rather than through teacher-led and forced activities.  This is something Creative Nest Nursery is working towards, following recommendations from a UK consultant that visited us recently. 

What do you think are the greatest challenges facing the industry in the UAE? 

One of the greatest challenges facing the industry is helping parents and educators understand the importance of play based learning, and focusing less on academics at the early years stage.  Another challenge is teacher recruitment and retention. 

What are the key milestones in your career so far?

Establishing my own purpose-built nursery after working in schools for over 10 years.

Having achieved quality within a very short time span.  Parents continuously ask me to open a Kindergarten and Primary school because they are so pleased with the quality of education we provide

Being a passionate learner.  After completing my Masters in Education and Cache Level 5, I am still passionate about studying and improving my knowledge, and plan to continue my studies.

What do you think is your greatest achievement, in education, to date - and why?

As an educator, my greatest achievement is being a champion for children, and cultivating a classroom culture that is built on strong structures, respect, communication, and lasting relationships.  Some of my former students who are now university students have visited me at the nursery, which is something that gives me immense fulfillment.  Establishing the nursery, as a purpose built facility, that focuses on preserving children's first language and heritage, is another great achievement.

Name three things which get you up and motivate you each day?

My own children.  I want them to see their mother as a hardworking and dedicated educator.

Our dear nursery children and their beautiful smiles.

My amazing team at Creative Nest Nursery who make my vision come alive.

What would you still like to achieve in your professional life?

Since the nursery is only 18-months old, I am still working hard to build a strong brand, ensuring that we are leaders and quality providers in the Early Years field. 

What is your advice for others hoping to emulate your success?

Be passionate, dedicated and authentic.  Be willing to go the extra mile.  You also need grit and perseverance to survive!  Stay physically fit because that gives you mental fitness and strength as well.

What is the most enjoyable aspect of working in education? 

The most enjoyable aspect of working in education is knowing that we are shaping the future of children.


Charlotte Borghesi: Children’s Oasis Nursery

We're all about 'parent power!' Unhappy with the imminent closure of her children’s nursery, mother of seven, Charlotte made a snap decision to buy Children’s Oasis Nursery in Umm Suqeim rather than allow it to close - fulfilling a lifelong ambition of owning a school and ensuring her children were able to continue in the nursery they loved. 

Now thoroughly immersed in the world of Early Years education, Charlotte leads the spectacular Children’s Oasis In Umm Suqeim, the UAE Ministry of Education’s staff nursery, as well as Kidz Inc – a business which offers consultancy services for child facilities and services in the hotel industry. A fitness fanatic and entreprenuer through and through, Charlotte has a myriad of ambitions for her Early Years business. 

We believe she's certainly, one to watch!


How long have you worked in the UAE? 

I have worked in Dubai in the UAE for over seven years. In 2011 I joined Mars, the world’s leading confectionery & petcare company as Vice President of Marketing for Middle East, Turkey & Africa, leading a diverse and complex region.

In 2014 I was appointed as General Manager of Mars Gulf in 2014 and took over the reigns of what is a $500m USD multi-segment, multi-country business with over 1200 employees.

I have always had a strong entrepreneurial spirit and when in May 2017 I was told that the nursery where my 3 youngest children go was closing due to the previous owner’s retirement; I immediately saw a great opportunity that aligned with my personal goals and values, I made an offer to buy the school and the rest is history!

At the same time I also got the opportunity to purchase the reputable Kidz Inc., a leading Early Years care and education company and it felt like the perfect opportunity to build a business in a sector I am passionate about – children! 

What made you choose the Early Years sector?

I got into the early years sector by accident.  Children’s Oasis Nursery, the nursery school of my three youngest children (Will turning four, Flo turning three and Ale turning two) was closing down. It is such an amazing school I couldn’t imagine sending my children anywhere else. The previous owner, Petra, was retiring and she did not want to sell the school in the fear that any future owner would not be able to maintain the high standards of quality she had worked to establish as her legacy over the last 32 years. 

When I had looked for a nursery in Dubai and visited many options over four years ago there was not one nursery that came close to Children’s Oasis Nursery in terms of the leadership, environment, quality and qualifications of teachers, so overnight I decided I was going to try and buy the school. It took some time to convince the previous owner to let me buy; however, she did and the rest is history.  

During the purchase process, I also uncovered Kidz Inc. Dubai which was another company the same lady owned in early years covering distribution of early years school furniture and play equipment, learning resources and toys, consultancy, interior and exterior space design and planning and training.   I decided to make Petra an offer to buy this also and after some negotiation she agreed. 

It’s a great business to be in - Early Years education - working with and for children - and I am able to apply my 20-years of corporate experience in sales, marketing, leadership and general management to make a big difference to children’s lives, learning experiences and environments that are on offer in the UAE.

How do you see the Early Years industry evolving over the next three years?

I think there is going to be an explosion across the UAE to significantly raise the standards of care and education.  We have the opportunity to work closely with the Ministry of Education and we can see a great focus on raising the quality and standards of early years education across the UAE - which is amazing to see.

Quality early years settings are important for many, many reasons!  Firstly, it’s our children’s formative years that are the most important in maximising their future potential in many areas for example social skills and creativity.  This used to be just theory but now it is well proven with neuroscience so the experiences and inputs they have as young children and very, very important.   This is one of the most important reasons early years educators and carers are qualified to maximise every learning opportunity and tapping into resources and knowledge on how to help create the best foundations for the future.

Secondly quality early years setting enable women to feel more confident to get back to work after giving birth and provide a ‘zero’ compromise solution that benefits both mum and child. 

I am a passionate feminist who aims to inspire and support other women to follow both their career and family goals and dreams as I have been able to do.  It’s so important as a mum to have the reassurance that you are not compromising on your child’s development and happiness whilst you pursue your career.  Through my personal experience of bringing up 7 children and having the privilege to work alongside many inspiring and capable women, it is clear that when there is quality child care and education available to support them both being a mum, wife and having a brilliant career can all exist in harmony together!

What do you think are the greatest challenges facing the industry in the UAE?

The greatest challenge we see is the lack of understanding on the importance of early years education for children both within families, by nursery owners and managers and by key influencers – often including the media and press!

There are still parents and carers who don’t understand the importance of the experiences children have during the first four years of their lives and how a great nursery filled with experienced and qualified teachers can make such a difference to a child’s development.   We need to change the common belief that nursery is all about ‘care’ and ‘babysitting’ – its so so so much more!

I think we also need to help educate Early Years investors and nursery owners that the profit the vast majority have been making over the last 10 years needs resetting as a huge boost in terms of quality is much needed and significant investment is required to upgrade teachers, environments and resources of many nursery and early years settings!

My goal is to help educate young mums, families, carers and key influencers on the important role that early years play in a child’s development. 

What are the key milestones in your career so far?

I have had an amazing career so far. Among the key milestones of my career; I was the youngest top 400 group executives in Reckitt Benckiser at the age of 26 and before I was 30 I was appointed the Vice President of Marketing based in India for RB - back then it was our fourth biggest market in the world.

I then moved into join Mars where at the age of 36 I become General Manager for the Gulf Countries managing a company with sales of over half a billion US$ and employing over 1000 in Dubai alone. Within this role, I led a transformation of the Mars culture, transforming the organisation into a results-driven, decisive and customer-centric organization, increasing employee engagement which resulted in the company’s inclusion in the top 15% of global organisations and its transformation from being the 53rd best place to work in the UAE to making it into the top ten.

While I worked for big corporate multinationals companies for 20 years and I knew I always wanted to become an entrepreneur and run my own business. In May 2017 I bought Children’s Oasis Nursery and Kidz Inc Dubai and made my dream come true in a sector I am truly passionate about.

What do you think is your greatest achievement, in education, to date - and why?

I am extremely proud of my own nursery school - Children’s Oasis Nursery, the best British nursery in Dubai!

I have a great team from the leadership to the teachers and helpers who are committed to continuously improve and be creative. We continue to invest back into the nursery to keep the standards and quality at the highest.  My objective is to reinvest ALL profit from my nursery back into the nursery to ensure that we remain the number 1 across the UAE and lead the way in terms of quality across all areas – leadership, teaching, curriculum, environment and resources.

Every time I walked into my nursery I feel so excited to be given the opportunity to make a difference to so many children’s lives – its far far more rewarding than seeing the next chocolate product available on a shelf in Carrefour!

I am also proud we have been chosen as the operator of the Ministry of Education Staff Nursery for over 7 years and we continue to partner with them to further build on the quality and standards of Early Years education and care across the UAE.

Name three things which get you up and motivate you each day?

My husband.

My children.

Going to the gym, keeping fit, healthy and young! 

What would you still like to achieve in your professional life?

My mission, together with my teams at Children’s Oasis Nursery and Kidz Inc is to become the leading provider of early years care and educational products and services and to continue to improve the quality and standards of early years education across the Middle East.

I have always wanted to open an orphanage in India – it has been my dream to do this for many years.  Now that I have my own business in early years I feel I have made a big step forward! In my second professional career as a mum my main goal is to stay alive for as long as possible... to be able to watch and help my children grow and be part of all of their lives to encourage them and love them for as long as possible!

What is your advice for others hoping to emulate your success?

I have this advice that I always give to women who work for me and it’s called “Diamonds are a girl’s best friend” - all women like big rocks!

Your big rocks are your most important and valuable things or priorities across your life work, relationships, family. You need to love the biggest ones the most and care for them, admire them and polish them regularly so that they shine!  Let the small stuff go, and make it clear what you are not going to do.  What things will be de-prioritized or stopped completely so you can focus on polishing your rocks.

For example, I made the choice many years back to never watch the TV.  I read instead or do sport or work or spend active time with my kids and my husband. It's about maximising your time. I wake up at 5am every morning (some days even call for 4.30am start) and I go to bed before 10pm every night to ensure I get enough rest!

Finally, I learnt how to drop the guilt many years back - that guilty feeling is one of the most common experiences of working mums which leads them to question have they made the right choice to pursue a dual career. Drop the guilt.  Its starts with getting your rocks clear and planning your time around those in a proactive way! 

Make choices and focus all of your energy and time on them!

Finally, being a great mum, a successful career woman and a great wife involves being able to do many things so it’s important to be resourceful and surround yourself with great people who you can trust, train and develop - building that ‘leadership team’ at home is no different to building a leadership team in the office. I have two wonderful nannies and they are part of our life - Laxmi and Bandana having worked with us for over 11 years now.  They come on holiday with us, share Christmas and birthday celebrations with us without their help and support and love for my family I would definitely not have achieved what I have so far in my life!

What is the most enjoyable aspect of working in education?

I believe that educating our children is the most valuable work on the planet. As a mom of seven; I know the early years are the most important in the formation and development of our children’s intelligence, personal behaviors, and social development. My goal is to give each child an opportunity to fulfill their individual potential by developing self-confidence to give them a flying start in education in a secure, loving & stimulating learning environment.

I love to see children grow and develop in one of our fun, safe and stimulating settings as we get them ready for a big school and for the later stages in their lives. We take care of all children we have the privilege to care for and educate as if they were our own.


Mark Ryder: Daymer Group

Director and Founder of Daymer Group, Mark Ryder has previously been a  lawyer, developer, chief executive and in house real estate director, all of which he believes have made him the success he is today.

He arrived in the UAE in 2011 to work for GEMS Group, however he established Daymer Education Consultancy advises education operators, owners and real estate investors on creating and delivering opportunities across the UAE. 

Last year’s Influencer, GAJ architect- Jason Burnside says of Mark, “I’ve worked with Mark on a number of education projects and found him to be passionate about ensuring that the design and delivery of the project represents the best possible outcome for developer, operator and most importantly the students.”


How long have you worked in the UAE? 

I have been in the UAE for over six years since 2011. 

What made you choose the education sector? 

I had previously worked as a lawyer, property developer and fund manager in the UK. I responded to an opportunity from Sunny Varkey to join GEMS Education as the Group Director of Real Estate in Dubai.  The challenge of working overseas appealed to me but I was completely new to the education sector.    I had been involved in property regeneration for my entire career up to joining GEMS in 2011 and so making a difference has always been more important to me than just commercial success.  The opportunity to see the impact of a good school is very tangible. 

What do you think are the greatest challenges facing the industry in the UAE?

Attracting and keeping the very best teachers has to be the single biggest challenge facing the industry followed by ensuring that quality education is available to everyone that lives in the UAE .  The UAE education market is maturing with a greater emphasis on choice and quality. These are good things in the long term but there will be challenges during the transition period due to the rapid growth over the last five years.  Inevitably there will therefore be winners and losers. In my area of expertise the lack of transparency and sophistication around real estate and finance comparable evidence has compounded some of the pitfalls of rapid growth.  

What are the key milestones in your career so far?

Having started my career as a lawyer I was made the Chief Executive of one of the UK’s first ever private sector public sector property regeneration partnerships - at the age of 29. Looking back there was so many things that I know now (nearly 20 years on) which I wish I had known then!  I haven’t followed a rigid career path  - in fact I have worked for myself now more than I have as an employee. 

What do you think is your greatest achievement, in education, to date - and why?

I have always been keen to do things properly and I have been guided by a strong morale compass.  This hasn’t always been easy in the education land and finance sector in the UAE.  I have been proud to secure new school land opportunities that I then get to see built out. I was involved in a number of land transactions whilst at GEMS in Dubai including Metropole and Bradenton as well as overseas in Country’s like Malaysia and Singapore. Since forming Daymer I have helped a number of schools open in Dubai including Brighton College Dubai, Dwight School and Global Indian International School.  

Name three things which get you up and motivate you each day?

My family, my strong internal dynamo and a commitment to making a difference.  

What would you still like to achieve in your professional life?

There are many opportunities to make a difference in the Dubai market because it has grown so rapidly and is now maturing.

I would like to see the continuation of the growth of genuine community schools in Dubai.  This has become an important element of the maturing market and will in my view define the education landscape over the next 10 years.   There is now more choice in terms of the residential market and the schools market and they will both mature in a symbiotic fashion.

What is your advice for others hoping to emulate your success? 

Perseverence and not getting bogged down with the daily frustrations is essential.  It is also very important to remain optimistic and believe that you can make a difference by sticking to your values. 

What is the most enjoyable aspect of working in education?

I am the father of four children and so like many parents that are involved in the business of education I look at the industry as a parent as well as a professional.  My family is very important to me and I enjoy seeing the children grow in knowledge and confidence as well as the unique international perspective they get from living in Dubai. I am so lucky to be able to do this on a bigger scale working in the industry as you get to see sustainable and thriving schools making a difference to families from such a wide spectrum of nationalities and cultures.  

Mark Ryder was nominated by our 2017 Influencers


Zahra Hamirani: Babilou Middle East 

The founder of the Blossom Nursery group, Zahra has recently steered her business through a merger with Europe’s largest childcare provider, Babilou.  Now the CEO of the combined UAE business, Zahra heads an organisation able to cater to 1,700 children aged between six- weeks and six-years. 

A hands-on leader, Zahra’s driven personality and commitment to furthering the careers of her mostly female team make a formidable combination. 

How long have you worked in the UAE? 

I moved from Wall Street, New York ten years ago

What made you choose the Early Years sector?

Coming into the UAE at that time, I could not find a place that didn't sacrifice quality on childcare services. The industry was lacking a strong curriculum and understanding the importance of early year education. This is what inspired me to start a service that offers affordable high-quality education for working parents, as it was a personal struggle for me. The idea was not to have the nicest walls or the prettiest building it was about the curriculum, raising awareness of the impact that early years can have on our children lives, providing the best form of EYFS with a strong team of educators. Giving peace of mind to parents while they are out there working hard. 

How do you see the Early Years industry evolving over the next three years?

We now live in a digital world, knowledge is more accessible, everything is there at the push of a button. I believe that education will become a cloud that pushes our children to be independent and resilient individuals. We believe that being ahead of this and preparing our little ones for the future is key. 

What do you think are the greatest challenges facing the industry in the UAE?

Dubai is a cultural hub, with different nationalities and different cultures and each parent has a different expectation when it comes to choosing a nursery for their little ones. The common goal though I believe is the search for the best environment to ensure a child reaches their potential. Central to our ethos is the quality of what we offer. We have a group of 250 plus women who are experts in the field, and we want to share this knowledge with families. 

What are the key milestones in your career so far?

Opening Blossom Marina and Blossom downtown just a year apart and having seen the success of each centre. By far the most rewarding was being chosen by a global education group to be their partner in the region. This will be a turning point for the education sector. 

What do you think is your greatest achievement, in education, to date, and why?

Having the opportunity to educate over 1500 children day, working with over 500 educators throughout the years... 

Name three things which get you up and motivate you each day?

Believe. Achieve. Become.

We must always believe that there is hope. This enables us to achieve our goals and desires in life.

We must also strive to be eco-friendly for this land is our home. 

What would you still like to achieve in your professional life?

I would like to see that education field affiliated with higher bodies of authority worldwide. Early years education should be something that everyone has access to. 

What is your advice for others hoping to emulate your success?

Always keep at it, never give up because with hard work and determination you are capable of magic. 

What is the most enjoyable aspect of working in education?

That’s obvious! Being able to see the growth of our little ones, empowering our wonderful team of women, working within the environment... The list goes on and on... 



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