Down to earth and yet highly ambitious, Ms Mankani started her education journey as a nursery teaching assistant but today is the Co-Managing Director of Fortes Education, spearheading Positive Education and Innovation at Fortes Education Schools and leading Jumeirah International Nurseries. We learn more about her journey, what gets her up in the morning, and the experiences that made her the leader she is today.
Truthfully, I came into education by sheer luck. I did not have a clear career path the way some people do. What I always knew was that I wanted to do something that would have an impact on people, where I could influence people’s lives. I found this in education, and encountered many sources of inspiration along the way.
As a young person, I had imagined a different kind of career path ahead. When I was in school, I was known as the ‘class lawyer’ because I would take it upon myself to ensure that everybody's interests were considered. I thought I would work in the government, and so I did a master’s degree in Public Administration at Moscow State University. Very quickly though, I understood that Russia may not be the place for me to pursue these goals at that time. In 2008, at the age of 22, I received an offer to come to Dubai to be a partner in opening a real estate brokerage firm, and I decided to do it.
Of course, my timing was not ideal. The financial crisis soon hit and so my new career in real estate turned out to be short-lived. Very quickly though, within two weeks of arriving in Dubai, I met Sanjay, my husband. It was a real whirlwind; we were married in less than a year. I had wrapped up my real estate work and I thought, what's next for me? My husband’s family operated various companies, but I found I wanted to get involved in the work they were doing in education. I thought to myself, 'wow, perhaps I could work in a nursery or a school'.
Feeling very accomplished and sure of myself, I told them I’d like to work in Regent International School. To my surprise, they said 'no Katrina, you can't work in a school because you don't have the right qualifications'. I said OK, I’d like to work in one of the nurseries, but was told I was not qualified to do this either. I felt frustrated; I was coming from Moscow State University, with a master’s degree, top of the class, yet I was being rejected to work in a nursery.
What I came to realise was that in our family, nothing is just handed to us. When it came to work, I had to start at the bottom and earn my stripes. I was advised to do the Cache Level 3 Diploma (early childhood educator qualification) and work as a nursery teaching assistant to gain experience, and that’s what I did.
For eight months, I assisted in a nursery class; I changed nappies, wiped tears, provided comfort, prepared activities, cleaned floors. Being a nursery teaching assistant was a great exercise in humility for me. I’d always been a high achiever, a dynamic go-getter, and there I was, really being present with the children, understanding this universal language of love and care. I loved this period of my life. After completing my diploma, I was entrusted with my own nursery class. I still remember every one of those children's names. I was then later promoted to Nursery Manager.
Although this was only the beginning, these experiences were instrumental in shaping me into an educator, and laying the foundation for me to become the leader I am now. In 2015, I became Managing Director of Jumeirah International Nurseries. My mother-in-law, Shakuntala Mankani, who founded JINS in the late 1970s as part of her purpose to support women and families in Dubai, passed it on to me, after ensuring I had enough experience and understanding to lead.
I also started leading initiatives in our schools in 2011, with a focus on the development of values-based education, developing students’ character and core skills, by which I mean the skills to withstand challenges, to make the right decisions, and to build and maintain relationships. We began by using the Education in Human Values programme, which later evolved into the full-fledged Positive Education programme, an initiative I lead at Sunmarke and Regent International School.
I lucky to go to one of the top schools in Moscow; it was really a positive experience for me. It was a school where there was rigor, and at the same time, very caring teachers. To this day, I am still in touch with some of my teachers from the school. Every student from our class was a high achiever, everyone went on to good university, and we are now spread across the world doing many different things.
That environment of high achievement, combined with such care from adults, left a very good impression on me. I do believe that we should not lower expectations of children. We need to expect a child to reach their fullest potential, and this sometimes requires us to be very direct with them, while at the same time, ensuring their dignity is respected, and that they feel loved and accepted.
A key feature of my life is that my education did not end when I graduated. Throughout all these years, I have continued studying and learning. I have gained my early years diploma, PGCE and Masters in Education (Leadership of Private Schools) from Columbia University, New York. Learning has continued to be a part of my life and I don't plan to stop.
It would be easy to say that I just love what I do. While that is true, I also feel driven by a sense of purpose. That school girl in Moscow, who wanted to make an impact on people’s lives, is still here. I don’t have to work in the United Nations to change the world, I can have an impact on the world around me; the organisations, the educators, the families, the children.
I see that this starts with the first hello I say in the morning, how I say it and to whom. It can be in every little interaction throughout the day. I want children to come to our nurseries or schools, and love learning, I want educators to feel satisfied with their work, to love the environment that they are working in. It doesn’t all come from me, I work with a lot of people who bring so much to what we do, but the part I play, the impact I can make, is what drives me.