Work and Money
Sheila Panjwani Is Leaving a Legacy of Learning
National Entrepreneur Day is November 16. It’s fitting not only to recognize anyone who built a business from the ground up, but to acknowledge female entrepreneurs, who generally face greater challenges. That’s because women statistically start new businesses with up to 50% less capital than their male counterparts, so they must work harder and faster to turn a profit.
Women also tend to have a lack of support when it comes to both mentors and business connections. They are still catching up with men, who have brought home the bacon much longer than women have. And, all of this has chipped away at women’s confidence — a necessity for success as an entrepreneur.
Sheila Panjwani, owner of Montessori-Reggio Academy (MRA) in Sugar Land, Texas, bucked all the odds, even when COVID-19 hit and massive restrictions were placed on preschools like hers. While other businesses were shuttering their doors, Panjwani made it through the lockdown, despite long staff member absences due to sickness and quarantines, and fearful parents (especially health care workers) who were hesitant to drop off their kids but needed to work.
Her passion for education and serving her community drove her will to make her business succeed. “When I decided to open MRA, it was with a singular purpose,” Panjwani said. “I wanted to contribute to society. I wanted something I could be proud of.”
Panjwani has worked in real estate her entire life and has enjoyed great success selling homes for a local builder. It was the money she earned from that career that went toward financing her new school, which she created from the ground up. “I made a lot of money in real estate, but I was working for corporate America,” she explained. “It wasn’t my legacy, it was theirs. I wanted to leave behind my own legacy, and I wanted it to be something that truly made a difference.”
"You can dream big, but you don’t need to do it all at once. Do it in increments. Follow your inner voice. Do what makes you happy."
So she pursued her dream, involving herself in every step of the process, from finding the location to marketing to hiring to growing the school — one student at a time.
While she acknowledges that financial risk is always a concern, Panjwani’s bigger concern has been striking a healthy work-life balance. “Time is much more precious to me than money,” she said. “My kids and home life take precedence, and I wasn’t willing to sacrifice that.”
To that end, Panjwani decided to take everything in small steps. As she said, “You can dream big, but you don’t need to do it all at once. Do it in increments. Follow your inner voice. Do what makes you happy.” She opened her school with only five students. By the end of the first year, she was halfway to her goal number. Within two years, the school was full, in large part because Panjwani never became complacent. Once a milestone was reached, she began working on the next one, constantly improving and reassessing as she went.
Six years later, the school is expanding, and parents of children who have aged out have told Panjwani that if they could leave their child at MRA forever, they would. “The most rewarding part for me is seeing our students succeed,” she said. “One of our former students got accepted to a gifted and talented program, and the parents are thrilled. This year, we granted a scholarship to a family that desperately needed child care but couldn’t afford it. That was a great feeling!”
The tagline for her school says it all: Learners Today, Leaders Tomorrow. Panjwani has learned, and now she, too, is leading, perhaps as a future mentor to another entrepreneur.