Ramola Ramesh Motwani

Class of 2024

  • Chairwoman Merrimac Ventures

When you educate one person, you change generations.

Ramola Motwani comes from a long line of hard-working business owners and entrepreneurs. She was born in 1947, just after India became independent from Great Britain. At the time, her family lived in the state of Sindh, which became part of Islamic Pakistan. Fearing religious persecution and believing there would be more opportunities in India, the family moved to Mumbai.

With millions of migrants looking for work, it was difficult for Motwani’s parents to get re-established, but they were optimistic in their ability to provide for their seven children. They began supplying milk to the local hospital, and from there they secured more contracts. Eventually, they got into the timber business. “My father was very smart and well spoken,” Motwani says. “My mother was supportive and loving. Together, they were determined to give their children opportunities to succeed—and that started with education.”

Motwani was a quiet, obedient child. She attended a convent school, where she especially enjoyed her music and dance classes. She excelled in Hindi and achieved first place in the Hindi exam given by the Maharashtra state, the most populous in India. “I didn’t think much about my future in those days,” she says. “But I loved to study and I wanted my education to continue.”

Motwani attended Jai Hind College in Mumbai, where she met her future husband, Bob Motwani. She earned her undergraduate degree in economics and then pursued her interest in law, gaining her J.D. from Government Law College in Mumbai.

In 1975, she arrived in St. Louis, Missouri where Bob Motwani was living on a business visa. She arrived with only the $8 allowed by U.S. immigration laws, and she knew she had to start working immediately. The couple married and Ramola worked in their retail and wholesale business, Sona Enterprises, which sold imports from India, China, and Hong Kong. “I was a one-woman show in that little shop,” she says. “I ordered and sold merchandise, I cleaned the store, and I even helped people load their furniture pieces. But I was happy to do it all. Working has always felt like sunlight to me. It energizes me.”

In 1979, following the birth of their two sons, Bob Motwani was diagnosed with scleroderma, a chronic disease that causes the hardening of the body’s connective tissues. The couple went to many doctors and hospitals, but nothing gave them real hope. There was no cure and his life expectancy after diagnosis was 10 to 12 years. At the urging of their families, they went to India to explore medical options there. “It was such a scary time,” Motwani says. “Travel to India was so expensive and we had our two little boys. We were spending our limited resources, but nothing gave us much hope. One doctor told us that a cold climate is not good for this disease.”

By 1986, the couple decided they would live in Florida full time, and invested in the Merrimac Hotel in Fort Lauderdale Beach. “It was run down, but it was beachfront property,” Motwani says. “We couldn’t afford the asking price, so I told Bob to just throw out a number we could work with and see what happens.”

The Motwanis saw the business potential to invest in the area, piggybacking on the steady revenue from the rowdy yet reliable “spring break” crowd that promised high returns, when thousands of young people would converge on the beach town. But Fort Lauderdale cracked down on the seasonal debauchery, the city imposed new rules and authorities enforced them.

“This drove away the young people,” Motwani remembers. “We never got the income from spring break that we expected when we bought the hotel. This was devastating to all the hotel owners. Many left their keys on the front desk and deserted their properties. I decided if we couldn’t increase our business, then we had to cut down on expenses. We did all the housekeeping and maintenance ourselves. I had kept our business in St. Louis and I returned there every two weeks to keep that business going. I worked 24/7 in those days.”

While the Motwanis watched fellow beach moteliers slip into bankruptcy with record cancellations and dips in occupancy, they still believed in the Fort Lauderdale Beach area and proceeded to dig in. It was then that the couple shored up finances to acquire the Gold Coast and Tropic Cay motels, which they owned and operated until, at the peak of their momentum in 1994, Bob suddenly passed away at the age of 47. Ramola had to think hard about what to do next.

“Our sons were teenagers then and we were all devastated at the loss of my husband,” she says. “He was so loving and as far as the business went, he was the spokesperson. He was the one who made the deals. His death left me with a choice: I could sell everything, or I could move forward with our plans. I wanted to preserve my sons’ future, so I chose to persevere.”

Motwani stepped up to run the company’s operations and absorbed her husband’s responsibilities, all while raising her two teenage sons, Nitin and Dev. She became a major force in the transformation of Fort Lauderdale— taking it from motel spring break central to becoming one of South Florida’s most popular, upscale family-friendly luxury hospitality markets. Along the way, she learned to form strategic partnerships with developers, enabling her to build her first large luxury condo hotel. Today, the former Merrimac, Gold Coast, and Tropic Cay Motel properties are the site of the Conrad and Four Seasons hotels on Fort Lauderdale Beach. She has become one of the community’s most pioneering and active local leaders, plainly passionate about South Florida’s real estate and hospitality markets as well as the education industry.

Today, Merrimac Ventures is a real estate investment and development firm whose primary focus is on prime resort and mixed-use development, but it also has extensive investments in multi-family residential, condominiums, retail, and office properties. The company has completed more than $3 billion in real estate development projects and currently has a pipeline of active projects in excess of nearly $3.7, billion, which includes the recently launched Four Seasons Telluride and the Waldorf Astoria Pompano Beach. The Merrimac Ventures’ story is one of triumph over adversity and how the vision and hard work of the Motwani family transformed a city.

Ramola Motwani is proud of her sons, who are now actively involved in the company. “I wanted my sons to help me get to the next level with the business,” she says. “They both got their undergraduate degrees from Duke, and they both got their master’s in real estate development at Columbia. While in New York, they worked on Wall Street. They did not return home until they had completed their education and achieved some work experience. I have always been a learner and I too wanted to learn the real estate business. My ultimate success in that arena is my legacy to my sons.”

Not only is Motwani committed to the success of her company, but she is also committed to the success of young people in her community. In 2011, she implemented the first hospitality program in Broward County Public Schools, which included scholarships, internships, and mentorships. Her program is now offered in 15 schools. “Part of the program includes field trips to 5-star hotels,” she says. “These students have never seen anything like a luxury hotel. It gives them a new dream, something they may not have considered before.”

An ardent supporter of her community, Motwani is a member of the United Way of Broward County. She has also served on the Advisory Committee for the Business Improvement District of Fort Lauderdale Beach and was vice chair of the Beach Redevelopment Advisory Board. Additionally, she has actively participated as a Chamber of Commerce Trustee for more than 20 years, and is also a State Board Member of the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association. Motwani was appointed by the governor’s office to the Florida Commission on the Status of Women.

She was inducted into the Junior Achievement Hall of Fame, the NSU Entrepreneur Hall of Fame, and the Fort Lauderdale Chamber of Commerce Hall of Fame. Her many honors include the March of Dimes Woman of Distinction Award, the Salute to Business Award, the Woman’s Council Award, the City of Fort Lauderdale Beach Visionaries Award, and Individual Fundraiser of the Year for the Scleroderma Foundation.

To commemorate the 25th anniversary of her husband’s passing in 2019, the Motwani family partnered with Broward College to launch the R. Motwani Academy of Hospitality and Tourism to support and encourage local students in the pursuit of hospitality careers, many of which are first-generation college students. When addressing the students in her program, Motwani tells them to follow their passion. “If you do that,” she says, “then work is not work—it is a journey.”

Motwani is particularly interested in helping young women. She says, “I want to empower women who don’t realize their potential. I use my own life story to encourage them. My message? Believe in yourself, be positive, and be persistent because nothing comes without hard work.”

Family has always been important to Motwani. She is proud of her sons and all they have accomplished in their family business. “I am also proud of my daughter-in-law, Anshu, and her career as a senior executive at a hedge fund,” she says. “She and Nitin have given me my wonderful grandsons who are, I think, so very special. I come from a family of seven children. Today, my brother Chandur and I are the only ones left. When I go to India for visits, I always stay with him and my sister-in-law Sheela. Family ties give meaning to our lives and are to be cherished.”

Honored by her Horatio Alger Award, Motwani says, “It is the perfect fit for me because the values of the Association so closely align with my own. I believe that when you educate one person, you change generations. That’s what the Association’s scholarship programs are doing. I’m proud to become a part of that endeavor and helping these young people to reach the next level.”