Transforming Discovery into Opportunity

Persevere and turn a challenge into an opportunity

Posted on: March 25th, 2015 by jwhite

Karimah Es Sabar, CDRD’s President and CEO was the keynote speaker at the Canadian High School Model United Nations event held in Vancouver in March. She delivered an inspiring and motivational talk to 150 delegates from across Canada. For our latest posting, please see the transcript of her speech.


Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen,

I am truly honoured to have been asked speak to you today. I know what an important and valuable program Model UN is, as my own son is currently participating in a similar session in New York so I have been hearing all week about the amazing activities he’s been doing – and I’m quite sure he’s very pleased to be in New York as opposed to Vancouver so he doesn’t have to hear me talk today.

I thought I would begin by just giving you a flavor of my own personal and career path, not because I’m such a fascinating person, but because I think that my journey and the lessons I have learned along the way may be reflective of some key themes explored through Model UN; and may hopefully resonate with the professional and personal journeys you are all taking as our future leaders.

Having been born in Kenya and educated through high school primarily in British boarding school, I was exposed early to a wide diversity of people from broad ethnic as well as socio-economic backgrounds. And with them, I saw both great poverty and great wealth, along with racial struggles and injustices, and I saw the opportunities that were available to those fortunate enough to be born in certain classes, and the lack thereof to those born in others.

But what I did not see were a lot of differences at the core of those people, in what drove and motivated them, in what they truly needed to be happy. And that was very simply to be seen, to be heard, to matter, to give, to connect with others, and love.

So this was really the foundation on which my journey was built….on an appreciation for diversity, but also for the underlying commonalities we all share.

Following high school, I undertook a Bachelor of Science degree in Biochemistry/Chemistry at the University of Salford in the UK, and then completed a Masters in Neurochemistry at the Institute of Psychiatry at the University of London. I did so not because of any particular career ambitions, but simply because I have always had a natural curiosity for the world around me, for how it works, and thus for science. So although I didn’t know where this education was going to lead me, I knew I would never be bored as long as I continued to find avenues to nurture that curiosity, and let that be my primary driver.

And as I was finishing my Master’s Degree, I found that I needed to turn that curiosity somewhere new as I decided that I could not spend another day at the lab bench. In particular, I couldn’t spend another moment with the albino rats that I was working with – and certainly could not  spend another moment removing their retinas which is what I was tasked with doing as part of my research. So as a result, I began pursuing a career on the business side of science, joining a multi-national pharmaceutical company as I was attracted to the numerous and varied avenues that were open via this path, while it offered the chance to help develop and share innovative products that the world needed. It was an amazing place to start ones career, as I was really able to be exposed to and learn so many different roles within the company and the industry more broadly.

I found myself particularly drawn to the marketing and business development functions, and in particular, international marketing. Working in this capacity at sanofi-pasteur, the world’s largest vaccine company at the time, gave me an opportunity to expand my global perspective, as the job had me working in over 60 countries on five continents – which again gave me another window into the world’s poorest and richest people – those with everything at their disposal, and those with nothing.

This was especially provocative for me since working in healthcare, I knew that we were introducing innovative new products that would save the lives of many – while at the same time knowing that as many people would likely never be able to access those same medicines simply because of the place or the station to which they had been born. Again we shared common needs as humans, but very different opportunities to have them fulfilled.

From a business perspective however, this role offered a number of valuable lessons – firstly about learning as much as you can about the various different functions within a company, and secondly how to negotiate a deal or partnership. I learned that successful partnerships are born out of a shared desire to alleviate common or complementary challenges, and they must always bring comparable levels of value to all parties, as they are ultimately about the sharing of both the risk and the reward.

And most vitally, I learned that strong and respectful personal relationships are the single most important thing in not only life’s partnerships, but also in business’.

It is therefore important to seek out like-minded individuals and organizations when building any type of relationship. Organizational mindsets and cultures as well as individual personalities can have a significant impact on the ultimate success of any partnership. Do not underestimate the role of personal relationships.

And take the time up-front to ensure that expectations, objectives, roles, responsibilities, resources, desired outcomes are all clear. Partnerships after all, are about the marriage, not the wedding. They require continual and ongoing care, attention, and nurturing.

Unfortunately, the death of my father forced me to leave my job, and return back to Kenya in order to be with my family and to also tend to his various business interests. At that time, there were limited career opportunities for me there, so I opted to create my own. I realized that there was a lack of professional pharmaceutical marketing and distribution services, so I again put on my entrepreneur hat, and eventually, my little start-up company became a leading organization, and set new standards in the marketing and distribution of biopharmaceutical products in the region.

So, I was ultimately able to turn a challenge into an opportunity, and in doing so, learned a whole new series of lessons along the way – namely, to never let your circumstances or environment limit your opportunities, be creative in seeing the opportunities around you, be better than your competitors – position yourself as the Gold Standard, and persevere, persevere, persevere until you are successful.

But unfortunately, yet another tragedy hit my family as we were the victims of an armed burglary in our home, and were held hostage at gunpoint for several hours. Fortunately, our family all escaped unharmed, but we knew that Kenya was no longer somewhere we could call home, somewhere that we could raise our family and feel safe.

We had several options available to us in regards to where to re-locate, and could have easily returned once more to the UK, gone to the US or to my husband’s native Morocco. But instead, we looked to Canada. We did so because of the values instilled in Canadian culture – how it respected and in fact celebrated diversity, and as a nation, did its best to treat everyone the same, and ensure that the same opportunities were afforded to all. It was a meritocratic society.

Canada’s 14th Prime Minister and Nobel Peace Prize recipient, Lester B. Pearson summed it up most eloquently when he said, “We live together in confidence and cohesion; with more faith and pride in ourselves and less self-doubt and hesitation; strong in the conviction that the destiny of Canada is to unite, not divide; sharing in cooperation, not in separation or in conflict; respecting our past and welcoming our future.”

And I was elated for Canada to welcome my future, and that of my family.

Professionally, I knew that I would have opportunities to bring my global experience and perspectives to Canadian organizations, and I ultimately took on the role of President of LifeSciences BC, the not-for-profit industry association that represents the province’s biotech industry and research organizations. This was a somewhat unexpected albeit highly rewarding turn in my career, as I had come from the business world. I didn’t know anything about running a non-profit organization – or so I thought.

But what I found was that those same fundamental principles I had learned previously, that people and relationships were the most important things, and that the key in fostering those relationships is to focus on our common drivers, once again applied, and thus formed the foundation of my work with the organization.

This job therein highlighted the importance of being open to unique opportunities when they present themselves, of stretching one’s skill-set base and knowledge of industry-wide issues, and of broadening one’s network beyond your immediate area – you never know when those relationships will prove valuable. Ultimately, those relationships led me to my current organization, The Centre for Drug Research and Development – CDRD, where I suitably was initially responsible for building its business division, managing the relationship between science and business, and for establishing the external partnerships required for CDRD’s success.

I was also drawn to the organization as I saw huge potential for it to become a new world leader in translating academic health research into new medicines. The vision of CDRD is to transform the culture of scientific innovation and commercialization impacting human health. We do so by forming a bridge between the many players required to bring a new drug to patients today – from academic researchers to industry, government and foundations. We do this because the world has changed, and as resources are becoming increasingly limited, we know the only way to achieve our vision is to collaborate rather than compete, to share resources, leverage investment, and mitigate risk.

Once again, I therefore found myself operating under a paradigm that exemplifies the fact that our world is driven first and foremost by relationships, and that the foundation of a strong relationship is a clear and unwavering focus on our collective commonalities rather than our differences.

These values are in fact entrenched not only in CDRD’s mandate, but also in its history. It had its genesis back in 2004, when a group of community-minded scientists and business people came together to try to find a way to address the commercialization gap between academia and industry – a critical issue that was hindering the development of new therapies for patients in Canada and globally.

CDRD’s founding members were a group of scientists who not only had a deep appreciation of the major role academia plays in uncovering fundamental mechanisms of disease and new therapeutic targets, but also had considerable commercial experience in developing their own academic discoveries into drugs, or founding and running biotechnology companies. Thanks in great part to the passion, commitment and leadership these people so generously gave to their common goal, it was ultimately translated into the design of a wholly new model for the translation of research, and the successful establishment of CDRD.

These people were pioneers at the time. They had no roadmap in front of them, no blueprint or model to follow as no such organization had ever been built. But they had a lot of passion and belief in what we were trying to achieve – in solving the problem at hand. And as challenging and trying as some of those times were, they always knew that what they were trying to do was right for the community, right for all involved; and the founders certainly always kept this vision at the forefront – kept firmly focused on doing what was right not for any one of them individually – or for any of their individual organizations, but what was best for research, for development, for patients, and for Canada and the world.

They in fact had the community-minded spirit to somehow agree that CDRD would not be owned by any one institution, thus allowing it to effectively serve a broad base of stakeholders; and focus on advancing the great discoveries from an array of investigators, no matter where they conduct their research.

And to build on my theme of globalization, while CDRD started out as a regional initiative here in British Columbia, we quickly extended our reach nationally and now internationally as our network of partners continues to grow around the world.

In this light, I was also proud to have led the establishment of The Global Alliance of Leading Drug Discovery and Development Centres, bringing together six of the world’s top translational research organizations, and breaking down borders to share best practices, collaborate on mutually beneficial projects, capitalize on international funding opportunities, and bring new resources and innovations to bear in trying to develop new drugs. We turned competition between our organizations into a greater purpose while still achieving our objectives individually.

And in our industry, this greater purpose is serving patients who will ultimately receive the treatments which we strive to develop. The most important person in this whole industry must of course always be the patient –somebody’s mother, father, son or daughter – those are the relationships that at the end of the business day, are always the most important to preserve.

So to offer some concluding professional thoughts and advice before I switch gears a little bit, I would tell you…

Work with and spend time with smarter people.  Know when to talk, what questions to ask, and when to just sit back and listen.

Be open to doing anything and learning everything – never be a prima donna.

Build relationships with individuals that want to see you succeed.  We live in a very competitive world but one that also has considerable opportunity if you look for it – or better yet, create it.  Have an entrepreneurial mindset, and pursue opportunities you are passionate about. Don’t wait for someone else to describe what you want. Have the vision and courage to define it yourself and go after it.

We are limited only by the limitations we place upon ourselves. If you believe you can do anything, then so will everyone else. Think big, believe in yourself, don’t be afraid of failing (OR succeeding), and you will be successful. Not to generalize, but I think that we as Canadians tend to be content with a certain level of success, of growth, of aspiration. But for whatever reason, we seem to be culturally somewhat averse to being too successful, too ambitious.

As a result, we tend not to look enough beyond our own borders, at the possibilities that exist around the globe. So go global (and return) – everything is global!

So with that, I want to turn to my work outside of the business world, outside of the world of global healthcare…

In his Acceptance Remarks for an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Evora in 2006, His Highness the Aga Khan stated “the true purpose of scholarship and the gift of reason was to help build society and guide human aspirations,” which is of course very much in line with the ethos of Model UN, no?

In this light, I was extremely fortunate to spend several years as President of MOSAIC, an organization that enables the creation of a Canada that welcomes and empowers immigrants, refugees and newcomers; through leadership and service delivery, community building and advocacy; while exemplifying the values of excellence, innovation, respect, and integrity in its relationships with clients, funders, community partners staff and volunteers.

At MOSAIC, we worked to make British Columbia and Canada even more welcoming to the world, supporting new immigrants by whatever means we could, drawing upon and never forgetting our own experiences and history as immigrants ourselves. We must all remain committed to fostering the knowledge, strength and potential that each possesses within, encouraging those treasures of culture and heritage to surface, to produce harmony, understanding, and respect across the broad spectrum of our multi-cultural society, and to enrich the diversity of our lives and society as a whole.

MOSAIC believes, as per their Mission and Vision, in “empowering” clients to be active and contributing members of our society. What the organization has been most proud of is the enhancement of services to the most vulnerable sector of our population — seniors, mothers with children, and youth. You can imagine how isolating it can be to a new immigrant senior who arrives in Canada with limited English, particularly within the smaller communities. You can imagine how challenging it can be to a young mother with children without her usual community or family support, and in a new parenting environment. You can equally imagine a young refugee from any one of the corners of the world where there is conflict, without the familial and community guidance, which most of us and our children take for granted.

Franklin Roosevelt once said: “Remember, remember always, that all of us, and you and I especially, are descended from immigrants and revolutionists.”  Let us all then continue to be revolutionists, and never be daunted by the challenge of forging a new way forward. And let us never forget our own experiences and history as immigrants ourselves, always ensuring that the paths we build are open to all.

We are after all connected and interdependent. We really are a single humanity sharing one small globe. You as leaders of our future must then take a collective responsibility to ask the difficult questions, find the answers and mitigate with action. Ask, for example why so many of our youth are being disenfranchised, marginalized and growing up with hatred in their hearts, rather than joy and love for their fellow human beings, and instead of the hope for an exciting future ahead of them, getting into lives of drugs, crime and even terrorism.

These are indeed deep and far reaching discussions to be had, so ladies and gentleman, I believe that when one has the honour of delivering remarks such as this, it is incumbent upon one to use those few valuable minutes well. At the very least offer provoking thought, dialogue, debate and even, God Forbid, action! So as I close, since our world is blessed with many great thinkers and thoughts leaders that could inspire us, I won’t subject you to anymore of the nonsense that pops out of my ordinary mind!

I have chosen to share with you some thoughts from a man that inspires me, The Aga Khan. I offer you a very small part of a speech from his book: “Where Hope Takes Root”.

This Speech was made at the The Governor General’s Leadership Forum in Gatineau, May 2004 – The speech is about Canada as a Global Leader. He said: “Ladies and Gentleman: There are compelling reasons, as I have tried to articulate, why Canada can and should take the lead in investing to safeguard and enhance pluralism. We inhabit an overcrowded planet with shrinking resources yet we share a common destiny. A weakness or pain in one corner has the tendency, rather rapidly to transmit itself across the globe. Instability is infectious. But so is hope. It is you…..the leaders of today and tomorrow… carry the torch of that hope and help to share the gift of Pluralism.”

Personally, my deepest hope is that the collective Canada will continue to take leadership in nurturing a robust pluralistic society – one which opens its arms with warmth and humanity to newcomers wherever they have come from and wherever they land. One that then enables and supports true integration and diversity. And one that is just, kind, and caring, based  on values of equality and meritocracy, and which offers the same opportunities to all who share our blessed shores around the world.

Thank you, and good evening.

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