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Karimah Es Sabar of Quark Venture LP: “Find a mentor/s to emulate”

Find a mentor/s to emulate: You can model your behavior and thoughts on influential figures in your life and your colleagues. It does not always have to be your teachers, parents or seniors at work. At times, it has been most valuable to have a young mentor and to have a fresh perspective. There is […]

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Find a mentor/s to emulate: You can model your behavior and thoughts on influential figures in your life and your colleagues. It does not always have to be your teachers, parents or seniors at work. At times, it has been most valuable to have a young mentor and to have a fresh perspective. There is enormous learning from being a mentor and learning from your mentees.


As part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women in STEM and Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Karimah Es Sabar of Quark Venture LP.

A highly-recognized Canadian life sciences leader with broad international experience, Karimah Es Sabar has had a successful career spanning global pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries, start-ups, not-for-profit organizations and venture investment firms. She has had decades of experience nurturing and building high impact teams and organizations. She has provided leadership in international marketing, business development, strategic alliances, global collaborations, public private partnerships, developing and executing innovation and translation strategies in the life science sector, building innovation ecosystems, entrepreneurship in startups, and in health tech venture investments. Over the course of her career she has raised over 1.2B dollars for various private and public global biosciences enterprises.

In 2016 Ms. Es Sabar accepted the position of CEO & Partner at Quark Venture to lead and build their health sciences enterprise. Through a joint venture with GF Securities, a leading investment bank in China, the Global Health Sciences [GHS] Fund was established with operations headquartered in Vancouver, Canada and offices in Boston, Berkley, Hong Kong and Chengdu. The diversified GHS Fund invests globally in companies with disruptive platforms and technologies in therapeutics, vaccines, medical devices, digital health, health AI and other novel converging technologies. Ms. Es Sabar is also Co-Founder and Chairman of GDCC China, a health technology company accelerator.

In 2009 Ms. Es Sabar joined The Centre for Drug Research and Development, Canada’s national drug development and commercialization centre, as Senior Vice-President, Business and Strategic Affairs, leading its business functions, and successfully building an array of national and international alliances and strategic industry partnerships. In 2012, she took on the role of President & CEO responsible for developing and executing on the overall strategic direction of the organization. Since Ms. Es Sabar joined CDRD, she enabled new public and private sector funding in excess of 180M dollars, multiple commercial transactions including 6 spin out companies and a M&A with Zymeworks. She grew the organization with expanded national and international reach to include partnerships right across Canada and in 12 countries firmly establishing its reputation as one of the world’s leading pre-clinical translational research and commercialization centres. Ms. Es Sabar was also appointed Founding Chair of the Global Alliance of Leading Drug Discovery and Development Centres in 2013, an association of international peer organizations dedicated to translating health research into new medicines, the formation of which she spearheaded.

Ms. Es Sabar took on the role of leading BC Biotech in 2005, re-engineering and rebranding the organization to LifeSciences BC. As President & CEO, she led the organization to its greatest levels of success as a strong business development organization for the life science industry and the scientific research community. Prior to this Ms. Es Sabar has held senior management positions with multinational pharmaceutical companies, most notably as Director International Division, and later Head Marketing and Business Development at Pasteur Merieux Connaught [Sanofi Pasteur] based in Toronto, when she championed and successfully launched two first in class and first to market vaccine and biotherapeutic products. She also served as Vice President and Chief Operating Officer for a Vancouver based medical device company, Medsurge Medical Inc., and was the founder of two start-up companies in Kenya, both became leading organizations setting new standards in the marketing and distribution of biopharmaceutical products in the region.

Ms. Es Sabar continues to lend her leadership, knowledge and time to a number of organizations in the local, national and global life science communities as well as to public policy fora in Canada and internationally. She is also deeply committed to supporting philanthropy.

Ms. Es Sabar holds an Executive Certificate in Management and Leadership from the MIT Sloan School of Management, a MSc degree in Neurochemistry from the Institute of Psychiatry, University of London, England, and a BSc Joint Honours degree in Biochemistry/Chemistry from the University of Salford, Manchester, England.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Science was in my bones from an early age. When my father bought me my first chemistry set, that was it. I was sold and gave my heart to all things science. I was born in Kenya, a third generation Indo-Muslim with a gentle, wise and stoic mother, and an entrepreneurial, innovative and charismatic father. Both of them encouraged me to challenge norms. I was blessed to have had the freedom to follow my passion for science and to travel the world as I wanted. This was rare at that time, and in that culture.

After completing my graduate and post graduate education in England, I started my career in the pharmaceutical industry. I absolutely loved it, and this led me to start my first company at the age of 26. I saw an opportunity and need for new standards in pharmaceutical marketing and distribution, which was dominated by middle-aged businessmen with no pharmaceutical or healthcare background. Ignorance was bliss for me as I broke through the barriers to building a successful company with partners. Always following my intuition, I remember Paolo Coelho’s The Alchemist and his quote “And, when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you achieve it”. Later on, I founded a second successful company.

I migrated to Canada to join the international marketing team at Connaught Laboratories [now Sanofi Pasteur], as Head of Marketing and Business Development, and later as Head of the International Division. I moved from big pharma to heading up and taking public a start-up company in Vancouver, then to re-engineering and establishing a business development organization, LifeSciences BC, for the life science sector in British Columbia. This then led me to be involved in establishing the Centre for Drug Research and Development to enable the translation of academic discovery to commercialization. Four years ago, I co-founded a global venture capital firm investing in disruptive, cutting-edge biotech, medtech and digital health technologies. As such, I have been blessed to have had a career path covering the entire health life science ecosystem.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?

Since we invest in companies all over the world and our LPs in our Fund are also international institutional investors, what has been most interesting for me is the exponential growth and advancement of China in the technology space and its absolute commitment and focus on STEM. I have been blown away by the level of investment made in STEM. China has really leapfrogged, I am also surprised and fascinated by the amazing female scientists and businesswomen I meet each time I am there.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Gosh, there are many funny things over the years. One that still makes me smile is when I was at Connaught Laboratories 30 years ago and my division won Canada’s Gold Award for Business Excellence. My colleagues and I went to Ottawa with our President to receive the award at the Gala. I was passionately trying to convince our President about something or the other, and we all walked into the male washrooms together. None of seeing anything wrong with this scenario and just continued talking until they had all finished their business. It wasn’t until we were back in the lobby that we became aware of that.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

At Quark Venture, we identify innovative life science companies with breakthrough discoveries and support their growth and development towards finding innovative health solutions and addressing unmet medical needs. At Quark Venture, we foster impact. Our team is truly diverse, from leadership and all through the organization, and our portfolio is also truly diverse by sector, geographically and by stage of development.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

We have an extensive portfolio of companies with many exciting projects and platforms from the most innovative and cutting-edge science. One such company is Canary Medical, which is developing smart implants “talking devices”. Implants are imbedded with chips so that data is constantly downloaded and any problems are identified for real time intervention. This is game changing in orthopaedics, for example.

Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in STEM? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?

I do see women in life science and in STEM more than ever before, so I am very happy to see continuous progress from the earlier days when I had first joined the industry. Nonetheless, there is always room for improvement. Taking into account that 52% of the world’s population are women, I do not see this ratio represented in many workplace scenarios. I strongly believe that companies at the public and private level should always evaluate if they are doing enough to ensure that their policies are those of active inclusion. I am also concerned about the visible lack of women in the board rooms and in policy making. This must be championed by the leadership and nurtured all through the organization.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in STEM or Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?

One thing that I notice is that many women who enter the workplace have preconceived notions and fears about their voices not being heard, especially if entering a typically male-dominated industry. I would advise women and men to be themselves, come prepared having done your homework, be confident but humble and respectful of people who have been in the organization before them. You don’t always need to strut what you know, you need to build bridges and gently display your value.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a woman in STEM or Tech. Can you explain what you mean?

-Aggressive: There is a common myth that women in STEM are aggressive and bossy in a way that they are fixated on imposing their own views and opinions. I find this to be a problematic stereotype.

-Emotional: Another misconception about women in STEM and in the workplace is that they are ruled by emotion. I beg to differ with this outdated stereotype.

Power hungry: Gender diversity at work is an asset that drives innovation, and women who join the field of STEM are not here to outdo their male colleagues. All teammates compliment each other.

-Zealous: Yes, we do like to work long hours, but that does not stop us from pursuing our hobbies and favourite leisure activities as well.

-Delay personal life for career: Delaying marriage and started a family can be attributed to several factors nowadays and should not be blamed on women shining in the office or lab. I, myself, have had the privilege of successfully managing a rewarding professional and family life. Of course, it helps to have a supportive spouse and family.

What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience as a Woman in STEM or Tech” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

-Find a mentor/s to emulate: You can model your behavior and thoughts on influential figures in your life and your colleagues. It does not always have to be your teachers, parents or seniors at work. At times, it has been most valuable to have a young mentor and to have a fresh perspective. There is enormous learning from being a mentor and learning from your mentees.

-Be open and receptive: Listen to the smart people around you, embrace change, be agile and adaptive.

-Team dynamic: I am a firm believer in team success. Most high-impact organizations have great team dynamics and highly diverse teams. All perspectives matter and should be considered when leading a team of researchers and professionals from diverse backgrounds. Build and motivate great teams.

– Leadership by example and service leadership: One of the most important qualities of great leadership is the ability to nurture, motivate and mobilize individuals and teams in the organization to realize their best potential. Enable your talent.

-Execute: Your vision must be executable. Ensure you socialize your vision with your team so you have their support and commitment to execute together.

What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?

Leaders, women or men, have to lead! You have to inspire, motivate and be a champion. Today’s leaders need to do that with kindness, compassion, accountability, optimism but honesty, focus and decisiveness. This comes easily to a woman because of some inbuilt nurturing traits……..leverage these strengths in your leadership. Be authentic in your leadership style.

What advice would you give to other women leaders about the best way to manage a large team?

Whether a large or small team, make sure your team has your trust and respect. It is really important that the team can be honest with you and know that you listen. Communication has to be both ways. In a large team you will likely have more delegation, so it is important to understand the team dynamic and strengths to optimize delegation outcomes. Make sure the goals and expected outcomes are very clear to all so that everyone is rowing in one direction. At the end, all team members work towards a common objective that benefits the organization, regardless of where you stand in terms of rank or on the gender spectrum. From personal experience, the more diverse voices at the table in terms of perspectives, better the productivity.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I have been blessed with many wonderful mentors and mentees in my career form my mother, father and son, to a couple of great chairmen of boards at companies where I was CEO. My Chairman at Sanofi Pasteur taught me the value of socialization of a new idea within the organization and amongst your peers and superiors. No matter how fantastic a solution you may have found, without proper socialization internally it will go nowhere. My son taught me to be gentle and thoughtful about people in any circumstance and to see the best in them first.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I believe a successful life is a balanced life. This includes giving the best of what you have, whether it is your talent and expertise [share it by nurturing and enabling others to be the best they can be], contributing towards feeding much of humanity who are below the poverty line, or education young girls and boys [education the true equalizer]. My family and I actively try to ensure we are very intentional.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I would like to inspire a movement that would ensure quality food, education and healthcare for every single human being on earth. We have the resources for this, but sadly so far not the will.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Not the strongest, not the most intelligent, but the most responsive to change survives”, Charles Darwin.

This has been so relevant all through my life journey. Every opportunity that has come to me in my professional or private life has come when I have been open and receptive to change. In embracing change, I found opportunities instead of problems.

We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

Bill and Melinda Gates. I know they are in great demand. I have tremendous admiration for Bill, not just because of his success in founding and building Mircrosoft, but more because of who he is as a humble, thoughtful and generous individual who truly feels the need and responsibility to address inequity in the world through fundamentals like health and education. And Melinda, because of the amazing woman she is to have inspired him to be the best that he can be. These are remarkable people whom I would love to meet.

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