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Sarah Al-Hajali EMBAD2016 is at the vanguard of biotechnology. The CEO and co-founder of Dubai-based stem-cell banking pioneer CellSave Arabia has become adept at pushing the boundaries when it comes to change and innovation – especially in the Middle East, where stem cell transplantation is still a very new concept.
“Stem-cell therapy “Stem-cell therapy is the future of medicine, but it’s in its infancy. In the Arab world you have a real challenge because it’s still largely an unknown thing. The irony is that there’s a huge opportunity to do real good with stem-cell research in this region because of the prevalence of consanguinity issues and hereditary, genetic disorders.”
Al-Hajali and her partners started the company in 2006. It is the ﬁrst organisation of its kind in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). “It was really diﬃcult to get investment and to resolve licensing issues initially,” she says. “On the one hand, we had to work closely with government to bring them onside with regulation. On the other hand, we had our work cut out for us building awareness and getting buy-in from families.”
Key to building awareness, she says, is education. For that reason, she also recently opened MENA’s ﬁrst education centre – the Centre of Excellence in Stem Cell Education – to provide unbiased information to the public to help them make choices.
Education is critical to progress, she says. She’s referring to her own experience, too. “I’m a research scientist by training, so although it was my project to found the company, I recognised that starting up in an unknown environment and driving a new market would be highly risky. My investor partners and I took the decision to appoint an experienced CEO to manage the company initially, while I got up to speed with the strategic and ﬁnancial implications of running a business. It was a steep learning curve.”
‘I want to get the message out there loud and clear that there’s nothing inherently “male” about engineering’
A learning curve that delivered her to London Business School’s Executive MBA in 2014: “I went to LBS to bridge the gaps in my ﬁnance and management skills, but I got far more out of the experience than I had bargained for. My MBA helped me develop a degree of creativity and critical thinking in my problem-solving. Most importantly, I developed the conﬁdence and agility to lead my company in what I knew to be an ever-changing landscape.”
Under her leadership, CellSave Arabia has grown in recognition as a centre of excellence in stem-cell technology and remains the only private facility in the region licensed to collect, process, test and cryogenically store stem cells, samples of which have been released to create life-saving medical transplants.
Delivering and sustaining this kind of deep impact means maintaining a joint sense of passion and purpose, she says. Touching human lives is a motivation that keeps her grounded and inspired to strive for better solutions, better answers. Then there’s an openness to change and to technological innovation that is key to the success of her company and her leadership.
“I’m a scientist, a biotechnologist and a chemical engineer by education, and a businessperson by experience. I believe that, in my industry, you need to be all of those things to see the whole picture and you need to really preserve your curiosity, your appetite for the new and a capacity for risk-taking.
“Engineers and scientists are making some of the biggest advances in our society. They’re making medical breakthroughs, inventing some of the technologies that are changing our lives. It’s an enormously exciting space, with the potential to transform the human experience.”
“Engineers and scientists are making some of the biggest advances in our society. It’s an enormously exciting space, with the potential to transform the human experience.”
That said, there’s still room for improvement. Engineering remains very much a “boys’ club” and women account for less than 15% of the professional talent. The lack of women in STEM education and careers reﬂects poorly on these professions, hampering diversity of perspective and input and leading to less-than-optimal results and impact. And it’s an issue that touches the Middle East in particular:
“Opportunities are increasing for women, but it’s been slow. Until recently in countries like Saudi Arabia, women were limited to working in healthcare, so you have a situation where half of the population is eﬀectively paralysed professionally. Things are deﬁnitely improving with recent changes and I welcome that, but I do believe as a woman and a leader that we have a real responsibility to help women advance, especially in male-dominated ﬁelds.”
In 2016 Al-Hajali joined investment ﬁrm Myrisoph Capital as Partner and VP Strategy, Marketing. Founded by LBS graduates, the ﬁrm invests in projects with the potential to impact communities and human lives in the long term. She focuses on the health sector and takes a particular interest in ventures led by women.
“It’s been my long-standing ambition to work more with female entrepreneurs in my sector and within this region and to play my part in supporting women and helping to build a pipeline of role models in STEM. I want to get the message out there loud and clear that there’s nothing inherently ‘male’ about engineering.”
Women should never doubt themselves in their ﬁeld, says Al-Hajali. Nor should they believe that the only route to success is through compromise or corporate burnout.
Her own trajectory has been undergirded by a balance between the personal and professional – and a refusal to sacriﬁce one for the other: “I would urge other women to strive for that kind of balance. And in their careers to be ceaselessly curious and on the lookout for novel ways of solving old problems, capturing knowledge wherever and whenever it comes, and really thinking about what success means. What society deems successful, and the routes to becoming successful, might not be the same for every individual. My advice is to ﬁnd your own equation.”