“We strongly feel that we have a responsibility towards rare and genetic disease patients and their families in the Middle East region,” says Karim Smaira. He is the Co-founder and CEO of Genpharm and has worked in several geographies and served in different sales, marketing and management functions. Karim’s entire career has been focused on international operations and emerging markets. He left the corporate world and co-founded Genpharm in 2012. Since then he has been serving as its CEO.

In an interview with Insights Success, Karim shares his experiences, challenges, and advises emerging business leaders to become more resilient, motivated and focused.

Below are the highlights of the interview:

How do you diversify your organization’s healthcare offerings to entice the target audience?

We are a very focused organization with a clear vision and an aspirational purpose. We strongly feel that we have a responsibility towards rare and genetic disease patients and their families in the Middle East region. Access to Orphan drugs has always been complicated due to lack of overall awareness for many of these diseases, diagnostic challenges and reimbursement issues due to the high costs of drugs in this sector. We have built our vision on tackling these challenges through “Bringing Cures to MENA Patients”. We diversify our offering by trying to overcome them by bringing breakthrough treatments and innovative solutions to as many of these rare diseases as we can. We always try to walk the talk and we are currently the first and only company that has launched gene therapy treatments in the region.

As a director and business leader, describe the challenges you are having during the pandemic COVID-19 and what initiatives are you taking to mitigate them.

The proportion of the outbreak and the impact of Covid-19 took everyone by surprise. This is a unique challenge. We had to adjust quickly to integrate the “new normal” of working remotely into our daily operations. Like for many, it accelerated our adoption of digitalization. We have for example conducted many webinars and on-line CME conferences, reaching in fact significantly more physicians than we would have in a physical conference, and we will continue to do so.

We are a regional organisation with staff in many geographies. Our agility and lean structure allowed us to adapt swiftly, to be in sync with measures taken by different governments. We also introduced safety measures to ensure the safety of our employees working in the office. Like with every crisis, regular communication to and with employees in both a group and/or in individual setting is critical and we have on many occasions as we can reassured and engaged with them. We are very proud to be one of the few companies that have neither reduced salaries nor let go employees; in fact we have hired 3 additional colleagues during this crisis.

What people, what books, what life factors have influenced and impacted you?

I have been fortunate enough to cross paths with many inspiring people and leaders throughout the years. Nevertheless, I believe the childhood years and the civic values embedded during your upbringing tend to guide you throughout your life. At the risk of sounding cliché, I am convinced that traits like honesty, respect, compassion, standing for your principles and owning your actions, are learnt during these early years. Your life experiences just add onto these building blocks. I have lived in 5 different countries, learning languages and adopting cultures along the way. This has been one of the most determining factors for me and has taught me the ability to work and communicate globally.

I am a passionate reader of geopolitics, history, biographies, management and leadership books. My inspiration has come as much from visionary business leaders, philanthropists, professional athletes and ordinary people that have taken inspiring initiatives. It would be extremely difficult and unjust to list a couple of book titles or names.

As a keynote business leader, what are some of the vital attributes that every leader should possess?

Leadership and leadership styles are really contextual. A great leader is someone who can recognise the specificity of each situation or interaction and adjust to the actual context. I do believe though that empathy, fairness, positivity and leading by example are attributes that build credibility and engages people.

How do you maintain balance between your professional & personal life?

As an entrepreneur this balance is mostly fictional, particularly in the first 3 years of the venture. As the business is proven sustainable as well as successful and trust is built with employees that balance becomes attainable. I have now become better at making time for a family trip, exercising regularly and satisfying some hobbies and recently earning a boating license.

How do you sustain your creative leadership spirit in this crucial time?

The current crisis has brought a lot of reflection. It forced me to do a prioritization exercise and to focus on critical matters in both business and life. I have enrolled in a couple of online leadership and scientific courses to refresh some of the knowledge and connect with other executives.

What are your future endeavors/objectives and where do you see yourself in the near future?

My priority is to continue expanding and growing the business both geographically and organically. We have established ourselves as the rare disease and gene therapy experts. We need to leverage and build on this to make sure that patients in the Middle East are not left out of the scientific and therapeutic benefits provided by these innovations. We expect several breakthroughs in the near future and we want to be positioned as the natural partner in the region.

What advice would you like to give to the emerging business leaders/entrepreneurs?

Entrepreneurship is not for everyone. If you decide to embark on an entrepreneurial venture don’t expect things to go according to your initial plan. You will always have doubters. More people will be cheering for you to fail than to succeed. Stick to your gut feeling and use criticism as a motivation and a driving force. Make sure you celebrate every little win! Nevertheless, know when it is time to pull the plug on your idea or business model. An entrepreneur is by definition a risk-taker. It is important to remember that not trying is worse than failing!

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