Dr Mira Kassouf is an academic researcher at the Weatherall Institute of Molecular Medicine, part of the Radcliffe Department of Medicine, Medical Sciences Division, at the University of Oxford. In her career as a molecular biologist, Mira studies how specialised DNA sequences regulate genes. This influences our understanding of how organisms develop and what underlies potentially dysfunctional cellular pathways that cause diseases. Ultimately, it reveals fundamental principles underlying the varying lifeforms on the planet.
In 2016, she co-founded the Innovation Forum Oxford, a platform that offers inspiration, education and support for entrepreneurially-minded/curious scientists. Innovation Forum Oxford is part of a global network, the Innovation Forum, with 15 branches located in UK, Europe, Asia and the US. Its core mission is to accelerate development of science-based ideas and technologies into real-life products and solutions for the economic, social and health benefits of the society.
What is your background? What made you decide to become an entrepreneur?
I started my education in science and have continued this pursuit avidly though my postgraduate studies as a molecular biologist. My interest in entrepreneurship is best understood in hindsight; it’s much easier to look back on time invested and interests to see that from a young age I have always been fascinated by the ability of people to grab others’ imagination. By creating a particular product, service, a piece of writing or performance, from the arts to sciences or even public speaking, I’m always fascinated by one’s ability to capture and create value in very crowded and disordered environments. Economics, politics, literature, in addition to science, all interest me, and if you think about it, entrepreneurship offers a point of convergence to all these themes in life.
My attraction to entrepreneurship manifested more concretely when I came to Oxford. Whenever I heard about a short business elective at the Saïd Business School, or other courses on how to turn your scientific idea into a start-up, I would join not quite knowing exactly why or where I was going with it. The turning point was when I applied for a Biotech company job and was offered the position. I felt that innovation was the main attraction to that opportunity and helped me realise that my academic position has that scope but better; so I turned down the offer and refocussed on my academic research.
This was the switch that made me admit to myself that being an academic in a laboratory was not wholly satisfying if I do not reframe my role and harness the opportunities offered in that space. I really needed a more dynamic outlet with a measurable and observable impact rather than exclusively focussing on long 3 to 5 year academic cycles, with no clear impact beyond the purely academic realm. This realisation coincided with the time the team of co-founders for Innovation Forum Oxford formed. It just clicked; the right time, the perfect team, a permissive environment, buffering my absolute passion for basic science and intellectual curiosity– satisfied by the Oxford world-class academic research position I occupy– with an interface to the outside world and more direct influence, satisfying my obsession with creating and capturing value, every day. Over the years in this space, my appreciation of the shared attributes and mindset between a research scientist and an entrepreneur renews my commitment to my work with Innovation Forum; harnessing the scientists’ untapped potential as innovative entrepreneurs or valued players in this space.
What is your definition of entrepreneurship?
It’s difficult to define succinctly because there are so many angles to it. Equally, I don’t want to throw a cliché, or something heard multiple times in other interviews. In a broad sense, entrepreneurship is the art of spotting and acting on an opportunity that creates value. This can manifest at a very wide spectrum; It can be as clear and precise as being driven by a particular expertise, technology, deep know-how in a very specialised space, all the way to a strong nebulous passion for a cause, and anywhere in between!
What would you say are the top 3 skills that needed to be a successful entrepreneur? Why?
You can Google the top required skills for a successful entrepreneur and there are endless lists, often on the ability to create, inspire, focus, persevere, lead, connect, communicate and other similar points. Personally, I believe the qualities revolve around what I distilled from my experience in this space, developed with my team and deliver locally for Innovation Forum Oxford: a program called ACE – an acronym for Awareness, Connectivity and Exchange. I realised in so many ways that these three drivers encapsulate what I would like to support entrepreneurs with so they can propel forward.
Starting with Awareness, as obvious as it may sound, it’s crucial that you know yourself very well: your core values, what makes you tick, what it is that matters to you as a person. These have to align with your entrepreneurial endeavour for it to be sustainable, successful and for you to be able to endure whatever obstacles you confront (I am sure there will be many of them!). Your ability to persevere stems from something much stronger than the idea of being an entrepreneur or having a particularly shiny idea; it has to align with something much more fundamental at your core. Also, being aware of the environment you’re embedded in and having empathy is crucial. I always say you cannot be a successful entrepreneur without being empathetic. It would help if you develop Awareness of where you are positioned in life, in society, in a particular culture or ecosystem to create and capture value, to be a true entrepreneur.
This leads us to Connectivity; when you become aware of your placing and what is driving you, you are more purposefully connecting with others. You realise the value of a network and who to include and why. Otherwise, you end up scattered or drowning if you cannot anchor your pursuits to a clear purpose. This ability to connect and network strategically is at the core of a successful entrepreneur.
The third skill needed is Exchange. This is where I think everything converges; how you use your drive, purpose, passion, all the information, network and capabilities to communicate effectively and manifest your idea in a meaningful, collaborative and value-adding manner.
What is your favourite part of supporting entrepreneurs?
I find what really makes me buzz is when I get approached by people who have heard me speak, read something I have written or were recommended to get in touch. They trust in what I have to offer and I do my best to harness my knowledge, experience, and network to offer help, support and advice. This one-to one interaction also triggers something in my core values. This is what drove me to dedicate a lot of my time to the Innovation Forum; to add value every day. This kind of contact also offers a more measurable impact and is an essential complementary way of contributing meaningfully to the entrepreneurial ecosystem.
What entrepreneurial individual, company or organization inspires you most? Why?
I always go through phases where different people and things inspire me. It reflects the changing phases of my own life and experiences more than the uniqueness, greatness or absolute value of what attracts me.
At this moment in time, I absolutely have to carve out time to listen to the Tim Ferriss Show podcast. Whenever I am doing something that does not require a lot of brainpower, I plug into and let Tim educate me! I truly enjoy the hours I spend listening to him interview top-performing people in the world of business, art, science, economy and all across the board. He is skilled in the art of extracting meaningful information from people in a smooth, original and constructive way. The podcast also opens up my horizons to hundreds of companies, concepts and people to be inspired by. It truly has a snowball effect on learning and growing.
If you had 5 minutes with the above individual/ company/organization, what would you want to ask or discuss?
Where would I start! I think I would be completely star struck and speechless. I would ask him what drove him to do what he did at the beginning of his career? what drives him today? I always wonder how your core values continue to serve you after you receive the highest accolades and attain success beyond the average.
What would you say have been some of your mistakes, failures or lessons learned while supporting entrepreneurs?The willingness to share the glory: In an environment where you have ambitious high-achievers and more individualistic prodders, it’s hard to create a culture of trust and sharing. Entrepreneurship is not a zero-sum game; there can be win-win everywhere. We ought to nurture a culture of generosity: sharing your ideas and successes comfortably.
This is hard but achievable. It can sometimes be overcomplicated in an ecosystem where one worries about the value of their ideas (from an intellectual property perspective) or about dividing who gets what. There is the risk of hoarding the illusion of success and ending up going nowhere. It’s also turning down an investment share of X% of a potential billion to protect 100% of nothing.
This can be overcome by keeping a flow of communication and trust building within the ecosystem. Feeding the illusion of the entrepreneur being a ‘superbeing’ is also counterproductive. Let us move from showcasing a founder to celebrating the team. It’s an ecosystem with a beehive effect, where so many elements/players have to come together for an individual to realise success. Let us balance out the narrative by telling these types of stories. Entrepreneurship is not the story of a genius with a eureka moment. Entrepreneurship is a team sport and has to be nurtured and enjoyed as such!
If a new entrepreneur or startup came to you looking for entrepreneurship resources, where would you send them?The Enterprising Oxford Map is such a rich and comprehensive resource that’s not advertised enough! It flags in a very systematic manner all types of supports and various establishments affiliated to and independent from the University of Oxford that offer support. It is brilliant. This question goes back to the Awareness point I made earlier, part of the ACE attributes for entrepreneurs: if you cannot locate yourself within the ecosystem you operate within, you will not be able to connect yourself properly. Researching from scratch is possible but why not use the available resources that have been mindfully and thoroughly curated. Equally, registering for the Enterprising Oxford newsletter provide regular updates, a finger on the entrepreneurial activity pulse, what’s going on and what activities to attend. It caters to a wide audience, it has something for everyone in the entrepreneurial space.
I would also encourage people to check out the programs and activities Innovation Forum Oxford offers if they are interested in the interface between science and entrepreneurship. We think through every offering we develop to make sure it complements what is already available in the Oxford ecosystem and beyond. At the moment, we are offering the third instalment of the ACE Saturday workshops. This year’s theme is on reframing failures and how to look at entrepreneurial pitfalls from an angle of lessons learnt and growth. This is needed in an environment like Oxford, full of high achievers who sometimes hold themselves back because of fear of failure. If you are intrigued, read the small article I have written on the topic on our IFO webpage to better understand why we chose this angle for our workshops. We have curated poignant topics with top experts, already delivered two sessions and have at least five workshops scheduled for 2021, all virtual, interactive, and accessible to all. We also offer the IMAGINE IF! OXFORD pre-accelerator for health and life science ventures. It feeds beautifully into other incubators and accelerators provided by the University of Oxford and other establishments. We help people at very early stages of their entrepreneurial journey and we ask for no rigid commitments (no structured training or schedule); the support offered is tailored to the needs and availability of those involved. It is a matching exercise between the venture’s needs and the expertise of the IFO mentors. Joining is free of charge and gives entrepreneurs the opportunity to test themselves and their idea in a safe space. Teams develop their idea with our mentors to reach a pitch-ready state. They pitch locally in Oxford for an audience of Oxford innovation stakeholders including investors and enablers. The Oxford IMAGINE IF! winner gets to pitch at the global Innovation Forum event, this year held in Barcelona (2021).
Have you faced any challenges as a woman supporting entrepreneurs? If so, how have you overcome them?
This topic is really hard because obviously there is no denying the statistics, studies and reports that show how disadvantage and bias pervade not only in the entrepreneurial space but also the academic, public, and corporate establishments. For example, professor positions are still low for women (UK less than 25%). You start at a similar gender proportion for academia at the undergraduate level, but as you go up the ranks, it skews.
The challenge is in understanding the core problem because you cannot find sustainable solutions if you do not spend time studying the status quo and defining why and where we see these biases. We know that the talent is equally distributed, so it seems opportunities and choices are not. A very thorny topic that commends a thorough and sensible address.
Personally, I have not faced openly or obviously any biases; in the entrepreneurship space, I observe the unequal gender representation and I hear about some issues from women entrepreneurs. Perhaps I would have more insights if I tread the entrepreneurial path with my own venture. In my academic career, I put my work forward and get the support I need. With Innovation Forum Oxford, I have led the branch for almost four years, connecting with who I want to connect with, doors are open and people are very generous with their support. To be perfectly honest, I sense the obstacles are more within myself as a woman (sometimes with caring responsibilities being one facet) and the way I set my priorities in my personal and professional life. This is again a much deeper aspect of self-imposed (perhaps culturally reinforced) challenges women face everywhere and anywhere. However, the issue is being addressed at various levels and I am very optimistic.
What resources would you recommend for other women interested in doing this?
What is as valuable as upskilling, building confidence and acquiring knowledge is observing and learning from other successful women that inspire you and make you realise it is possible. It’s a shame that when asked who inspires you, the first name that might pop into your head is a man’s name or a male-owned company. I really think shining the light on successful women (because they are out there but not shouting out loud about their success) and championing them is vital because women are often not great at self-promotion.
I think these Wonder Women interviews are such a beautiful answer to the needs of the ecosystem. They highlight who you can go to for inspiration or help (mentorship for example), who you can emulate in a particular scenario; in a nutshell help you envision your own path. For some, seeing is believing, and potentially making it happen!
One way to overcome any challenge is through empowerment and knowledge. IFO’s intervention in the Oxford ecosystem was in response to discussions with women entrepreneurs and experts. We created the WE ACE (Women Entrepreneurs ACE), a transformative program that focusses on two main areas women entrepreneurs needed support with: leadership mindset and negotiation skills. We had our first cohort last June-July 2020 and the raving feedback meant that we have been generously supported and fully funded by the Oxford University Medical Sciences Division (MSD) and the BioEscalator to offer WE ACE 2021, part of the IDEA Women initiative. Check our website for information and updates.
How do you think institutions such as the University of Oxford could better support women entrepreneurs?
This relates to what we have discussed earlier; trying to understand the ecosystem, where the issues reside, identify the needs and develop sustainable solutions. The WE ACE program was instigated by a call from the University of Oxford seeking information and input on support available for women entrepreneurs. When we put forward the WE ACE program, we appreciated how conflicting a gender-exclusive provision can be; part of you doesn’t want to positively discriminate as you could reinforce a divisive culture of us vs them, women vs men, etc. Our core aim is to mutually support one another and champion equal distribution of opportunities.
IFO decided to go ahead with WE ACE after discussing at length with women entrepreneurs and experts who contributed to our events and shared our values. In these discussions, women expressed that they would benefit from certain aspects of the training if it were women-exclusive, as there are details that could be more relevant to their shared and presumed uniquely women experiences. It might be a safer space to discuss certain issues openly, and worked well when complemented with other mixed training. Moving forward, IFO envisages a fluid platform, where some gender-exclusive and mixed encounters would be complementary and synergistic.
A committee of thirty women or so from diverse backgrounds from the University of Oxford was formed to tackle this issue starting with collecting data. The committee continues to work tirelessly and more of its work will continue to unravel in the coming months. Looking from our tiny IFO lens, we can only imagine the challenge of developing interventions when you are a gargantuan like the University of Oxford with national and international standing and touching on universal themes with educational, cultural, economic and political repercussion. It will take caution and time.
Any last words of advice?
I really acknowledge that the more pervasive the tools to learn and connect, the more we are drowning in choice and information. In the process, we are distracted and freaked out by unrealistic curated perfection. I touch on this in my writing on failure (ACE Saturdays; reframing failure). It is unhealthy unhealthy and unattainable to seek this fake perfection, one that people create by selectively posting curated images and moments that can stunt and paralyse the receiver. It’s important to seek resources that nurture a growth mindset; focus on your path, what you are after, and where you are heading so you can select information to support you and help you grow. I always say that innovation and entrepreneurship revolve around staying relevant; to the time, to the system or culture you are embedded in, to your own evolution. You can only stay relevant by nurturing a growth mindset.
I love a quote by Brené Brown: ‘stay in your own lane. Comparison kills creativity and joy’. One of the main ailments of our modern society is comparing and benchmarking ourselves to others and that curated perfection. We must protect ourselves! Focus on your own path and OWN it; it’s a final word of advice not just for entrepreneurs or for women but for life.