Prof Helga Rübsamen-Schaeff, Founder and CEO of AiCuris GmbH in conversation with Professor Dr Anabel Ternès von Hattburg during the Global Female Leaders Virtual Meetup #2: “Leading Change and Making a Difference”.
Right from the start, this interview promised its audience a terrific double bill: Futurologist Anabel Ternès von Hattburg interviewing scientist, virologist and entrepreneurial business leader, Helga Rübsamen-Schaeff – a truly distinguished line-up! Indeed, the interviewer, a prodigious author with over 50 books to her name, is herself an engaged social and digital impact entrepreneur and an expert in sustainability and health management. Our speaker, chemist, virologist and entrepreneurial business leader, Prof Helga Rübsamen-Schaeff, has developed breakthrough medicines against infectious diseases and is a true change-maker, impacting the lives of countless people.
Interestingly, Prof Rübsamen-Schaeff hadn’t considered starting her own business early on, but when her then-employer, Bayer, decided to close down the infectious diseases research division in which she worked, she was horrified at such a valuable resource being lost. Convinced that she had to keep it going on her own, she went out and got €120 million of funding, persuaded her former employers to commit to placing her former colleagues, a 22-strong research team, at her disposal for 18 months, and set up AiCuris with the aim of developing new drugs to fight viral diseases. Quite a mission, but a truly prescient step in the light of how viruses have swept across the world since the company’s founding in 2006, and one that the committed scientist took with fierce determination and courage.
Prof Rübsamen-Schaeff’s comprehensive response underlined her energy and commitment to excellence. She spoke about really enjoying her work, and also about staying curious – both of which are clearly great motivating factors for her. Her broad range of activities across government advisory, business, social and scientific fields also extends to boosting the dissemination of knowledge among the general public and is a shining example of someone whose sheer indomitable drive will accept nothing less than the highest standards.
Realizing that she could not possibly be all things to all people but had to focus on her core abilities was key to the company’s success. Quite early on, Prof Rübsamen-Schaeff brought in an interim manager to take over the day-to-day administrative tasks while she focused on the scientific projects and finding new ways to tackle and solve them. Not only was this a very shrewd decision, it embraced her conviction that one must decide what to concentrate on and what to delegate. Also, right from the start, the culture at AiCuris was very different to that of a large corporation. There were regular informal meetings in which staffers were encouraged to speak out, sharing experiences and supporting one another, feeling free to take more decisions themselves. And, despite the intense atmosphere at the beginning, the staff blossomed and began to have a lot of fun. But leadership is also about listening, hearing what everyone has to say, and then taking decisions and carrying them out efficiently – that is what is expected of leaders, and this is what she delivered.
There were several points brought up in Prof Helga Rübsamen-Schaeff’s response, including the vital necessity of having a vision yet still remaining realistic and cross-checking regularly to ensure that one is still on the right track. And she had some great words of wisdom for anyone starting out: if you follow your intuition and decide what you want to do, then you have a much greater chance of success. “No-one wants to go into an office every day to a job they hate!” She also stressed that power is something women often don’t feel comfortable with, and yet it is an essential factor if one wants to influence and change things successfully. And then there is the question of failure – as she pointed out, things do go wrong, but if one can take hard decisions and know when to pull the plug, as well as understand that failure is an opportunity to learn, then the likelihood is that the outcome will be successful. As she said:
Try it! Do it!
Be clear about what you want. With passion and conviction, you will succeed.
Learn to find your power. If you want to change things, you’re going to need it!
Be flexible. Leadership is a balance between chaos and vision!
Stay curious. “What’s next?” is a great question!