Awa Diagne
Awa Diagne found an EMBA that offered a bridge between business and technology © Djamila Grossman

I do not like routines, status quo or conventions — that’s not my thing. As soon as I feel I have discovered everything there is for me to discover in one place, I want to go on to the next thing.

I was born and grew up in Senegal. In my late teens, my family moved to Canada, so I have dual citizenship, and I might soon have a third one here in Switzerland, where I work as a digital transformation lead for EMEA at Roche, run biotechnology start-up Nemosia and participate in an executive MBA programme called EMBA X, run jointly between the University of St Gallen and ETH Zurich.

It is all about prioritisation, self-management, and correctly identifying where I can add value. If I cannot add value, I delegate — and, of course, [there is] a lot of multitasking.

Aside from Africa, North America and Europe, I also lived in Asia, working for Tata in Bangalore. Then I went back to Canada and eventually joined the Canadian National Railway Company (CN), one of the largest transportation and logistics companies in North America. Whenever they made an acquisition or merger, I would travel to the new company and help to harmonise the systems. I have basically been living in hotels for the past 15 years or so of my life, but now I’m, like: “OK, it’s time to settle.”

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I always knew I wanted to go to business school at some point, but I never found the right time to have a break in my career. I was also struggling to find the right programme. I really wanted an experience that was not purely business, but offered a bridge to technology, as my background was computer engineering.

Another reason that the EMBA X programme was right for me was the relatively high average age of the participants, because I was looking for that meaningful exchange and networking with my fellow students. The course is 18 months long and we have classes on Fridays, with on-site sessions for a week or two every other month.

What I really like about our cohort is that it is so diverse. We are from so many different industries, and I constantly encounter perspectives that I had not considered before. It is very rich and challenging — we actually challenge our professors quite a bit as well. Sometimes, we have extra sessions just to conclude debates and dive deeper into topics. The course has an emphasis on sustainability aspects, which is also something I really liked. We have even worked with a couple of non-governmental organisations during the programme, which I did not expect going into it.

My start-up, Nemosia, is a spin-off from research by two graduates from ETH, whom I met before I started this EMBA. We are developing molecular imaging solutions for early detection and monitoring of neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s. We envision that, in the next 10 years, brain scans will be part of the general public’s health check-up routine, even if there are no visible symptoms.

We have raised about €700,000, mainly from academic grants and start-up competitions, and are preparing for series A [fundraising] early next year.

That is part of the reason I wanted to go to business school in Switzerland and not in North America — I want to help develop my network here. I actually met the two co-founders of my start-up at an entrepreneurship class at ETH. We have complementary skills — I bring the business aspect and they bring the research and development part.

To me, the most useful aspects of the EMBA X have been the courses on corporate finance, energy management and organisational change — they have really helped me in conversations with investors.

I will finish the programme in July 2023, by which time, on the start-up side, I hope we will be kicking off our phase 1 clinical trials.

On the corporate side, at Roche, I will be finishing my first year deploying our new business transformation programme. Then, of course, I am also asking myself, “How can I translate what I am learning to my team at Roche?” I feel part of this knowledge translation is already happening.

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