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Pharmpreneur of the week Mohamed Elsabakhawi: "...start before you are ready!"

The nature of entrepreneurship means that your days are never routine. Some days may be filled with excitement while others are filled with setbacks. A concept I like to remind myself of is “equanimity,” which is a Mental Calmness, composure and evenness of temper. It is important to remember that nothing is permanent. Building a successful business is a marathon, not a sprint.
Mohammed E


Education: BSc, Faculty of Pharmaceutical Sciences, the University of British Columbia in 2005

Current role: Pharmacist / Owner Shoppers Drug Mart

What excites you about being an entrepreneur?   

There is so much excitement that comes with being an entrepreneur. It is the journey. Seeing your vision coming to life. The road to achieving this vision is full of challenges and obstacles. This is when you need your mental toughness to kick in to challenge the process and have a plan to address the obstacles. Looking back after overcoming the challenges and learning from the mistakes is how we continue to learn to be successful leaders. To be honest, the most exciting part of being an entrepreneur is developing an eye to identify talent and create future leaders. Inspiring your team and creating a culture that supports and fosters growth is the secret sauce to success. 

How has your entrepreneurial career evolved since your graduation?   

I graduated from the Faculty of Pharmaceutical Sciences at the University of British Columbia in 2005. I worked as a full-time/relief pharmacist for five years, which allowed me to gain the tremendous experience that prepared me to run my own stores in the future. A key point in my journey as an entrepreneur was becoming comfortable with being uncomfortable. This involved me leaving my full-time position in pursuit of a mentor that would challenge me to develop new skills. In 2010I became the pharmacy manager under Jay Taylor, who taught me a lot about the business aspect of pharmacy. Jay believed in me and supported meand I will be forever grateful for the opportunity he gave me.

This step led to an exciting moment in 2011 when I became a Shoppers Drug Mart franchise owner and acquired my first store in Mississauga. I had many ideas that I wanted to implement. I learned so much in the three years before receiving my second store in 2014. As a multi-store owner, I had to adjust my management style. I learned how to delegate efficiently.  In 2016, I added my third store, which was a huge challenge, being a 24-hour location with a large front shop and cosmetic volume. In the last 12 years, I operated six locations and currently own and operate four Shoppers Drug Mart locations in Mississauga and Etobicoke serving a diverse population base. I became a Certified Diabetes Educator in 2012, which completely changed the way I conduct medication reviews. As a pharmacist and an entrepreneur, we commit to lifelong learning and self-improvement. In 2014, I was elected by fellow Shoppers Drug Mart owners in the Mississauga area as the Franchisee's Peers Representative. In addition, I was invited to sit on the Board of the Practice Advisory Committee for the Pharmacy Technician Program at Sheridan College. The Committee gives recommendations on course structure and content as well as guidance on admission criteria. In 2017, I was named Shoppers Drug Mart Associate of the Year for GTA South.

What was the key driving force to become an entrepreneur?   

My dad has had a huge influence on me. He had to work hard to get his licence as a pharmacist and was able to pass all the exams in 1999. He was a practising pharmacist with Loblaws in Uxbridge where I saw his tremendous and positive impact on the lives of his patients first-hand. It was inspiring to work with my dad as a pharmacy assistant back in 2001. I remember one situation that was very powerful. After my father caught a drug-drug interaction, the patient approached me to say that we needed more pharmacists like my father and that I would be an amazing pharmacist one day. This inspired me to not only become a pharmacist, but to build a team that has a positive impact on the patients we care for. Awards and prestige are great, but the way you treat others is your legacy. It is what people remember about you long after you have left the room.

How do you define success?   

Success can be measured in many ways. Setting a goal and achieving it is success. Watching those around you grow is success. Growth in profits is success. Having a positive influence on those around you is success. Success is not just about you; it is an encompassing concept that involves everyone around you. 

Launching Point of Care Testing Pilot (POCT) during the busiest time in the history of our profession in August 2021 was a HUGE success that I am proud of! In 2021, our team was juggling an unprecedented demand for rapid antigen testing, symptomatic PCR testing, and Covid-19 vaccines. Success to me is the ability to lead and support my team to help our patients and community. POCT is a solution to bridge the gap in access to healthcare. Many of our patients were not getting their lipids and A1C checked regularly, which was negatively affecting their health and quality of life. The implementation of POCT/HealthTab has allowed our patients to be informed on their health status. In addition, POCT has allowed us as pharmacists to make data-driven decisions that have benefited our patients' lives. 

Another measure of success is the expansion of leadership from my own team. In the past three years, five of my pharmacy managers have been promoted to associate-owners and are operating 12 locations across the GTA. In addition, three of my assistant front store managers became front store managers. It is fulfilling to watch new leaders emerge championing the same vision. 

Finally, successful businesses need to be financially viable and sustainable. I like the analogy between red blood cells and business profits. A healthy body cannot live without healthy red blood cells. Similarly, a financially viable business cannot live without healthy profits. Although we need red blood cells to live, we don't live for them. The same thing applies for our business. We need profits to live, but optimal businesses don't live for the profits. They live for a higher purpose and simply use those profits to work towards the ultimate goal of serving and improving the community.

As a successful entrepreneur, what continues to drive you?   

The biggest driving factor is the process of self-awareness and how it is linked to being a great leader. In order to lead your team, you need to be able to lead yourself. What continues to drive me is the process of: 

1.     Modelling the way 

2.     Inspiring those around you 

3.     Challenging the process 

4.     Empowering your team 

5.     Encouraging the heart 

The first step is to model the way and embody the values you strive to promote so that those around you can follow suit. Actions speak louder than words. I like the saying that “What you do speaks so loudly that people can't hear what you are saying.” The second step is to breathe life into your vision to inspire your team to believe they are part of something great. The third step is to embrace challenges by creating a strategy with small wins in pursuit of the big vision. The fourth step is to empower those around you and enable them to act, which ultimately leads to the development and growth of leaders within your team. The final step, and sometimes the one I start with, is to encourage the heart. We do what you love to do, passionately, enthusiastically, and energetically. As leaders we are constantly trying to give our best to the world. This process allows me to learn every day about how to be a more effective leader in all aspects.   

What is the biggest challenge to being an entrepreneur?   

I think the biggest challenge to being an entrepreneur is striking “The Balance.” The balance between being highly visionary and highly practical. The balance between meeting work and life obligations. The balance between providing quality pharmaceutical care and providing a financially viable business model. 

Entrepreneurs are usually dreamers. Aiming to have some balance between being highly visionary and highly practical is crucial. According to John Maxwell's book, The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, “Great leaders always seem to embody two seemingly disparate qualities; they are both highly visionary and highly practical. Their vision enables them to see beyond the immediate. They can envision what is coming and what must be done.” Our mission provides purpose answering the question “Why.” Our vision provides a picture of the “What.” Our strategy provides a plan, answering the question “How.” As leaders we know that vision without actions achieves nothing. But you have control over your actions, therefore you can constantly adjust and redirect them toward your vision.  

Another challenge is how we respond to stressful situations. The nature of entrepreneurship means that your days are never routine. Some days may be filled with excitement while others are filled with setbacks. A concept I like to remind myself of is “equanimity,” which is a Mental Calmness, composure and evenness of temper. It is important to remember that nothing is permanent. Building a successful business is a marathon, not a sprint.  

How do you manage work/life balance?   

This is the million-dollar question. It is not easy to strike that balance. Being an entrepreneur is demanding. As business leaders we need to put 100% of our efforts towards our goals. We need to provide guidance and support to our teams which can take a toll on our family life. However, it is not about working all the time. It is about approaching our entire life with a fierce intensity that values our precious time and energy. Many people make the mistake assuming that if you believe in hustle, you can't ever take a step back. That is too narrow of a definition. Hustle means adjusting to business opportunities as they come and adjusting to life as it changes. It is about quality vs quantity. I still struggle with achieving this balance but I try my best every day. Some days I succeed and other days I learn from my mistakes.  

What books/resources do you recommend for every entrepreneur to check out?   

The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Steven Covey is a must read for every entrepreneur.  

The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership by John C. Maxwell is an amazing guide to business leaders.   

What advice would you give to colleagues who want to become entrepreneurs?   

Two things: 

First: start before you are ready! Yes, that is right. You will never be ready. Sometimes leaders take too long to start a project by ensuring everything is addressed. Do not get me wrong, we must do our due diligence to make sure we know what we are getting ourselves into. However, we will never be 100% ready before we embark on a project. As pharmacists, we have zero tolerance for errors or mistakes. This absolutely applies when we are dispensing. However, as entrepreneurs, we need to take risks. Realistically, you will never be able to address every challenge until you start; theory is very different to practice. Allow yourself and your teams to make small mistakes when launching a new pilot, continue to optimize your process, create momentum, and celebrate the small wins.   

Second: shift away from problem-centric thinking and move towards RSF Relentless Solution-Focused thinking. As leaders we will face many problems and obstacles. Allow yourself to be in the problem for 60 seconds. Within 60 seconds shift to solution mode. What can you do to improve the situation a bit? Not solve the entire problem. Just take the first step. It might be as simple as taking a deep breath or going for a walk. From there you can implement solutions and readjust them if necessary (remember as entrepreneurs we start before we are ready!). Approaching any issue in this way helps to ensure that problems are kept to size and just seen as a hiccup on the road instead of a fatal crash. 


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