Investing in Herself: why the HEC Paris EMBA was the Right Career Move for this Scientist-Turned-Venture Capital Dealmaker

Dr. Karolina Zapadka, EMBA ’23, is a highly experienced biotech strategist in early-stage life science firms, and a company builder in the digital health sphere.

When not helping to deliver treatment and healthcare solutions to patients faster through the commercialization of cutting-edge science, Karolina is at conferences rubbing shoulders with managing directors of Europe’s top life science funds. That, or devoting time to the several non-profit organizations for women in STEM she has co-founded.

Recently, that gaudy track record was taken up a notch.

Just over a year ago, the Cambridge-educated biophysicist began a new phase—as investor at Parkwalk Advisors—one of the UK’s largest growth fund managers.

To help give her new career path a healthy head start, she started an Executive MBA at HEC Paris at roughly the same time. This watershed moment of career transformation was, as she saw it, the perfect time for the fledgling VC investor to make a prudent investment in herself.

At HEC Paris, she would consolidate and sharpen her skillset, acquire a sprawling network, and make deliberate discoveries and insights into who she is as a person and as a leader—and how she could put herself in an environment to thrive.

From PhD to VC to EMBA

As befits the scholar of the mechanics of the microscopic, her career started small. In-demand upon graduation, she spurned lucrative job offers from large pharma because, true to her word— “it felt more natural to be in a small lab.”

She accepted a role at Arecor Therapeutics, a tiny, yet strategically located, biotech startup that has since bloomed into a publicly traded company.

The inclination to lean into what felt natural to her had always served her so well. Still, that fateful decision—driven by the safety of the familiar— nudged the Polish national’s career on to a path veering gently away from her comfort zone.

“It was based in Cambridge, UK, in an area known for building biotech companies.”

She was employee number 6.

“Because the company was so small, I did a lot more than just lab work,” she explains. “I wrote patents, met Pharma clients, and presented to the board, too.”

“I discovered and articulated my strengths and how to consolidate them, as well as which weaknesses I need to work on.”

The company’s board was a who’s-who of influential angel investors in the space. Her curiosity led to decisive conversations about the world of venture capital and angel investment with many of them.

“The chairman of the board of that company became one of my professional mentors,” she says. It was her first taste of world of biotech startups, sparking over a decade of building life science and healthcare companies.

As the trajectory of her career diverged from the familiar confines of a lab, she became wary of reaching a ceiling.

“As I gained more experience working outside a lab,  I started reflecting more on why certain tasks felt more natural and some tasks didn’t,” she explains. Destined for the boardroom, she nevertheless concluded that her future would also involve another trip to the classroom.

“I realized that I might need a bit of formal training.”

She decided pursuing executive management training would help her reach her loftiest goals.

Why HEC Paris?

With the better part of the preceding decade spent at Cambridge, it only makes sense her next adventure began in her proverbial back yard.

“Naturally, I began checking schools in the UK,” she says.

“But I realized that people I knew that did MBA’s here all knew each other already. Plus, the instructors that I would have had at the schools there were instructors I already knew from my professional circles.”

No good, then. One of her priorities was branching out from her valuable, but insular, professional circle.

“I wanted to expand my network. Even the angel investors and VC’s I knew before, were all scientists, so their personalities were all similar to mine,” she explains. “My network was very scientific, so a little bit one-dimensional.”

She continued her search via a process of elimination.

The distance of US-based programs was prohibitive. She wasn’t going to consider an online program, either.

“At the end of the day, you want to build real relationships with your classmates,” she explains, voicing a priority frequently echoed by candidates of the HEC Paris EMBA program.

“For that reason, an in-person program was necessary.”

Meanwhile, the myriad hats she wears at work made it impossible to take enough time off to pursue a full-time degree.

HEC Paris EMBA Karolina Zapadka

The HEC Paris EMBA emerged as her top choice.

“Not only is it a top, top school,” she says of her preference, “but the network is vastly different from anywhere else I was considering.”

Case in point: the September 2021 intake she would join numbers some 54 participants from 25 countries, boasting an array of backgrounds, cultures, and industry experts.

Using the EMBA to solve challenges at work

She wasn’t just pursuing an EMBA for peripheral benefits like a broadened and bolstered network, she explains. The seasoned company builder also had her eye on an impactful final deliverable.

“When I was weighing my options, I heard about the HEC Paris EMBA’s Capstone Project, which offered me the opportunity to carry out an in-depth project that would be consequential for my job as part of the degree. That was a determining factor.”

As a VC investor in an esoteric field, Karolina’s interest in a finance Capstone represents a nuanced understanding of the program’s eminently adaptable value add proposition.

“I invest in early-stage biotech,” she explains, “a totally different scope from, for example, the process of going through an IPO.”

Shortly after attending one of the program’s many informational webinars and subsequently connecting with alumni to discuss practical questions, she chose HEC Paris. For her, the cherry on top was woven into the values of the school from the ground-up.

“I really appreciated the values of the school, especially with how strongly HEC Paris supports women in business.”

The HEC Paris network: leadership skills and global connections

Scheduled to graduate in June with the rest of the HEC Paris Class of 2023, Karolina’s experience has been illuminating.

As the focal point of a high-performance venture capital team, she needs to exhibit both a fine-tuned mastery of critical domains and the ability to effectively lead multidisciplinary projects. With that in mind, one of the program highlights for her has been how she’s been able to pinpoint and express a distinct leadership style.

“It was various aspects that made me think about myself as a person and as a leader, and what kind of leadership style I want to use and that works for me,” she explains.

“We had a workshop on how innovative you are in operations. I found that I’m very innovative and entrepreneurial, but that I can struggle without the right people around me. I discovered and articulated my strengths and how to consolidate them, as well as which weaknesses I need to work on.”

“My classmates are part of companies across industries with global reach. I can lean on them when I’m dealing with the most complex challenges, or even something as simple as finding realistic salary expectations for a market I’m not personally familiar with.”

The group of professionals that make up her tight-night cohort of fellow EMBA students has also become a fixture of her professional life.

“Sitting on the board of a companies, I make different strategic decisions: what needs to be prioritized, how to fill the right gaps, and so on. It’s good to know that my HEC network is always willing to support me and that I can call HEC Paris classmates for advice.”

“My classmates are part of companies across industries with global reach. I can lean on them when I’m dealing with the most complex challenges, or even something as simple as dealing with salary expectations in a market I’m not personally familiar with.”

The HEC Paris EMBA: a transformative experience

In her mind, the EMBA program has already been transformative in many different respects. Most noticeably for her, though, has been the boost in confidence she feels in her role.

“Before I joined, I was part of the same group of people for years. Along with a step back, the EMBA program has given me clarity,” she explains about her all-but-tangible uptick in gravitas.

“I never really realized how strong my background was. Now I do. Adding my HEC Paris EMBA experience has given me a LOT of confidence at work.

Before, I knew who I wanted to become. Now, I can confidently say: ‘this is it, guys. I’ve made it as an investor.’”

More CEOs of Fortune Global 500 companies have graduated from HEC Paris than any other university in Europe. Nearly 4,000 graduates are currently CEOs, CFOs, or have founded their own companies. The Executive MBA at HEC Paris perennially ranks among the best in the world; click here to learn more.

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