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EXIST INSIGHT – An interview with Sawsan Khuri

By June 9, 2022EXIST, Insight

Collaborative Capacities - Uniquely designed. Grounded in science and research.

Collaborative Capacities are innovation specialists and professional facilitators. Driven by creating synergies between people and ideas in order to make good things happen, our team is known for energising, enlightening and enabling businesses and research organisations to co-create solutions for even the most complex challenges.

The inspiration behind this business was that after 20+ years of doing this work within large organisations and loving it, a family relocation allowed me to set up my own enterprise in this space.

Volt Entrepreneurs - Powering entrepreneurship in young people.

We believe that adopting an entrepreneurial mindset early is life changing, and our framework supports and mentors young people to use their ideas to improve the world around them, it helps them learn to be resilient, choose their own lifestyle, surrounds them with like-minded dynamic people and allows them to become financially independent.

We created Volt Entrepreneurs to offer that learning in an interesting, experiential way, and to power that confidence and solution-focused thinking in young people.

When did your interest in STEMM start?

When I entered secondary school, I developed a passion for languages and had expected to go into a career in the humanities. However, thanks to an amazing biology teacher when I was 13, I became completely fascinated by genetics and knew that I actually wanted to become a scientist. I still love languages, but I love science more.

What’s your role now and how have they differed over the years?

The journey from the lab bench to today went via intellectual detours in data science, education and outreach, and geographic detours that took me from the UK to Hawaii, Miami, Abu Dhabi and back following my husband’s career. I am grateful for having completed my PhD reasonably early at the age of 24, and for that love of language and science which together allowed me to figure out useful roles for myself in communication and leadership everywhere we landed.

My life mission is to create synergies between people and their ideas, and to empower the young. I am the founding director of Collaborative Capacities, innovation specialists and professional facilitators, and the founding co-director of Volt Entrepreneurs, powering entrepreneurship in young people. Both are grounded in science and rely on communication. My scientific background allows me to have a whole system perspective and be methodical and factual when working with clients and young people. My experience in data science helps clients understand how they might use the data they collect to further their business interests, while my unusual career journey helps young people explore broader horizons for their talents. Alongside this, I teach genetics at the University of Exeter’s Medical Sciences programme, and I am a wife and a mum and have learned not to underestimate that role mixed in with all the professional hats I wear.

Tell us about Collaborative Capabilities and your inspiration behind the business?

The inspiration behind everything I do is to leave a positive lasting legacy – be that a culture change transformation in a large organisation such as the University of Miami, or smaller steps that enable local SMEs and young people to flourish.

I have always wanted to start my own business, and the return to the UK in 2016 was an opportunity to regroup and figure out what I wanted to be when I grew up. I saw a career coach who helped me to recognise that the common thread in my professional life was facilitation. I can bring people together over a common goal or over seemingly unconnected concepts, and allow solutions, synergies and action points to emerge from structured, open conversation. Through reflecting back on my happiest professional moments, it became clear that this is something I truly love doing, and as we all know, the more you enjoy your work, the better you are at it.

What’s the achievement you are most proud of to date?

The ability to juggle tasks and responsibilities which lead to success in two business ventures, a senior academic certification (SFHEA) and a sensible family life. Oh, and being featured in the Supercool Scientists Colouring Book (McSorely, 2017)!


And what’s been the biggest challenge?

Starting not one but two businesses with no professional network or history in the UK so soon after returning home from 16 years in the US. The network and the credibility had to be built simultaneously from scratch, with a name like mine, in Exeter. I’m very grateful for where I find myself today.

What’s the vision for the business in the next 12 months?

For Collaborative Capacities to gain more scale-up business clients and support them in their next innovation phase and/or to embed innovation into their business strategy.

For Volt Entrepreneurs to help young people take on entrepreneurship and allow it to make a tangible difference to their life and their prospects.


How can the regional business community support you?

Networking is everything. People work with people they know or people they are referred to by people they know. The support of a regional business community is invaluable in connecting businesses with clients, and providing opportunities for things like public speaking, panel discussions or delivering workshops at conferences.

What does your average day look like?

This question made me laugh out loud. Email, meetings, or work, choose two and assign at random allocations throughout the day. That’s probably my average day, except when I’m delivering an intervention. When I’m delivering, I’m having fun, and I love pulling it all together afterwards into an action plan for next steps. My average day also includes walking the dog at some point in the afternoon and staring out the window wondering whether I should be doing some yoga practice.


What do you wish other people knew about your work?

People like to put other people into boxes that they are familiar with, and they have a problem with me and my work because it doesn’t fit neatly into their preconceived categories. Once they hear about my multi-dimensional existence, they say “jack of all trades” but they forget that the whole of that saying goes like this: “A jack of all trades and a master of none, is oftentimes better than a master of one.” My non-linear, blended career path has provided me with a richness of experience and depth of insight that are the root of my success as an innovation specialist and professional facilitator.

Why and how would you encourage young people to consider STEMM careers?

I encourage young people to explore their passions, things they really care about, and use them to fulfil their potential. All too often our relationship with STEMM as young people is influenced, as mine was, by teachers at secondary schools. Sadly not all secondary school teachers are equal in their ability to motivate and inspire young people. In addition, the linearity with which STEMM topics are taught seems to be at odds with the complexity and interconnectedness of the challenges in the world around us and the creativity which is actually very much needed to solve them. If we were to integrate more of the arts into tech and science (such as through STEAMM) and motivate young people with an entrepreneurial mindset to be confident in their problem solving abilities, then we might capture many more young people into STEMM careers.


How does your work connect Exeter nationally / globally?

I love the fact that I am based in Devon and my work has a national and global reach. Over the past two years Collaborative Capacities has delivered to public, private and third sector clients all over the UK, and in the US, India and a global food-related NGO based in the Philippines. Volt Entrepreneurs Limited has just launched its first online product, a purely digital offering that is relevant and available to the global market.

Want to read more? Take a look at previous EXIST INSIGHT articles here >>>