Welcome to the latest installment of Q&A, our regular series of one-to-ones with some of Greater Vancouver's leading business figures.
Our subject this week is Abi Coman-Walker, Chief Operating Officer, Acuitas Therapeutics, Inc.
What was your first job?
My first job was as a waitress. I worked in a business hotel to help support myself while I was at university. I spent a lot of time serving drinks and food to business travellers back then. Funnily enough, several years later – when I was in my first full-time position with PricewaterhouseCoopers (PWC), a global consulting firm – I ended up being back at that hotel and this time, I was one of those businesspeople staying there.
What inspires you?
For me, it's all about creating opportunity for others. The world is an interesting place. I think that growing up in a single-parent family with my mom, I learned some big lessons early on. My mom didn't go to university until I was two or three years old – and once she graduated, she spent her life trying to make the world a better place for others.
She worked with the Department for International Development. She used her entire career – and her entire life – working to eliminate poverty and to help provide women in underdeveloped countries with rights and a voice. She showed me how important it is to help lift others up, to give them an opportunity, and to allow them to step into their abilities and strength. I am certainly not perfect in how I do this, but it is what I work towards every day. It is what inspires me.
I think that for anyone who can, we have a moral responsibility to support others – to create opportunity, whether that is for women in business or other areas. I think that it is on us to do something so that the world is a slightly better place because you took action.
How do you balance work and maintaining a personal life?
I do think that finding some semblance of balance comes with time and confidence in who you are professionally. In the early stages of your career, you are so concerned about proving yourself that it can be challenging to find any kind of work/life balance.
Some of it is simple – I try not to work on weekends. That's family time. It doesn't always happen; sometimes I need to send a couple of emails or do a bit of work. The other side of that is not to seek unrealistic goals. Some weeks, you get it right and some weeks, you just don't. We have to accept life for what it is, in whatever week we are in.
What is the biggest challenge facing Greater Vancouver?
I think that the cost of housing and the wealth gap in Greater Vancouver is a huge issue. It makes for pretty big challenges in trying to recruit new team members. Affordable housing is impossible in Greater Vancouver – more so for someone just starting out in their career and shocking for those who might have lived in cities that don't cost as much.
The cost of living here is unsustainable, and that has far-reaching consequences when it comes to finding good people to hire and in creating communities. You don't want homes sitting empty because the people who own them aren't here very often. You want people – individuals, couples, families – in the homes. You need people who shop in the area and who create a community.
What do you like most about doing business in Greater Vancouver?
Greater Vancouver is an easy place to do business. It's more down-to-earth than some cities I have worked in – and there seems to be a culture of connection and engagement. If there is a professional connection that you want to make, you can pretty much find someone to introduce you to. It's six degrees of separation kind of place.
What is your most prized possession and why?
I don't really have any prized possessions. I have spent my entire adult life living in different cities for my career. Everything I have is designed to fit into a suitcase.
Where do you see untapped potential in Greater Vancouver?
I think that this goes back to the cost of living. We have this great opportunity to continue to build out an exceptional, best-in-class biotech sector here. However, how do you do that when everything – from the lab to real estate – costs so much? It makes it cost-prohibitive to expand and grow in the downtown core.
There is a great deal of biotech talent here – and we want to keep it here and grow this sector. To do that, something has to be done about the cost of living.
What is the most important lesson, business or otherwise, life has taught you?
The biggest lesson for me – in a professional sense that spills into my whole life – is that it's all about who you work for. You can have an amazing job, but if your boss is unreasonable, inconsiderate or… well, a jerk – it rolls into everything. If you have a great boss – like the President & CEO, Dr. Thomas Madden at Acuitas – then everything flows from there.
Find a good boss and you will feel positive, rewarded and challenged in a good way. It matters – a lot.
What keeps you awake at night?
Conspiracy theorists and the damage that they do through social media. As an organization involved in COVID-19 mRNA vaccines, we have experienced attacks on truth, facts and science – and we should all be concerned about this.
Unfounded attacks on Acuitas from conspiracy theorists who aren't interested in facts or the truth, means that the safety and security of my colleagues and the damage that these out-and-out lies have done to us as an organization is something everyone on the senior team worries about.
What do you think makes a great leader?
Compassion. Empathy. Energy. Enthusiasm. Honesty. Authenticity. These are foundational values that will always be found in a good leader. A good leader can be themselves instead of trying to pretend that they are something they aren't. They will support their team and have their backs. They care.
Where is your favourite place in Vancouver?
Jericho beach – I love it. I go there with my family, and I paddleboard and swim there. It is just a magical place. I still get excited when I see seals.
What do you think Greater Vancouver needs more of?
I think that more access to culture would be a good thing. There are some great art galleries and museums here – and I am grateful for them, but it would also be fabulous to have more. More visiting exhibits and more access for students, seniors and others who might not be able to afford to go.
Who has helped you most in your career?
I have had a long line of mentors who have appeared at various points in my life, at different times and have pointed me in the right direction. And I am so grateful for all of them. Of course, at the top of that list is my mom – who is such a big influence on who I am.
I am grateful for each person who has taken the time to support, encourage, assist and, of course, to pull me back to reality when I needed it. There is just a whole series of kind, generous, compassionate people who have invested time in me over the years. I am grateful and inspired by them. I have always done my best to act in this way too – with others who might need some guidance. It is important to give back when you have been given so much.
What do you do when you aren't working?
I hang out with my kids, I run and, of course, I like to swim and paddleboard.
What might someone be surprised to know about you?
Now that's an interesting question. I think people might be surprised to know that until university, I didn't do very well in school. I found that school was a challenge and I got into trouble quite a bit. Once I hit university, I settled in much better – but it took until then to really find my place when it came to education.
Acuitas is an LNP (lipid nanoparticle) technology provider enabling its partners to advance new therapeutics to address unmet clinical needs. Their LNP technology was instrumental in the development of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine.