March 12, 2020

DO I KNOW YOU? Dentist, author and entrepreneur Tarek Omran: “My philosophy is learning by doing”

collage with man and elements
Business storytelling coach Tarek Omran has a passion to share knowledge and to teach complex phenomena by breaking them down.
Julia Bushueva

Tarek Omran, post-doctoral researcher at the University of Turku, aims to write a best-selling book that combines his academic aspirations and the reasons he became an entrepreneur.

Alongside the big complexes of University of Turku and Turku University Hospital at the heart of Turku Science Park in ElectroCity is startup community SparkUp. Providing services for enterprises, the community serves as a dynamic meeting point for business-minded students and entrepreneurs.

When I meet Tarek Omran at this lively venue on a Wednesday afternoon, the voices of young people mingling, discussing enthusiastically and rehearsing pitches fill the air. This vibrant atmosphere fits Omran, a man who does not sit on his hands, like a glove. He not only seems to know every person around SparkUp, but also sits on the board of student-driven entrepreneur society Boost Turku, has co-founded a company called Science Pitchers and works as a Nordic Talent Ambassador for Future Place Leadership – to mention but a few of his activities. What is more, this entrepreneur hailing from Egypt defended his dissertation in dentistry at the University of Turku last year at the age of 26 and has now begun his post-doctoral research.

We walk across the ground floor of SparkUp, passing coffee tables, comfy-looking sofa sets and table groups full of people, and step into one of the soundproof meeting booths. Here we have a chance to talk about Omran’s career, a huge business opportunity, the niche the storyteller has found in fixing the universal disconnection issue between doctors and patients, and much more.

What does a typical day in the life of Tarek Omran look like?

Wow, an ordinary day would involve so many things. I don’t know if there is even such a thing. [laughs]

Previously, a big part of my typical day would have involved writing the articles for the PhD. I’ve been also planning events after I joined Boost [Turku] about a year ago. On the side, I coach people to sell their ideas and prepare them to do better pitches. This has been kind of my candy.

Congratulations on your PhD! You have walked a long road in a short time. Why did you decide to become a dentist?

Thank you! When I was finishing my primary school, together with my Mozart-type orchestra player mother, we came up with a plan that I would skip my final years of secondary school. This was possible in a British education system like in Egypt and many other countries. That way, it was possible to graduate from high school and join a university as early as possible, and this was exactly what I did. Nonetheless, I didn’t know what I wanted to become career-wise, but I still had to decide very young what to study in university so that I could proceed with the plan.

I come from a family where the majority of my relatives are doctors, but I never really wanted to become one. I thought all doctors are sad, as they don’t have a good work-life balance. Instead, I wanted to have a good job and have a family. Hence, I came to the conclusion in my 12-year-old mind that a dentist is a suitable profession for that.

You have recently co-founded a company, Science Pitchers. How did you end up an entrepreneur?

The idea of this initiative goes back to a need that I have had since my student years in the Emirates to help people who can be really brilliant – and already have their PhDs and be lecturers in universities – but who simply lack the human aspect of communication. I had discovered that doctors are not able to face their patients the way they should. I quickly came to realise that this is a universal issue which should be addressed in a more established way, and so I began to help teachers at the university to improve their communications skills.

Later in 2017, I participated in an event called Three Minutes Thesis [3MT], a local competition that was held in Turku. It is about challenging doctoral candidates to communicate the significance of their projects to a non-specialist audience in just three minutes. I was chosen as the winner out of some 30 PhD students.

People around me were giving me kudos and kept saying how talented a speaker I am. But honestly, I am not talented. Instead, there is this thing I have been doing consciously that everybody could be taught to do. I proved my mettle by coaching my best friend, Khalil Shahramian, who kept telling himself that he was a mediocre speaker. We had systematic training sessions and, the next year, Khalil won the same event that I had earlier. He went even further by winning the European finals against 27 other candidates. It was at that moment when we started to think that the way I prepare and encourage people could really pay off. Soon after, I started coaching and teaching strategies and techniques together with Khalil under the name Science Pitchers. So far, it has been such a success. There is clearly a huge demand for that kind of coaching not only in Finland, but all over the globe.

Your title in your company is business storytelling coach. Where does your coaching philosophy come from?

I have always been very interested in education and communications. Simply put, my philosophy is learning by doing. I firmly believe that learning is mostly remembering what we already know. So, what we do are workshop-based sessions where customers are guided to learn to utilise the things they already know. We facilitate customers to realise what to say in terms of their narratives, but also how to say it. By narratives, I mean how stories are told about around us, whether on a personal level or a company-wide level. In business, successful companies have already been using the power of storytelling and use strong narratives to subtly embed and align their values coherently with their future customers. There is a great amount of different pedagogical methods in use, and step by step we help customers to understand how to use the hidden art of narratives effectively.

Now, after you have become a doctor, it looks like you are veering toward the fields of business, communications and education. Do you still want to accomplish something in the field of dentistry?

I have actually practised clinical dentistry for only a very short time at the University Dental Hospital in Sharjah, during my degree-student years at the College of Dental Medicine, and I would really much enjoy the opportunity to practise dentistry clinically in Finland. Nevertheless, to get a licence to practice dentistry independently in Finland, it is necessary to go through an approximately 2.5-year process involving internships and many examinations. This is because my dentist degree is from outside the European Union. In addition, I must improve my spoken Finnish before proceeding. That is why I recently enrolled in an intensive six-month language course.

Getting my licence is in the pipeline, but the lengthy process makes it a medium-term goal. Luckily, however, I have so many other activities going on simultaneously. One of them is the postdoctoral project that I am working on. As it is about teeth as well, dentistry continues to be a very relevant field to me.

You are indeed engaged in many activities that are seemingly intertwined. Can you think of a common denominator?

As a matter of fact, the book I am currently writing is all about that. As I stated, effective communication is a huge and global problem that unfortunately leads to many doctors lacking the human aspect of their work and thus being unable or unaware of how to confront their patients properly. Think of huge private medical centre chains for example: what is usually the very first thing the doctor says at the start of an appointment? Isn’t it [claps hands forcefully], do you have insurance? Why wouldn’t they instead begin with a simple hello or act in a somehow humane and empathetic way? This highlights the disconnection between doctors and their patients that I want to fix.

It needs to be understood that a big part of any treatment is not just the medicine, but the cure can be found in here [points to his head]. Doctors should have a good mentality in order to be able to face health problems. In reality they are almost never prepared for that, as they need to pass their anatomy, chemistry, physiology etc. courses, but there is no such as thing as a ‘humanology’ or human interaction course. It is such a shame that our healthcare education hopes that doctors will be able to connect with their patients and acknowledge their concerns without really training them on any methods.

So yes, I see a huge value proposition in fixing this disconnection issue by educating the professionals, while as a result doing good for mankind. It is a win-win situation.

And now the book you are working on is all about this disconnection?

That is correct. I have accepted that I have tried to cover too many fields with Science Pitchers. This book is the result of my realisation that I need to focus on my strongest field, my niche, which is healthcare.

The underlying hypernym of the book is based on the science of behavioural economics. In a nutshell, I am trying to figure out how to approach this sort of a battle taking place at doctor’s appointments from a new angle. I am talking about a situation where doctors who have too little time to actually listen to the patients are trying to handle the appointments as quickly as possible, while the patients, on the other hand, are sharing much more information than the doctors would like or have time to hear.

The book is still in process – in an early phase actually. I have interviewed some doctors and many patients, but there is still a plenty more to come. I hope it will take the shape of a scientific book. However, the purpose is not necessarily to get it published as a peer-reviewed scholarly book. I would rather love to see it to become a popular science best-seller that can be understood by many and eventually has a universal impact.

At this moment, I am looking forward to collecting many more stories from people that can be used anonymously, because real stories are what I believe will help in the culmination of the book. I warmly welcome readers of Good News from Finland to share with me their stories if they feel like their healthcare visits can still be improved.

Besides the academic and entrepreneurial activities, you are working as a Nordic Talent Ambassador and looking for talents for Boost Turku as well. What is a talent for you? How do you recognise one?

When I meet new people, I don’t look at what they are today; I look at what they can be tomorrow. For example, at Boost Turku events, where I have the possibility to listen people’s stories and ideas, many of the narratives immediately and clearly indicate whether these particular people are up for something. I am constantly looking for talents who want to have significance in the world and who are eager to grow themselves.

Let’s talk more about you, why did you choose to come to Finland and Turku to do your PhD?

Turku feels like destiny to me, because it was so not planned to move here. I have to admit, I rather wanted to go to Stockholm, because of my older brother who had been living there for a long time.

When I was graduating from the College of Dental Medicine in the Emirates, I was wondering what to do next. In order to develop the educational system universally because of the lack of the humane perspective in it, I needed to have a PhD. This is because it is indispensable to understand how to do research and, when reading a research paper, to tell whether it is a good paper or toilet paper.

I came to Turku in September 2014, thanks to an Egyptian professor working at my university in the Emirates who convinced me to try at least one semester at the University of Turku instead of going straight to Stockholm. He had never studied here himself, but one of his colleagues did his PhD in Turku and apparently never stopped telling how great that was. I agreed to try that one semester, and I was supposed to leave the following December, but I never left. I loved it here from the very beginning. My brother was really disappointed. [laughs]

As you are deep in a Turku-oriented initiative, how would you describe the current entrepreneurial environment in Turku?

I consider myself very Turkuan by now, and I am proud of what this liveable city provides. I understand that I might not see things in a completely unbiased fashion, yet I would say that the city, the Chamber of Commerce and Boost Turku, among other stakeholders in the entrepreneurial ecosystem, are clearly doing a wonderful forward-looking job.

And I am not alone with my thoughts. As I have been travelling around doing my workshops, I have heard welcoming feedback. For example, the members of the Finnish Association of Business School Graduates I coached were saying that Boost Turku is the best entrepreneurship society of students they know. I learnt that, compared to other cities’ similar activities, Boost Turku has great significance in the city’s ecosystem and the quality and quantity of the events are on the next level.

Furthermore, I would say Turku is a welcoming city for international academics like myself, even though the job is never done and things can always be better. When looking back, I see how good a decision it was to pursue my PhD here at the University of Turku. It is one of the best in a world when it comes to research [in the field of dentistry]. And I am even luckier to have completed my doctoral degree under the supervision of professor Pekka Vallittu, who is a world-renowned name in the field. In other words, he is a Dental Materials rock star because of his impactful research! I am so grateful for how much I have developed and learnt through his mentorship.

What do you do on your spare time?

I will never forget the first day I entered the university as a doctoral candidate. The head of laboratory at Turku Clinical Biomaterials Centre, Dr. Lippo Lassila, approached me and explained that even though the research I am doing is important, sauna will always be more important – so let’s go to sauna. It sounded so absurd to me, but no matter how I tried to find excuses, he took me with him. It was an insanely lovely experience, and going to sauna became immediately an addiction, and to this day I’ve kept going to sauna and ice swimming on a weekly basis.

In addition to sauna, I love to read. It is my relaxation pill. I also meditate, exercise and do many kinds of sports. Not to mention, I am a people’s person which means I spend much of the evening time with my friends. Moreover, I started appreciating nature only after I came to Finland. It was partly maybe because I was very young and still growing as a human, but definitely because in Finland nature is everywhere. I have discovered how much it can provide a sense of own space and peace.

What has living in Finland taught you so far?

The first thing that comes to mind is that I have learnt that there is much more free time here compared to the other countries I have lived in. Thus it is easy to maintain a good work-life balance.

In a more philosophical sense, I have learnt so much about people and humanity. I was so impressed when I heard one of my Egyptian Boost Turku colleague’s reasons to move to Finland. He had made a comprehensive background check in advance, unlike me. This guy had done research on people’s behaviour to figure out which country would be the most suitable for him. He learnt that Finns can be very reserved, yet very honest, and they mind their own business and are not nosy. He liked that, moved to Finland and hasn’t regretted the decision.

Why did I stay after the planned four-month period? Because of people as well. I fell in love with Finnish people, and I like challenges. I understood that because Finns may not be as open or as social as some other people, if I am able to make friends here I can do it anywhere.

Do you have any advice to young people like yourself willing to move to Finland?

Such an important question! Laugh and enjoy, that is what life is all about! We are social creatures, even in Finland. One essential key to get the best out of it is to drop your ego – one should be very open to learn. You might experience drastically different things than you have used to, but if all the new things are faced with an open mind, there is so much about the life and humanity that can be learnt.

Interview and text: Tuomas Koivisto

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