The Aga Khan School, Dhaka

“Confidence to break barriers”: Impact of an Aga Khan Schools education

09 November 2023

In an industry traditionally predominated by white men, Nabanita Nawar is rewriting the narrative in medicinal chemistry and drug design. CEO and co-founder of HDAX Therapeutics – a biotech company advancing towards potentially life-changing treatments for debilitating diseases – the 28-year-old alumna of The Aga Khan School (AKS), Dhaka in Bangladesh was featured in this year’s Forbes 30 Under 30 Local Toronto list.

While this adds to Nabanita’s growing list of accolades and recognitions, it also facilitates conversations about the importance of inclusivity, diversity and equality in the healthcare industry today.

“I didn’t realise its impact until it happened,” she laughs. “Being born and raised Bangladeshi and to be able to get this recognition in Toronto was a big deal.”

The inclusion on Forbes’ list highlighted HDAX Therapeutics and its pioneering developments, along with recognising Nabanita and her co-founder for creating a team led by women and people of colour. This achievement also makes Nabanita the first Bangladeshi to ever be featured on the list.

“Growing up, I didn’t see a role model in the kind of things I’m doing today. Most businesspeople in Bangladesh were men; most women in the generation before me were housewives.”

Nabanita attributes her passion and confidence to break barriers to her teachers at AKS, Dhaka.

From student to entrepreneur

Nabanita’s time at AKS, Dhaka set a foundation for her future career in medicinal chemistry, as she went on to study biological chemistry at the University of Toronto Mississauga. She relied on the skills she learnt at the school to get through her studies.

“Habits that were instilled in me, especially time management, were extremely useful as university was more fast-paced.”

After receiving her Bachelor of Science in 2017, Nabanita began her PhD later that year in medicinal chemistry and drug design at her alma mater. During this time, she co-founded HDAX Therapeutics with a fellow PhD student and the help of their professor. She credits her father for inspiring her to pursue entrepreneurship.

“One of the many reasons I was able to take this leap was my dad being an entrepreneur in the garments industry in Bangladesh,” Nabanita says. “I saw him build a business. It has nothing to do with what I’m doing today but his ability to take risks, his ability to work really hard and be consistent with it makes him savvy with soft skills.

“I’ve had a front-row seat seeing an exceptional entrepreneur in my life.”

Targeting the root of disease

Created in 2021, HDAX Therapeutics is developing the first-ever therapy for peripheral neuropathy (PN), which affects over 30 million people globally. PN patients suffer from nerve damage due to chemotherapy, diabetes, injury or genetics. There is currently no medicine that can slow, halt or reverse the disease’s progression or the pain and immobility that accompany it.

“When cancer patients undergo chemotherapy, it causes a lot of nerve damage,” Nabanita explains. “It leads to burning in your hands and feet. It also causes cognitive decline because it damages nerves in your brain. Patients are told to have regular painkillers or put their hands and feet in ice buckets for the burning but there’s nothing that actually addresses the underlying problem.

“We’re trying to develop an effective therapy by targeting the root of the disease. We use innovation to bring safe medicine to patients who really need it, that’s the company’s vision and my vision.”

A women-led company

However, along with her success and her company’s development, Nabanita has faced her fair share of setbacks and barriers as a woman of colour in a leadership role.

“While doing my PhD, I never thought being a woman, as well as a woman of colour, made much of a difference,” she says. “As I ventured into more of an entrepreneurial role, I got to really see who the decision makers are, so it’s definitely been challenging in my industry; in the life sciences, healthcare, biotech, pharma industry.”

According to a 2022 study by McKinsey & Company, 61 percent of women are in senior manager roles in the healthcare industry, with this decreasing to 45 percent in vice president roles. As for women of colour, only 14 percent are in senior manager roles, decreasing to 8 percent in vice president roles and just 4 percent being CEOs.

“I feel like being a minority, a woman and a person of colour definitely limits some of the opportunities,” Nabanita says. “There’s a lot of unconscious bias not just from men but also from women. Age is also a factor. I’m sure it’s the same in most industries.”

Taking leaps and risks

In addition to these challenges, Nabanita has also faced a lot of culture shock throughout her journey.

“I think overall as a Muslim woman of colour, it’s hard for us to take leaps, like moving overseas at 18. I had to really push my parents.

“I’ve had to fight my battles. I know a lot of families of students struggle with that, especially female students. I think I just tried to find a good balance of what I could achieve from my parents because I really wanted to do this.”

Although she faced barriers along the way, Nabanita pushed through all of them to be in a position where she could make change and inspire others. That drive, hard work and support from her peers is what led to one of the biggest recognitions for her today.

“One thing I would say I am proud of about myself is my ability to take risks and put myself in difficult situations. I think that's probably the only thing that differentiates me from someone else in my field.”

After all of Nabanita’s success now and continuing, she underlines the significant role AKS, Dhaka played in her life, especially the support and love from her teachers.

This profile is part of an alumni profiles series in collaboration with the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN). Read more of our alumni profiles here.

  • Nabanita Nawar, Class of 2013, from The Aga Khan School, Dhaka