“The breakup of Yugoslavia in 1992, eventually led to the second genocide in Europe after the Holocaust. The situation was horrific. Since my father was a doctor and my mother was one of the youngest women ever to become a judge in Bosnia, they were immediately put on the list of people to be assassinated. The whole family was to be eliminated. They had no choice but to flee.”
The last bus pulled out of Olovo. Leaving with nothing but the clothes on their backs, Sana, her grandmother, her mother, and her little brother took the last four seats on that bus.
“I was five and Samir was three. He was so upset we were leaving behind his pillow, with the fish on it, that we had to get off again. My grandmother wasn’t well, and my mother was pregnant – again. My brother Amir died two weeks after he was born, and she had just miscarried her twins. I remember my nose pressed against the windowpane; my father and my grandfather standing on the road as the bus pulled away.”
The men fought for the country. Sana’s father especially wanted to help with those who were injured.
“We didn’t know if we would ever meet again.”
When the bus reached Croatia, Sana’s mother called her best friend and maid of honor.
“Mom said: ‘I am here now with my mother and my two small children. I’m pregnant and people are threatening to rape and kill me. I have to save my family. Could you help us?’ Her friend was firm: ‘Zineta: I am Croatian. You are Bosnian. Our friendship ends here.’”
Sana remembers a bench, cold and hard in the dead of night.
“The four of us slept there. I screamed at my mother: ‘I will tell Dad what you forced us to do!’ I remember looking up at the stars, and thinking: ‘Does this mean we’re free?’”
Sana’s family waited for a bus to the Netherlands; but without any documents, they were turned away. This was the first of many serendipitous circumstances in Sana’s life.
“Hundreds of us waited to learn where we were going. I remember a man shouting ‘Sana!’ I ran to him and said: Here I am!”
“But he explained he was looking for his sister, Sana. She never arrived. Then he walked over to my mother and said: ‘I’ve met your daughter. I’m driving to Sweden and have four seats left. Would you like me to transport your family?’ His kindness changed our lives forever.”
Sana remembers confusion but not fear.
“As far as I understand, I haven’t always been easily scared. Even at five years old, I was able to talk to anyone.”
The journey between Bosnia and Sweden was grueling. They drove through Poland, Hungary, and then boarded a boat from Denmark to Ystad. Sana remembers her mother’s anguish.
“Mom didn’t know where to go or what to do in a completely new country; she didn’t know anyone and could not speak the language. And she was losing yet another baby. This marked the beginning of many hard years of struggle. Mom went from a district court judge to working multiple jobs: years as a cleaner and caregiver for the elderly. She supported us all: her parents, my brother and me, and even my father, his sisters, and their sick mother in Bosnia.”
Sana’s grandfather and father eventually joined Sana’s family in the small town of Halmstad. Dr. Alajmovic tried to acclimatize, but it was not easy. In Bosnia, he was an established lung specialist. In Sweden, his medical degree was not even recognized.
“Dad was a 35-year-old father of two and had to redo his entire education: in a new country with a language he didn’t speak. It was too much; so, he returned to Bosnia. I visited him every summer, but it was difficult to maintain the connection.”
Sana admits that he was dealing with his own battles, and those years could not have been easy for him either.
“He was struggling with his own identity between being a good father or a good citizen. The battlefield spreads across many aspects in life. This is what war does to a person; it forces you to choose sides.”
Eight years later, Sana’s father moved to Sweden.
“It’s quite remarkable that my parents are still together and that we are still a family. In those circumstances with all that trauma, my mother singlehandedly kept our family together.”
Sana calls her a loving tiger mom: the embodiment of everything she sought in a role model, proving that a woman can work hard and be independent, as well as a loyal wife and devoted mother. She never worked as a judge again, although she always pushed Sana to never settle for anything less. After completing the International Baccalaureate, Sana chose psychology.
“I was accepted into University College London, but we couldn’t afford the tuition. I was working at a retirement home. But it was never enough.”
Sana was this enthusiastic 18-year-old, motivating seniors to become more active. Her boss pulled her aside.
“‘Sana,’ he said, ‘you’re way too intense. We have our routines here. Don’t rock the boat.’”
“The staff only wanted to put the residents to bed, so they could go for coffee. But I wanted to inspire them to improve their lives.”
As valuable as this experience was, Sana began doubting her self-worth.
“I questioned whether I was good enough to be a psychologist: ‘Maybe I am too intense?’”
She decided to pursue her other passion instead: literature.
“I felt I had to be true to my heart. My parents said: ‘But, you have top grades. How can you do this to us?’”
Sana soon discovered the bohemian life was not for her.
“I loved exploring the works of the greatest writers in history, but drinking wine on a Tuesday and studying just when it ‘felt right’ scared me a bit.”
Sana dropped out. Her parents were getting anxious.
“I asked: ‘What is the best university in Sweden?’ I had a preconception the Stockholm School of Economics was full of snobs. This was perhaps even more worrying than the bohemian lifestyle.”
Sana started questioning whether she fit in anywhere.
“But I met people at SSE from all walks of life from all over Sweden who were ambitious and worked hard. It didn’t matter where you came from; the only thing that counted was performance. I soon realized this was the right path.”
Sana adapted quickly to her ambitious surroundings.
“Everyone was a top achiever, and many couldn’t handle that. But I already knew my strengths and weaknesses, so I had a much easier time accepting I wasn’t the smartest person in the room.”
SSE has one of the most active student associations in Europe, and Sana jumped right in.
“The connections I built were as important for my career as was the academic work. Being involved allowed me to live my passion as well.”
Sana became the president of SSE’s literature society.
“We were a small group of ten, ordering wine, selecting a book, and then discussing it. When I open a magazine now, I see some of those very people and smile knowing I sat with them in that candlelit cellar.”
Sana still finds solace in literature. When she feels anxious, philosophy and poetry help her find comfort.
“I have a deep love of culture. Although I studied hard at SSE and worked in parallel too, I also took philosophy and psychology courses. I didn’t want to lose touch with those theories, which perhaps don’t have an obvious practical purpose but are just beautiful and worthwhile.”
Sana maintains that it’s more than just the excellent education she received at SSE. By travelling to Dubai, Japan, Italy, Germany, and studying at Cambridge, she developed an international
network that opened doors and created connections.
“As a kid of two academic refugees, degrees are everything. But that’s not what’s important. In fact, if you want to do business or entrepreneurship, it’s about other qualities. The SSE brand speaks for itself; it’s the whole package. If you have that in your portfolio, it increases your legitimacy and your trustworthiness.”
Sana believes that if you work hard, anyone can succeed.
“When I graduated from SSE, a former graduate whom I never met before, left her position as managing director of an investment company. She approached another SSE graduate, and he endorsed me. At 23 years old, I was hired to be a CEO at Curitas, an investment company.”
Soon after, two men seeking investment for a company flew in from New York to discuss a potential deal. Sana walked into the boardroom and started organizing her papers. They took one look at her and said: “We’ll have two coffees.”
“‘But I’m not here to serve your coffee,’ I said. ‘I’m here to discuss the potential deal. I’m the one who will be evaluating your proposal.’”
They were so impressed by Sana’s tenacity. Before leaving, they urged her to apply for a scholarship with the Swedish-American Chamber of Commerce in New York.
“Several hundred people applied, and I was thrilled to be the chosen one. God created me first; then, he created New York. And we were somehow made for each other. I’d never been to a place where no one is ashamed of their last name. New York is everyone’s town.”
Sana was truly on top of the world, living in New York with every fiber of her being: fit, fulfilled, and driven by a career that was accelerating at lightning speed.
Until. Everything. Just. Stopped.
“I was on my way to work one morning when I suddenly collapsed. I squirmed on the side-walk writhing in agony, but people just kept stepping over me like I was a piece of garbage.”
“They must have thought I was having an overdose. No one helped except for one little girl.” She called an ambulance and waited with Sana until it arrived.
“The paramedics only wanted my insurance number. I could barely speak, but they were so persistent and wouldn’t help me. That was my first experience with the healthcare system in America.”
Sana finally displayed her work identification. As she was being lifted onto the stretcher, she called out to the little girl.
“‘What is your name?’ I asked. ‘Maria Magdalena’, she said. Maria Magdalena.”
The MRI confirmed a herniated disc, and Sana was prescribed an avalanche of painkillers.
“Nothing worked. Then the doctors said they had something that would control all my pain.” Sana was prescribed OxyContin.
“My father said: ‘Sana, these can be extremely addictive.’ I didn’t understand the reality of that until three months later.”
Not only did OxyContin control Sana’s pain; it started to control her life.
“When I didn’t feel invincible, I was crawling up the walls. The relief was sudden, but it never lasted long. I didn’t become completely dependent but felt an addicted rush throughout my body. This synthetic joy was bursting inside me. I could analyze what was happening and stopped before it escalated out of control. I would rather live with the pain than take these pills, but it intensified to the point where I could no longer stand up.”
Sana was transferred from a wheelchair to an airplane and returned to Sweden. There she was: 24 years old with her whole life ahead of her, now immobile and living at home with her parents.
“I was heartbroken. What was the point of graduating from SSE with all these scholarships, experience, and expectations if I can’t do anything? Is this all I amounted to?”
“My father wasn’t brought up in a culture where you show emotion, but he dropped everything just to care of me. My parents were always by my side because they knew I was suffering. They scheduled the surgery.”
Then something remarkable happened.
“I couldn’t sleep because the pain was excruciating, so I got out of bed and began dragging my dead leg. Then, I started screaming: ‘This is not how my life was supposed to be!’”
“In a fit of rage, I lifted my leg and furiously slammed it down, crashing to the floor in agony like an exorcism. Mom was so terrified; she called an ambulance.”
Sana was rushed to the Emergency room where the surgeon examined her. But there was miraculously nothing wrong with her. Every single ounce of pain was gone, and Sana was released.
“Something must have happened when I stomped my foot down. Perhaps it was the very same force that hurt me in the first place, which healed me in the end.”
Life could begin again.
“A healthy person has many wishes, but a sick person has only one. Health is the foundation for everything else you want to achieve in life. I felt like I had been given a second chance and decided to work in life science and help people become healthier: not as a doctor, but as an economist.”
Sana reestablished herself. She moved to Stockholm to work for a venture capital firm investing in healthcare startups. She was soon recruited to be the Head of Business Development for a small biotech company.
“Within eight months, most of the accounts were mine, with sales I had generated. I looked at the CEO, who was 15 years older and thought: ‘I can do everything he can. And probably better.’ Investors told me if I wanted to venture out on my own, they would back me.”
Sana spun out her own enterprise based on the work of a physiology researcher at Stockholm University.
“Professor Tore Bengtsson had been doing research on obesity and diabetes for over 20 years. My father was diagnosed with type two diabetes when I was little, and I know what that can do to a person and the family. Tore wanted to continue his research, so I said I would do everything else: funding, recruiting, networking, strategizing, and developing.”
Sigrid Therapeutics was born.
“We want to prevent people from developing chronic lifestyle diseases. We’ve engineered a natural mineral that safely lowers body weight, blood sugar, and bad cholesterol. This powder can be mixed with food or drinks and can lower the risk of obesity and diabetes.”
Sana says if you’re as passionate about an industry, as she is for health, you don’t have to be a scientist or a researcher.
“Just partner with experienced people who complement you and learn from them. At 18, I was reprimanded for having too much energy, compassion, and ambition. I still carried that fear with me: Do I have the right credentials? Will I disappoint people? But like being a new parent, you learn the job as you go.”
Sana is grateful to the investors who came on board and saw the value in Sigrid – and in her.
“It’s preventative medicine’s vision zero that attracted investors. No one should develop type 2 diabetes or obesity. Prevention is always better than cure.”
She is honest and direct, and her refreshing approach to business is a result of the resilience she learned as a child.
“You must take the risk because no one is going to find you in the basement. Many immigrant parents want their children to become doctors or engineers, but there are other ways to make your parents proud. As an economist, you can still contribute to improving people’s health.”
Sana wouldn’t be where she is today if it were not for her mother.
“Mom could have gone back to Bosnia but said: ‘No, I will stay in Sweden for my children.’ All that she endured, just for us. She did not sacrifice her career and her homelife for me not to make something out of mine. If she’s done that for me, then of course I must also make her proud.”
The greatest thing Sana has learned from her mother is that there is nothing wrong with tough love. As Sana holds her new baby boy in her arms, Arvid’s precious eyes are locked into his mother’s as she lovingly touches at his sweet face.
“Life is wonderful, honey. There are so many opportunities, and everyone has an ability. I believe in you. Whatever you do or wherever life takes you, please live your full potential.”
Sana has always believed in the ingenuity of a strong person to have the ability to create one’s own destiny.
“Perhaps you weren’t dealt the best hand in life: a poor refugee without a good pedigree. But you can make your own journey and build your own success. More than I’ve proven this to others, I’ve proven it to myself.”
This inspiring self-made woman’s compassion, integrity, and intensity are the very things that make her the leader she is today.
“I can no longer be ashamed of that; in fact, it gives me a certain pride. My mother’s resilience taught me that the value of self-worth is priceless. She held her head high. And so, too, must I.”
Text: Karyn McGettigan