Ellen Kullman | CEO, DuPont

DuPont is known for its dominance in chemicals, but since becoming CEO in 2009, Kullman has pushed the 210-year-old company into unexpected new businesses. She talks with Carol Hymowitz about food, energy, and the state of science education

Photograph by Ben Grieme

What is DuPont focused on today?

Food, fuel, and safety, I guess, if you want to put it down to three words.

Let’s start with food. You recently acquired Danisco, a Danish enzyme maker, for $7.1 billion. What sparked your interest?

Over a decade ago, I had the opportunity to get to know their Genencor division, which is industrial biosciences. We had a development agreement with them, and it seemed like the skills in that area were very complementary. Together we could create things, like the cellulosic ethanol program that’s coming to fruition right now. When Danisco sold off their commodity sugars business, what was left was a very high-quality portfolio of products in nutrition and health and biosciences that fit with where DuPont was going. It’s unique when you buy a company of that size that everything fits.

We have in trial this year Optimum AQUAmax, which is a corn variety that tolerates low moisture. With the drought going on out there, we’re getting to see quite clearly how that performs. We need to create more resilient seeds that can deal with the changes in weather patterns in the environment. The need to produce more food from the same amount of land around the world is increasing, not decreasing. Science and technology is a way to enable that.

What about fuel?

I’m a big believer in solar. In the next three or four years, you’re going to get to grid parity [between the cost of conventional electricity and solar] on average in the world. It’s an absolutely huge change. We make new materials — like the silver lines on a solar panel are a silver-based paste. We used to commercialize one every three years, and now it’s like every year. The industry is flocking to it. We’re able to give higher efficiency on solar panels driving to grid parity. So we have a lot of materials in solar that are very exciting in terms of changing the face of that industry.

That’s food and fuel. What about safety? Your products are on half the cops we’re seeing on TV.

From a material-science standpoint, it’s lighter-weight strength, whether it’s in military in helmets or body armor or in first responders. Kevlar today is an amazingly different material than what we pioneered 40 years ago, in terms of our ability to integrate it into very lightweight structures that enable it to absorb the energy of a bullet. Nomex, the same way, to absorb the temperature gradients in fire protection.

I went to our opening of [the Nomex] plant in Cooper River, S.C., last year, and first responders showed up who were saved by wearing their vests and the appropriate armor. They keep coming up and thanking me, and I kept saying, “No, no, no. There’s a woman by the name of Stephanie Kwolek who really invented that, and we need to thank her.” She’s a delightful individual, still with us. I don’t know how old Stephanie is now, but she’s got to be in her late ’80s. It’s humbling.

What should government do to promote science and innovation, even in these constrained times?

The U.S. has benefited from our country’s long-term belief that basic research was part of its mission and how it engaged, whether with universities or with companies like ours. So I’m a big believer in that. We talk about it a lot to make sure that our elected officials understand how important that is to companies like ours, and there are many of them in the United States where those fundamentals of science really do help create economic growth. The U.S. has a great history [of scientific research], and we just have to make sure that doesn’t kind of get sideswiped by all the other issues we have going on.

What about the educational system?

Oh, boy.

Has it let companies like DuPont down?

I’m not sure about “let down.” We as a country have done a lot to enable opportunities around science. We’re not educating our kids to take advantage of it. And it doesn’t start in high school; it starts in grade school. It starts with a science curriculum in grade school that’s relevant to the kids’ world, which is a lot different than when the science curriculum was actually written, which was decades ago. There are a lot of programs out there that try to create that, whether it’s the Lego Robotics program or Model Maker. And that’s great, but only if the child has the opportunity to participate after school or on weekends. It’s got to be part of the core curriculum.

Delaware, I think, has done a pretty good job. We got Race to the Top dollars, and we’ve partnered in the state for decades around science and curriculum. Part of that Race to the Top money is employing a program out of the Boston Museum of Science called Engineering is Elementary. It literally starts in first grade, and it’s the greatest little modules at the appropriate level for the grade level. That’s what’s needed. Because by the time a kid gets to eighth grade, it’s almost too late.

A lot of my children’s friends, I’ll talk to them and I’ll say, “Have you considered engineering?” “Well, what’s that?” Kids have to see engineering as a great career opportunity.

And girls ...

Right, not be kind of well, you know, you’re not [good at] math and science because you’re a girl. And that does occur today, it really does. One of my senior women, Diane Gulyas, who runs our polymers business, was telling me a story about engaging with a group of girls at a local high school. She started with, “Do you know how much engineers make a year, starting?” These are like ninth grade through 12th grade. All of a sudden the ears perked up. You can make a good living as an engineer.

What’s been most surprising to you about being a CEO?

There’s a presumption that we know everything and make all the decisions. But we operate tremendously through our people, our 70,000 people, in this company. It’s not about issuing a command. It’s about gaining alignment. Connecting every person into what they do every day and how it relates to the success of the company is hugely important. That’s a big part of my job.

Where do you look for the next big brains?

I spend a lot of time at universities telling them what DuPont is. Graduate schools, undergraduate engineering schools ...

Are you getting people from outside the U.S.?

We’ve established programs in India, in China. I love going out there and talking to them. It’s a lot of fun. We’re an old company from the standpoint of the age of our employees in the U.S. and Western Europe, and we have to renew.

There’s been a lot of discussion lately about having it all as women. Can you have it all?

I’m not sure what “all” is. I’m a big believer that what’s right for me, what is all for me, is probably different than what’s all for you. And how I might do it is very different than how you would do it. But that doesn’t mean one’s right or wrong. I always counsel [women], you’ve got to go where your energy is. Because if you don’t love it, if you don’t absolutely love it, you know then it’s not going to be as fulfilling. So I love what I do. I love this company.

How do you feel about how DuPont is portrayed?

The IT guys have stolen the technology word, the tech word. When you say technology, it kind of means the IT space. And I think there is so much cutting-edge technology going on in companies like ours today and other companies, whether it’s in biotechnology or advanced material science. Even electronics have a lot of DuPont content in them.

We enable a lot of that to occur. And some of our customers let us talk about it; others don’t. We have a growing business in electronics and communications, in handhelds and tablets and displays and new technologies like organic light-emitting diodes. I mean, the real crisp, popping color displays in the future are going to be made with DuPont materials, DuPont technology. People say we are a chemical company. Well, we use chemistry. People say we are an industrial company. Yes, but we are really using cutting-edge science to solve a lot of the tough problems in the world. That’s where the fun is.


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