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Commencement Address by Ellen Kullman, Chair of the Board and CEO, DuPont

May 23, 2011

President Gast, distinguished guests, graduates, families and friends:

Let me begin by offering my congratulations to you, the graduates, on your accomplishment and success. Congratulations also to your parents and families. As a mother with a daughter in college and two sons who will graduate from high school next year, I fully appreciate how the college journey can be a family affair—from that first campus visit to the cap and gown you wear today. I hope this has been a wonderful time for all involved.

When Asa Packer founded Lehigh in 1865, the company I lead was already more than 60 years old. DuPont will be 209 years old in July.
 
We no longer make gunpowder along the banks of Delaware’s Brandywine River as we did in 1802. We don’t even make nylon anymore. Today we are one of the world’s largest producers of seeds for agriculture. The next solar panel you pass by could have up to eight different DuPont products in it. We also continue to save lives and protect property with materials like Kevlar® and Tyvek®.

A distinct advantage of our corporate longevity is that we’ve seen pretty much everything that two centuries of turbulent world history can throw at a company. We’re still here because we learned to be resilient. We learned how to use science to innovate. And we learned how to transform ourselves whenever fundamental transformation was called for.

From the vantage point of that long view, we see global business at a critical inflection point right now. 

Global population growth is increasing demand for food, fuel and protection. Global companies that succeed in responding to this demand will do so because they master the art of collaboration across companies, countries and sectors. We’re adopting a new model of innovation that we call inclusive innovation. It means innovating to solve problems by designing solutions in close cooperation with those who will benefit directly from the product. 

So the corn hybrid planted by a farmer in Iowa will not necessarily be the same hybrid planted by a farmer in Kenya. The solar panel for a commercial installation in Germany may well be different from the panel destined for a rural village in India.

This has ramifications not just for global companies, but also for members of the global workforce—especially well-educated, highly motivated young people in the work force. In other words, you.

You are already part of a generation of working people who will spend your careers competing for every job you get with other professionals—not just in the same state or region, but everywhere in the world.

I see this playing out on a daily basis. Last year at DuPont we hired over 2,000 full-service employees in the U.S.—that’s about eight people every business day, many of them engineers or scientists. But we also hired engineers, scientists and business professionals in India, China, and elsewhere. Regardless of where we did the hiring, we had the same standards and looked for the same things among the candidates.

First and most obvious, we looked for skills and creativity. Skills and creativity ought to be among the fruits of your years here at Lehigh. They are the products of a high quality higher education—which our American universities still do better than any other country in the world.

We also look for how well a candidate works with others. No one in a contemporary work environment succeeds alone. We are all members of teams.

You probably first learned this doing community service in high school or during your time here at Lehigh. And believe it or not, those group projects you dreaded because you had to depend on a lab partner or on two or three other students to help you get a good grade were actually preparing you for the real world!
 
Because the byword of success in every field at this point in the 21st century is collaboration. The problems we face are too big and too complex for anyone to solve alone. Your career, if it is to be a successful one, will be a series of collaborations as a member of many different teams.

And the secret to being a valued contributor to those teams will be your development as a lifelong learner. I studied mechanical engineering and management. Back then, I did not think of myself as a leader or a strategist—but 30 years later, that’s what I do. I recognized I had to learn to develop those qualities if I wanted to advance to the next level. Some of this you will discover within you, but much of it will be learned formally and informally as you progress. 

For example, I am aware that we tend to relearn the same lessons over and over, so lately I have been reading business history. It helps me analyze and contextualize the challenges I face and the decisions I make. 

In DuPont’s rich legacy of scientific research, we have had many great scientists, but only one who won the Nobel Prize for chemistry. He was a master’s degree chemist who also wrote poems, painted watercolors, watched birds and was an avid fisherman. One day, late in his career, when an experiment failed, he had the presence of mind not to throw out the test tube but to analyze the gooey brown residue in the bottom of it. It turned out to be a whole new class of chemicals that he named the crown ethers. Charlie Pedersen would have been the first to say he was a lifelong learner.

Lifelong learning will be more critical for you than for any generation that has preceded you. For you, it may be social media or some other tool or technology that will be the conduit for new knowledge and understanding. But I can assure you that whole industries will come and go during your careers. All the clichés you ever heard about the speed of change are true. You will have to be alert and adaptable. 

Finally, let me say that most organizations have a set of core values. What constitutes those values will vary from institution to institution. What matters is that the values are taken seriously, that the organization is motivated by something of intrinsic importance.

The best organizations are looking for people who are open to accepting the institution’s values and embracing them. At DuPont our values are safety and health, environmental stewardship, highest ethical behavior and respect for people. We, as a company, continue to change. Our values don’t. They are how we navigate change. They’re non-negotiable. 

So today I urge you to avoid the temptation to think you’re done. Instead, cultivation of the softer skills of persuasion, leadership, teamwork, and personal development should be kicking into a higher gear now. They will help you get your career started, and they are likely to determine where you end up. The good news is that with your Lehigh education, you already have a head start on much of the world. I wish you continued success and the best of luck and good fortune. 

Thank you.

Posted on Tuesday, May 24, 2011

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