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President Gast discusses innovation with Corning's CEO

In their conversation in Baker Hall, Wendell Weeks ’81 and Alice Gast agreed that the ability to listen is critical to innovation.

University trustee Wendell Weeks ’81, the CEO of Corning Inc., shared personal insights into his career and his company’s success, and gave advice to students during a public forum April 16 with President Alice P. Gast.

On the stage of Zoellner Arts Center’s Baker Hall, the two leaders discussed Weeks’ Lehigh accounting and finance education, the achievements of Corning, and what keeps a company on the cutting-edge of groundbreaking innovation for 160 years. Founded in 1851, Corning is a global leader in the manufacture of specialty glasses and ceramics.

“Innovation is like a really good conversation,” said Weeks. Having passion, knowledge and listening skills, he added, are the catalysts required to make change.

Gast agreed. “Innovation is straightforward if you have the right mindset,” she said. “That is what we’re all about: the knowledge, the passion and listening to what the problems are…and how we can use our knowledge and passion to solve them.”

Weeks discussed pioneering endeavors in the glass industry and shared a few trade secrets, such as what makes Gorilla Glass, which is used widely in the screens of portable electronic devices, so strong.

The importance of learning from failure

He attributed his knowledge of chemistry to his unending quest for learning and he advised students to take advantage of Lehigh’s educational opportunities and knowledgeable faculty.

“Learn something that interests you,” he said. “Where you start is not necessarily where you end up.”

When asked by a student what made him successful, Weeks said that having confidence and not being afraid to fail are good characteristics. At Corning, he added, “we tend not to punish failure” because what is learned is usually used down the road even if takes 10 years.

“What it has allowed me to do is improve all the time,” said Weeks.

During his visit to campus, Weeks joined Prof. Himanshu Jain and two students—Ray Hickey ’14 and graduate student Ukrit Thamma ’11—in a tour of two unique, state-of-the-art surface analysis facilities in Sinclair Lab. Jain, professor of materials science and engineering, is director of Lehigh’s International Materials Institute for New Functionality in Glass (IMI).

“I think they were in awe,” Jain said of the students’ friendly conversation with Weeks. “I think he likes to learn and so rather than give advice and be in that kind of role, he mostly tries to gather knowledge from others.”

The IMI was established at Lehigh in 2004 with a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF). After a national competition, the institute won a second five-year contract from NSF in 2009. Corning advises the IMI in establishing key scientific challenges and research opportunities in the field of glass.

Jain said that Weeks was excited to see glass demonstrations using candy glass by Bill Heffner, associate director of the IMI, and that the lab work emphasized that Lehigh is a resource for glass research and education.


Photograph by Christa Neu 

Story by Dawn Thren

Posted on Tuesday, April 17, 2012

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