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DuPont CEO Ellen Kullman Discusses Market-Driven Science, Finding Sustainable Solutions to Global Challenges

Emphasizing the critical importance of tailoring advanced global technologies to meet the needs of distinct local markets, DuPont Chair and CEO Ellen Kullman impressed upon an audience of U.Va. students and faculty members the tremendous potential of science to help solve some of the most urgent challenges facing the world today.

Kullman’s March 27 Old Cabell Hall talk was co-sponsored by the School of Engineering and Applied Science and the McIntire School of Commerce and was part of an Engineering Leadership for the 21st Century lecture series. Her comments were made during a 90-minute public interview conducted by McIntire Associate Dean for Global Initiatives Peter Maillet.

“DuPont is an exemplar of continuous innovation and successful globalization,” said McIntire Dean Carl Zeithaml. “Ellen’s insightful commentary on leadership, sustainability and driving success in an increasingly complex and challenging global economy offered the University community an opportunity not only for education, but for inspiration.”

During the interview, Kullman spoke at length about what DuPont is doing to address pressing global problems and about the challenges of being a leader in today’s world.

“Her insight into what it means to be an engineer in a global environment was very important for our faculty and students to hear,” said Engineering School Dean James H. Aylor. 

Food for Thought

Describing the world’s exploding population as the most significant trend of our time – global population is expected to balloon from 7 billion to 9 billion over the next 40 years, with the overwhelming majority of growth occurring in emerging market-populations – Kullman discussed the enormous challenges and opportunities entailed by such growth.

Perhaps most critically, the world’s growing population will need to be fed. “We don’t make enough food today, and the food we make is not in the right places,” she said. Pointing out that farms in Africa are some 5 percent as productive as their American counterparts, Kullman said that science – in the form of DuPont-produced, high-yield plant varieties and low-toxicity, human-friendly plant-protecting chemicals – can make a staggering difference.

“If you look at an ear of corn from 60 years ago and an ear of corn today, they really don’t look a lot alike,” she said, noting that the ear of yesteryear was smaller and far less kernel-dense. Moreover, she pointed out, cornstalks grown through the old-fashioned method of open pollination must be planted about a foot apart from one another, whereas modern varieties of corn can be planted so densely that you can’t even walk through a cornfield. “We can get a lot more out of an acre of land,” Kullman said. “Science can help.”

Food for People

But Kullman said that although the problem of food security is a global one, it must be tackled locally. For one thing, food and taste preferences are inherently local, and very much culturally determined. (Farmers in sub-Saharan Africa, for example, make use of a DuPont-produced enzyme that lengthens the life of their unrefrigerated milk, allowing them to get it to market before it spoils; farmers in Brazil, however, prefer a different DuPont enzyme that allows them to rapidly turn milk into soft cheese.) For another thing, the crop that thrives in one region or country may fail in another, owing to differences in soil and climate. “The science is global,” Kullman said. “The science we have to be able to move around the world very seamlessly. But the solutions, the applications, have to be very local.”

Fostering Innovation

Developing such locally relevant applications, said Kullman, means not only finding world-class scientific solutions, but also developing locally appropriate business models and supply chains, and, critically, local-market-driven solutions and applications.

One way DuPont is developing such solutions is through the establishment of innovation centers throughout the world, located everywhere from Thailand to Brazil to Russia. The idea, Kullman said, is to provide customers with a venue for talking (either in person or via high-tech videoconferencing technologies) to application developers about their needs – and, ultimately, to get DuPont’s research closer to the customer.

More to the Story

DuPont also works to meet the world’s safety and sustainability needs through the production of high-performance advanced materials and (increasingly biologically based) chemical products. Again, Kullman stressed the critical nature of local market knowledge. “We might make the materials here in the United States, but the creation of the actual end product occurs locally,” she said. “In the case of chemicals, the active ingredients may be manufactured in only one or two places around the world, but the final formulations are done locally to meet local needs.” In two superb examples of such global/local initiatives, DuPont recently provided polymers and titanium dioxide products to Mexican partner company Repshel to produce safe, sturdy, affordable homes for families in Campeche, Mexico. Similarly, DuPont partnered with U.K.-based market leader Kilfrost to create the world’s first 100 percent biological deicing fluid for Japan’s All Nippon Airways.

Kullman also stressed that doing business locally requires far more than simply understanding local market needs – it also means understanding sometimes byzantine and complex regulatory environments; learning how to work ethically and productively in situations of less-than-stable governance; and keeping an eye out for local risks so that they can be headed off well before they hit the front page of The Wall Street Journal.

The key to understanding what’s really going on in local markets? Talk to people. “You have to be curious, and you really have to listen,” Kullman said.

Core Values

At the same time, Kullman emphasized a singular adherence to a core set of ethical standards. “We have a very distinct set of values,” Kullman told the audience, pointing out that everyone in the company could recite the company’s core values of safety, environmental stewardship, respect for people and the highest ethical standards. “It doesn’t matter what culture you’re in, we expect you to abide by them.”

Kullman ended her talk with some words of advice for women and minority students.  Kullman urged them to use their diversity – their different perspectives, experiences and language skills – as a strength.

“In the quest to fit in, we sometimes forget that we were hired for our differences,” she said. “Never apologize for who you are. Don’t stop being you, and you will be successful.”

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