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Tufts helped me understand the importance of adhering to sound values ...

Ellen Kullman was the first woman to lead DuPont in its 210 years of history & has pushed the company into several new businesses food, fuel, and safety, which the chemical giant had never ventured into.

Early Days

The youngest child of Joseph and Margaret Jamison, Ellen was born (1956) in Wilmington, Delaware. She had her schooling from the Tower Hill School, Wilmington, and completed her bachelor's study in mechanical engineering from Tufts University in 1978.

She has said that she got into engineering because she liked science and maths. But, she realized it was not really what she wanted to do - work as a design engineer. Instead, it dawned upon her, that she liked working with people and being out in there, so she ended up going into sales of technical products with the now-defunct Westinghouse Electric Corporation, which was into electrical distribution equipment, and then into sales and product management. She also realized that she had to get the business perspective of things and ended up going back to school.

So, she did her master's degree in management from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University in 1983, and joined General Electric as a management trainee. Soon after, she worked in its corporate strategy office, became the marketing manager of GE Medical Systems before eventually going on to become a director of the company. She joined DuPont as marketing manager for the medical-imaging business, in 1988 followed by being the business director and global business director of the X-ray films and electronic imaging divisions respectively. Her ascent up the ladder at DuPont started in 1995 with her elevation to vice-president and general manager of White Pigment & Mineral Products business, along with which she also was made the business director of many other businesses.

The Spark

Watering plants to keep the family garden beautiful was her first lessons in life that you don't water it, it's going to die. The principle i.e. investing today for growth tomorrow, has stayed on with her ever since. In-line with this principle, she launched a safety consulting business in 1998 that started to generate hundreds of millions of dollars in new revenue within just a few years, and today brings in annual sales of $5 billion.

Another interesting aspect about Kullman is the fact that she was a sportswoman - played basketball and known to be very competitive at that. This also shaped the future leader in her - as she understood the dynamics of a team game - because business cannot be a one-man show.

The Journey

When she assumed responsibility of the CEO's post, she realized the organization was too bureaucratic to be able to function freely and fully to its capacity - so, first and foremost that had to change. That is one of the reasons why taking out a layer of leadership was necessitated. A bit of re-organizing the business was also warranted, in terms of aligning strategies with needs of people and bringing them to the research and business tables. That meant changing the structure to get closer to the people and the locations, and striving for more localized innovation.

When she was named CEO in January 2009 - a year in which the company was still under the impact of 2008 - a tumultuous year for the global economy, she quickly realized that there had to be a definite approach in steering the almost 2-centuries old company out of troubled waters.

She now set about defining that approach which comprised four principles to stick to:

1.Figure out things the company can do something about, and get about doing them which she figured, were things like:
a.Preserving cash by maximizing variable contribution dollars through smart pricing, drastically reducing spending, striving zero-base capital expenditures, and significantly reducing the working capital.
b.Promoting DuPont's innovations - launched more than 1500 news products since she assumed leadership.
c.Finding new markets for existing products
2.Adopting a new trajectory by rethinking your business model. She decided to take DuPont's safety capability and see if a business could be created out of it - by assuring that it harnessed the power of its science to meet customer need. So, what started as a pilot venture with brief involvement of Wharton faculty, and which failed initially, has now turned out to be a master-stroke. In addition to annual revenues in the hundreds of millions of dollars, the safety and protection business is said to have created relationships with customers around the world that the company is leveraging across all of its business lines.
3.The next of her leadership principles was effective communication. As the organization grew under her leadership, becoming more and more diverse with every single direction, on thought communication could pose a problem. But, Kullman knew pretty well that one of the mantras of successful leadership is to be able to address this very crucial part of the role. Thus she does everything in her power to ensure it is so: she makes it a point to spend more time at plant sites and sales offices, spending good amount of time with customers as well as at research laboratories. And, out of her own admission, she seems to get a different kind of high altogether - ideas, energy, and a sense of focus toward where the company should be going to.
4.Her fourth leadership strategy in times of crisis is to maintain pride around the company's mission, which was sustainable growth in terms of increasing share-holder value by reducing the company's environmental footprint along with that of its customers. This hinged primarily on two aspects: 1) reducing waste and fossil fuel usage at its chemical plants and 2) inventions supporting bio-fuels, photo-voltaics and other forms of renewable energy, or hurricane-resistant building materials that help save lives.

The company tugged along through the economic crisis under Kullman's leadership, with her restructuring of the 210-year-old chemical company. One of the strategies was sell old businesses to free capital to invest in the realigned product-line strategy. So, she sold DuPont's auto-paints business for $4.9 billion and bought Danisco, a Danish enzyme maker, for $7.1 billion; analysts expect the CEO to push the company deeper into agriculture and nutrition.

Besides the safety and protection products Kullman has been able to slowly but surely stream-line the company's business into areas such as food and fuel while retaining the basic fiber of DuPont. She has truly transformed DuPont into a market-driven science company.

On fuel, she is gunning for sustainability that underlines the company's mission. Thus, her strong belief in solar energy led the company to make new materials-like the silver lines on a solar panel are a silver-based paste with which DuPont is able to give higher efficiency on solar panels, driving to grid parity with conventional electricity production costs. And, there is a array of products on similar lines that is expected to change the face energy industry in the near future.

Similarly, the food requirements of the ever-growing population has meant that alternative sources of food production are identified, that will help reduce the burden on the conventional farm production. Thus came about the acquisition of Danisco, whose industrial bio-sciences division, Genecor, had been on Kullman's radar for quite some time as it seemed to be in line with where DuPont was envisaging to go - nutrition and health, and bio-sciences. Very early in that introduction to the Danish company, she had spotted the potential of this division as the skills of both the companies seemed to be complementary, and together they could make a kill out of and, along the way, helping reduce the food production load.

Thus, we can see that, she has clearly driven home the lessons learnt from the economic crisis, and defined the three-pronged research strategy that will insulate the company to a great extent from any future crises. The company's annual $1.4 billion investment in research and development now focuses on increasing agricultural productivity, reducing dependence on fossil fuels and protecting lives.

She is on the boards of many other companies and institutions such as the board of trustees, Tufts University, and the board, United Technologies Corp., General Motors Corporation, board of directors of the National Safety Council, etc., member of the U.S.-India CEO Forum, the Business Council, and the executive committee of SCI-America. She is also the co-chair of the National Academy of Engineering Committee on Changing the Conversation: From Research to Action.


Ellen became a member of the board of Change the Equation (CTEq), a national coalition of more than 100 CEOs committed to improving science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) learning for U.S. Pre K-12 students. It primarily works on three areas, 1) Improving Philanthropy to increase the impact of corporate philanthropy by emphasizing high quality, scalable programs, 2) Inspiring Youth-Capture the imagination of young people, giving them a solid foundation in STEM and insight into the unlimited postsecondary and career options, and 3) Advocating Change-Promote proven state policies and research-based practices that enhance student mastery of, and interest in, STEM disciplines.


Ellen Kullman is married to Michael Kullman. The couple has three children - daughter Margaret and, sons Stephen and David.

Awards & Accolades

@Received the prestigious Aiming High Award for 2004.
@Forbes ranked her 7th of the 100 Most Powerful Women in 2009.
@Regarded as one of the 50 most powerful women in business by Fortune, at rank 4 (2012).
@Women Corporate Directors (WCD) Visionary Award for Strategic Leadership (2012).


*"Tufts helped me understand the importance of adhering to sound values - respect for people, ethics, safety, and the environment. I owe a great deal to Tufts, and a high-quality engineering education is only part of what I received from the school."
*"The ability to address broader customer needs through high-value services -- going beyond the traditional 'make-sell' business model -- is critical in deciding which new technologies will receive funding."
*"There's nothing like a bad economy to get people confused about what their mission is. They start thinking their mission is to reduce cost. That's a tactic, that's not our mission."
*"It's really critical that we maintain the focus on the company's mission and keep reminding people of it. People have a lot of pride in the mission and they want to understand that the mission is not going to change, even though the world around it has changed tremendously. You've got to capture that heart and soul. That's how we're going to be successful."
*"You have to play with the other people on the team whether you like it or not."
*"There is an understanding of the disruptive capacity that politicians can exert."
*"If crisis risks do not materialize and financial conditions continue to improve, global growth could be stronger than projected. However, downside risks remain significant, including renewed setbacks in the euro area and risks of excessive near-term fiscal consolidation in the United States. Policy action must urgently address these risks."
*"I think that it was the ability to deal with ambiguity. The world's a changing place, but in large complex organizations, most of the people are looking for just what they need to do to get done. And when you're starting a business, there's not a lot of certainty."
Hope viewers caught up the spark...