Davidson College Scholar and Ubben Posse Fellow Claudia Hernandez with her host Ken Frazier, chairman and CEO of Merck.
Davidson College Scholar and Ubben Posse Fellow Claudia Hernandez with her host Ken Frazier, chairman and CEO of Merck.

Ubben Posse Fellow Interviews: Ken Frazier

Fall 2018 | National

The Jeff Ubben Posse Fellows Program awards five exceptional Posse Scholars $10,000 each and the chance to spend 4-6 weeks during the summer shadowing and learning from a major industry leader. The interview below with Ken Frazier, chairman and CEO of Merck, was conducted by Posse Scholar Claudia Hernandez, now in her junior year at Davidson College, who worked with Ken Frazier as a 2018 Jeff Ubben Posse Fellow. The conversation has been edited and condensed.

CLAUDIA: I want to get started by hearing a little more about your childhood. Can you speak to me about that?

KEN FRAZIER: I grew up during a period of great social upheaval in the United States, with the war happening in Vietnam and the Civil Rights Movement. I lived in the inner-city of Philadelphia. My mother died when I was young, and so I was raised by a single parent father, which I think is unusual.

Have there been any mentors in your life that have shaped the trajectory of your career?

A lot of my life was spent having to demonstrate that I belonged.

Absolutely. I had great parents who were very demanding. Then I became a lawyer and I had several partners in the law firm that I joined who were tough on me. But looking back on it, they helped me develop as a trial lawyer. Then when I came to Merck I knew nothing about business and the CEO at that time, a gentleman named Roy Vagelos, took me under his wing. He helped me understand what makes this business important fundamentally and its purpose in the world. And if I’m the CEO today—I guess it has a lot to do with that mentoring.

What values of Roy Vagelos do you see in yourself today?

I’ll say the ones that I aspire to show. First is Roy’s contribution to humanity, which speaks to the core value that Merck has always provided society. Putting people first and going beyond what is required for us to do, to serve humanity. The importance of science and scientific excellence. The importance of having the right people in the right jobs and supporting our employees.

How has diversity, or the lack of diversity, shaped your career today?

When I was coming along, most of the institutions that I was a part of didn’t have very much diversity. In those days, the word diversity wasn’t even a part of the vocabulary. A lot of my life was spent being the first in a place, and having to demonstrate that I belonged, and that wasn’t always comfortable. But I had people in my community, people in my church, people in my family, as well as professors and others who supported me and helped me develop the self-confidence that I needed to deal with some of the messages that were coming at me, which were not always supportive.

What about your education?

Well I’m very fortunate. My younger sister and I came along at a point where school bussing for the purposes of desegregation was very much in vogue in Philadelphia. So, we were bussed from our inner-city neighborhood to the best schools. I didn’t really like it at the time, because I would rather go to school with my friends and not get up early in the morning. But looking back, it was a tremendous opportunity for me because the quality, the rigor, the standards of the education in the schools that I went to were much higher.

Does that mean that merit is an important value for you?

I think there are different conceptions of what a meritocracy is, and what I was referring to is that some kids grow up in this country in an environment where they’re not exposed to the educational opportunities that other kids are. Merit really comes down to the individual and what the individual does with their own capabilities. In our society, I think it’s unfortunate that we don’t develop all children to their full potential.

We must go out of our comfort zone to include society’s presumptive outsiders.

What have you done to make this world a more inclusive place?

Well, inclusive is a new word. I would say that I’ve tried to make the world a more just place, a fairer place. I’m a lawyer by training, so I spent a lot of years in courts trying to make sure that people had their voting rights. I tried to ensure that people who were accused of crimes got fair trials, including people who faced the death penalty. When I came to Merck in an executive position, I had more of an opportunity to deal with the issue that you call inclusion, and what I’ve tried to be as a CEO is somebody who demonstrates how important it is that all our employees are able to contribute irrespective of, for example, their ethnicity, faith, or gender.

What advice you would give people of power to help develop the leaders of today who come from underrepresented backgrounds?

It’s important for those of us who are insiders to recognize what it’s like to be an outsider. I know that from my own life experience, but I think it’s important for people who are in positions where they can include or exclude people, to make sure that they’re being fair in how they approach everybody. We human beings all like people who are like us, and we like people who like us, so we must go out of our comfort zone to include people who are society’s presumptive outsiders.

Knowing that you only have about one more year left as CEO, what you would like your legacy to be when you leave?

Well, I’d like people to say that Merck continues to make a big difference in the world for people, through science. I’d like them to say that we did things that we didn’t have to do, like develop an investigational Ebola vaccine for sub-Saharan Africa. I’d like them to say that Merck is a better place for women and minorities and others to come to work. Most importantly, I would like people to say I left behind a bunch of people who are more dedicated and more talented to advance the company’s mission.

Read More:
Ubben Posse Fellow Interviews: Satya Nadella
Ubben Posse Fellow Interviews: Dan Weiss
Ubben Posse Fellow Interviews: Hon. Patti Saris
Ubben Posse Fellow Interviews: Dr. Steven J. Corwin

Meet the 2018 Jeff Ubben Posse Fellows.