CEO of DuPont says experience as a female engineer was instrumental in her success

Ellen Kullman (E ’78) is the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of global Fortune 100 chemical company DuPont. She shared at Thursday’s Lyon and Bendheim Lecture her experiences at Tufts and how they influenced her career. The Daily sat down with her beforehand for an interview.

Saumya Vaishampayan:
As an undergraduate engineering student at Tufts, what did you see yourself doing post-graduation?

Ellen Kullman:
You know what, I went into engineering because I was always drawn to math and science and I really enjoyed that kind of work. But as I got into it, what I realized was that’s not really what I wanted to do. I didn’t want to necessarily work as a design engineer; I like working with people, I like being out, so I ended up going into sales of technical products, I ended up going to work for a company — you know, electrical distribution equipment, that kind of stuff, into sales and product management, and ended up going back and getting my MBA so I had a more full business view.

At Tufts, were you a member of any clubs or organizations that influenced your career path?

So I played basketball for a couple years, was actually on the team. I was always very competitive, so that was a lot of fun. You know, engineering school pretty much took up a lot of your time, so there wasn’t a lot of time to do other things.

SV: In 2009 there were only 15 Fortune 500 companies run by women. How did your time at Tufts prepare you for being a female CEO in a male-dominated business world? Or your time after Tufts?

EK: Well, you know, I was always the only woman or one of only one or two women in most of my classes coming through Tufts, so you learned how to deal in that world. I didn’t view myself as any different than the men. We were just there, we competed, and so I think that I was obviously very comfortable in it. I think that when you’re comfortable in an environment, you make other people comfortable in the environment as well as being the one who’s a little different, so I think that learning how to work in a very open and a very engaging fashion with all different kinds of people is something that I took away from my experiences here.

What advice can you give students about life after graduation?

EK: Well you’ve got to really figure out what you love to do and the younger you are, the easier it is to try different things and move around because you don’t have a whole [lot] of stuff or a whole lot of roots usually. So, I tried a couple of different companies and different jobs and ended up going back and getting my masters. Just enjoy it and try to figure out what your real passion is because if you really love something, then you’ll do it. People always ask me the question of, “Gee, you’ve sacrificed a lot to get to where you are,” and my response is always, “If I thought it was a sacrifice, I don’t think I would have done it.” I mean, I’ve loved it along the way, so I think when you’re young; I found out my passion was in business and industrial businesses for some odd reason, probably because of my mechanical engineering degree, and I just have always worked with companies that were like that where those skills have been valued.

SV: Can you explain a little bit about the industries that you work in? So you said, more technical industries?

EK: So, there’s consumer products industries and there are industries that are more industrially-oriented. I never worked as an engineer, but I have a deep understanding of engineering principles, project management skills. I mean, a lot of the skills that engineering school taught me were how to solve problems and in the industrial world, you’re working with other businesses. It’s business-to-business, and understanding how technology can really help them be a better company and have better products for their customers and the like. I really like the science part and the technical part of it, so my company is science based. Everything we do comes from chemistry, biotechnology. I like to say that mechanical engineers are the most important because we know how to keep it all inside the pipes, but there’s an argument about that at my company.