Careers

How Kenneth Frazier’s background and career prepared him to 'stand against intolerance'

On Monday, Merck CEO Kenneth Frazier stepped down from the American Manufacturing Council after President Donald Trump failed to condemn the terrorism committed by white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia.

In a statement released on Merck's Twitter account, Frazier said, "As CEO of Merck and as a matter of personal conscience, I feel a responsibility to take a stand against intolerance and extremism."

Trump, in turn, lashed out at Frazier for "RIPOFF DRUG PRICES."

Following Frazier's departure, Intel CEO Brian Krzanich and Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank both resigned as well.

This kind of bold leadership is not new for Frazier. The pharmaceutical executive has built a successful career while standing up for what he believes in, an equilibrium that's proved elusive for many others.

Here is how Frazier balances his role as an industry leader with his "personal conscience:"

President Donald Trump and Kenneth Frazier
Bloomberg | Getty Images
President Donald Trump and Kenneth Frazier

High personal standards

Frazier's grandfather was born into slavery, his mother passed away when he was 12 and his father worked as a janitor in North Philadelphia. His background set him apart from many of his peers at Harvard Law School, as well as many of his peers in business and law.

One way Frazier was able to persevere, break barriers and achieve success was by maintaining high standards for himself. In an interview with the Harvard Law Bulletin, Frazier said, "My father had a very strong view of what it took to be successful, and he in effect brainwashed all his children to think that we could do anything. He had very high personal standards."

Fraizer has used his professional success as a platform from which to fight for others. In 1992, he led a team of lawyers that helped free James "Bo" Cochran, a black man falsely convicted of murder, from death row.

In an essay for the University of Toledo Law Review, Frazier called it "one of the most challenging and rewarding cases I have ever handled."

"I firmly believe the privilege of having been Bo's lawyer represents the high point of my legal career," says Frazier.

A commitment to mentorship

When Frazier graduated from Harvard Law School he joined law firm Drinker Biddle & Reath in Philadelphia. Frazier credits Drinker Biddle's first African-American associate, Melvin Breaux, for helping him navigate the corporate law landscape. Finding a mentor like Breaux, he says, was key to his success.

"If I had not been coached well about how to deal with a culture and a set of values that were foreign to my own, I would not have been able to be successful," Frazier tells Harvard Law Bulletin.

Frazier hopes that he can set a good example for rising lawyers as well. In an essay in the University of Toledo Law Review he writes, "I can only hope this lawyer's tale will inspire other lawyers to volunteer to represent indigent death row inmates."

Kenneth Frazier, Chairman and CEO of pharmaceutical company Merck & Co.
Spencer Platt | Getty Images
Kenneth Frazier, Chairman and CEO of pharmaceutical company Merck & Co.

The desire to give back

As CEO, Frazier has helped Merck strike a balance between profitability and giving back. For 25 years, Merck has donated Mectizan to help fight river blindness in remote communities in Latin America, Africa and Yemen. The Merck Foundation has also donated more than $122 million to fight HIV across the globe.

"The health care needs of the world are so great that the challenge for this generation of Merck people is to develop business models that will allow us to sustainably and profitably provide our innovative medicines and vaccines to those vast underserved populations of the world," Frazier tells Harvard Law Bulletin. "I would call that both a moral and business imperative."

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