Alexa Dembek is the Chief Technology & Sustainability Officer for DuPont. A 28-year DuPont veteran, she champions the company’s entrepreneurial mindset to spur growth, while fostering close collaboration with customers. Today, Alexa leads business and innovation strategy alignment to make the most impactful portfolio choices for DuPont. She is passionate about elevating the role sustainability plays in these investment decisions and how DuPont can help customers achieve their own sustainability ambitions with our solutions. Alexa holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Chemistry from Northern Illinois University and a PhD in Chemistry from Pennsylvania State University.
Change is essential to success but can provoke resistance. You helped change the culture at DuPont from a centralized R&D organization to one more focused on collaboration and innovation. What advice would you give to others leading significant change?
I want to be very clear about what has changed. The culture of DuPont was always relentless innovation. That hasn’t changed. But as we looked out into the future and intentionally designed the new DuPont to meet 21st century demands, we realized what needed to improve was the speed at which we delivered those innovations to our customers and the marketplace. Our business leaders need as much firepower as possible to deliver the latest technology and solutions to drive accelerated impact. So, we iterated many aspects of the company portfolio and overall cost structure, including our R&D organizational design, to embed our central research and development teams into the businesses. In parallel, we focused a small corporate group to focus on emerging trends to identify DuPont’s future growth opportunities.
This model is proving to be quite successful. Our scientists and engineers are working much more collaboratively with business leaders, marketers and, most importantly, our customers to get to even better solutions faster. And our corporate team works as an entrepreneurial insights team to keep us agile, nimble and ahead of the curve.
Communicating the vision clearly with our global teams, articulating the rationale and measuring outcomes has helped to energize our culture so we can better solve for modern problems. I believe this is the right formula for helping an organization adapt, iterate and create a culture of continued relentless innovation.
What technology trends are you following most closely with an eye toward how they may impact the work of your scientists?
I think more about, “What are the trends affecting society and how are they drivers for growth?” For global inspiration, I turn to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to see what the big problems are that need to be solved now. And then I dig deeper to ask, “What is DuPont able to contribute to that effort?”
By aligning our science and innovation to these goals, we can see a clear path ahead in terms of the biggest market drivers in the years and decades to come. We’ve identified seven of the 17 SGDs where we believe we can make a significant contribution through our science and innovation to challenges that are both important and valuable.
Areas like Healthy and Sustainable Food, to meet the goals of eliminating hunger and promote wellbeing (SDG #2 and #3), for example. Or our innovations in Clean Water to promote health and sanitation (SDG #6). Our investments in the AHEAD™ Automotive Electrification program will transform the automobile industry, increasing energy efficiency and reducing greenhouse gas emission (SDG #7 and #13), while our work in 5G High Speed Connectivity will enable more connected, sustainable communities (SDG #11). We also seek beneficial uses of production byproducts so that we can reduce waste, water use, electricity consumption, and ground transportation (SDG #12).
The biggest technology trends allowing us to solve for these issues are areas like electronics convergence and biotechnology acceleration, using big data help innovate faster and make products smarter. Clearly, there is also a need for advanced materials to enable the connectivity and mobility explosion right around the corner in the Internet of Things and 5G. We invest to leverage and position our underlying technology capabilities to enable our strategic innovation focus areas.
Among your scientists at DuPont, what non-technical skills do you most highly value?
I know every CTO would say this, but our scientists are about the most innovative and driven group of professionals you would ever come across. I am continually inspired by their dedication and commitment to be on the leading edge of solutions for our customers and society.
That said, by the time I get to interview candidates for our most critical positions in the company, I already assume they’re smart. That’s a given. What I look for then is the quality of thought they exhibit, outside of a laboratory environment. What is her strategic perspective to problem solving? Is she a good communicator and can she lead teams effectively? I learn a lot by the quality of people’s questions. Curious people ask great questions and you must be continually curious to succeed at DuPont. And you also need to collaborate across diverse teams to get to the best solutions.
Peter Drucker, the famed management guru, wrote: "Because the purpose of business is to create a customer, the business enterprise has two--and only two--basic functions: marketing and innovation." What's your take on Drucker's viewpoint?
I think that’s an overly simplified point of view. And I know it is not the whole story at DuPont. Ask any scientist why they got into science in the first place, and they’ll say because they were curious about the world around them and wanted to have an opportunity to change it for the better. That’s what we are doing every day at DuPont. And our scientists wouldn’t stay here as long as they do if they didn’t feel they were given that opportunity. So, sure, we must keep innovating, I agree with that, but more and more, companies are judged by investors, customers, employees and the communities in which they work by how we address the three big P’s – profit, purpose and people. And we are working hard to get all those right at the new DuPont.
How did your parents influence your leadership style?
I would say the biggest impact my childhood and family had on me was a strong work ethic. I’m from the Midwest, where we get up before the dawn and don’t stop working till the job is done. Today that means I am often on email getting back to people before 5:00 AM and then taking calls with my European and Asian colleagues well into the evening. That’s one thing I’m proud of and represents a bit about my style of leadership. I am very open and responsive to people, whether it’s our CEO Marc Doyle or one of our newest recruits. (Although I may answer Marc’s email first!) And I also travel all over to meet with our teams – so I am very visible.
People know me personally at DuPont; I’m not just some figurehead. I love meeting with our teams and getting to know people and hearing firsthand what their issues are, so I can help. I aspire to be a servant leader – which essentially means I see my role as enabling others’ success. Helping you to be successful: I see that as my most important job.
What's the biggest internal challenge you confront in your job? What about external?
For me, the internal and external challenges are just aspects of the same problem set, namely how we increase the speed to market and impact of our substantial investment in R&D on company growth. How do we drive the top and bottom line and delight customers? We need to adjust to new mindsets and foster behaviors that nurture innovation. We need to focus on growth, not projects!
I like to think of new DuPont as a 217-year old start up, with a rich heritage but an entrepreneurial culture. To be successful, we are doing things differently. We are outlawing silos and “not invented here” so we can collaborate successfully internally and externally. We are focused on strategic innovation platforms to have an outsized impact. We are challenging ourselves to learn faster, to pivot faster, and to incorporate bolder market and sustainable development insights into our innovation process.
For example, DuPont has launched the AHEAD™ program, an initiative designed to bring customers solutions and material capabilities from across the company to market for advanced mobility, connectivity and related infrastructure. We identified the “jobs to be done,” we assembled capabilities across the company and we now offer customers a tailored portfolio of solutions and materials that are improving motors and batteries in electric vehicles.
What unique challenges do women scientists encounter in industry? What can the women--and the companies that employ them--do to mitigate the challenges?
I have been deeply inspired by Reshma Saujani, author of Brave, Not Perfect. If there is one message I can share with young women scientists, engineers and researchers it is to embrace your imperfection. So often, women try to overcompensate for gender stereotypes by striving for perfection. I’m a recovering perfectionist myself, and it took me a long time to realize that the pursuit of perfection comes at a cost—not taking enough risks. You can’t change the world by playing it safe, so we need to encourage bold thinking and bold acting to get to better outcomes. We try to encourage a culture for all DuPont employees that rewards bold thinking and risk taking, and I think that particularly resonates with our female scientists.
As an executive, I work with a team on something called my executive platform. Essentially that means – what do I really care about and then how can I go out and champion those issues and use my voice to push for improvement?
Two of the tenets of my platform are STEM education for women and championing diversity and inclusion at all levels of the company. At the end of October, we released our 2030 Sustainability Goals and I am proud to say that one of our goals is to become one of the world’s most inclusive companies, with diversity well ahead of industry benchmarks. And we are getting there – this is all part of modernizing our policies to address modern life. And I’m also proud to say we’ve already acted to implement a new parental leave policy to boost employee satisfaction and fulfillment and do our part to help professional women achieve better work life balance. This one’s very important to me – expect great things from DuPont on this topic.
What are some of the ways you try to retain young talent at DuPont?
I spend a lot of time at universities. I talk to many young people just starting out their careers. What I hear most often is they want to know they’ll have the opportunity to work on exciting projects and that their work will matter. Graduates today look at the state of the world around them and want to change it for the better. It’s a big part of my job – to paint a picture which illustrates how coming to work at DuPont will give them that exact opportunity.
When they hear about the work we are currently doing, how we are addressing the SDGs I mentioned above through our science, their ears perk up and they start to see themselves contributing to that work. I love when I can turn the lights on for them that way.
I think we have all been inspired lately by the youth movement and the activism we have seen from our youngest generation. I know I have. I want to give today’s young minds the opportunity to plug into DuPont’s incredible scientific capabilities across the world, so we can harness their passion and unleash their talents to solve these big issues.
How does your company develop international markets while simultaneously protecting DuPont's intellectual property?
We develop global technology solutions, but we recognize they need to be localized to have impact and to delight customers. We need to be relevant to the local markets we serve. A great example is how we develop food ingredients in our Nutrition and Biosciences business. Food tastes are hyper-local to the culture, so what works in California may not work in Sao Paulo. This approach is important across many parts of our portfolio: develop globally, innovate locally.
To be successful with global development and local solutions for relevance, we have 11 Innovation Centers around the world. These are the places where our scientists and engineers—but also marketing people–meet customers, partners or anyone who collaborates with us to solve the problems we talked about before. These are designed to support co-creation and collaboration, true melting pots for innovators from DuPont and the external world working together.
We protect our innovations with deep market knowledge, unique application development insights, specialized technology capabilities and, of course, intellectual property in the form of patents and trade secrets. Our approach is multi-dimensional to build enduring competitive advantage for growth and to solve customer challenges. Yes, we find that protecting intellectual property in some locations is not always easy, but the diversity of thinking that comes from our innovators working across all regions in the world is well worth the effort.
What do you think about a culture that makes heroes of actors, recording artists, and athletes but has little love for scientists who develop medicines to keep us healthy, innovative solutions to keep us fed, new energy sources to transport us, advanced materials to keep us comfortable, and new approaches to improve the environment?
Sports and the arts have always captivated people and that isn’t stopping anytime soon. If anything, it continues to ratchet up, with so many of us enabled to see all this content nonstop on our mobile devices. We live in a 24/7 connected society and we better get used to that.
However, I also know that with this explosion of connectivity and content, people have more choices. And a lot of people, scientists and non-scientists alike, are tuning in to understand more about the world around them. It’s good to have an open society in that way, as it empowers people to make better, more informed choices. I am encouraged that people will learn more about the incredible science all around them in their everyday lives, and I for one am not going to stop talking about it.
You are passionate about innovation. Which four persons appear on Alexa Dembek's "Mt. Rushmore of Innovators?"
First is someone who inspired me at DuPont when I was starting out as a young scientist, and that’s Stephanie Kwolek, the inventor of Kevlar®. She is a titan in the field, and I feel she should be a household name. To me, she defines the notion of innovation with a purpose. Kevlar® is used in many products, but few applications are as important to saving lives and protecting our first responders. That’s something that ought to be celebrated. So, she’s the first one to be chiseled.
Next would have to be Steve Jobs, for no other reason than he’s helped me stay connected to my three sons! He also exemplifies how true vision can push an organization and a culture. He didn’t invent the smartphone, the tablet or personal computer, but he had a vision for how these technologies would change our lives. He sparked a wave of creativity and connectivity, and we will never see the world the same again.
Third is Walt Disney. If Jobs was a visionary, Disney was on the next level entirely. Walt wasn’t a researcher, an engineer or a scientist, but he understood the power of science and technology to change how we see the world. He understood innovation as part invention, part imagination and part application, well before his time. He understood the power of an immersive experience and developed many principles that have guided the generations of innovators that followed. Also, I deeply appreciate his connection to his customers. There are huge lessons in the power of that vision.
I hope this doesn’t sound like a cheat for number four, but the next ten years are too important to do anything but rely on the collective ingenuity of our young talent. I realize that this is tough to carve in stone, but maybe we don’t need to chisel it on a rock to be hopeful for the outcome. I have faith in young talent that the next ten years will see the emergence of a more sustainable, more connected and more equitable world.
It is an eclectic mix, but I think they’d all get along! They sure would have a lot to talk about…
Boss Talk with Alexa Dembek has been edited for length and clarity.
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