How a Digital Manufacturing Company is Paving the Path to More Sustainable Products

Carbon’s CEO Ellen Kullman says it all has to do with the company’s innovations in polymer-based materials
Polymer beads
Image credit: iStock by Getty Images

Key Takeaways:

  1. Ellen Kullman gets candid about what she was most prepared and unprepared for upon accepting her role as CEO
  2. Carbon’s innovative approach to polymer products
  3. Kullman reflects on gender in the workplace and how the industry can be more rewarding women

What did you learn - generally - during your tenure as DuPont’s CEO that you expect will most benefit you in your current role as Carbon’s CEO?

My experience at DuPont starting and leading new high-growth businesses, now known as DuPont Industrial Biosciences and DuPont Sustainable Solutions, involved transferable knowledge that is very relevant for us at Carbon at our stage of growth. We also saw double-digit growth of DuPont’s Safety and Protection Platform, so much involved with that growth translates well to what we are doing at Carbon with partners like adidas and Riddell. In general, at DuPont I zeroed in on taking market-backed approaches to our business—something that I think will serve Carbon well now and into the future.  

Let’s take you back to your first month on the job as DuPont’s CEO. In retrospect, which requirements of the job were you most prepared to take on? And which were you least prepared to execute?

We were in the midst of the global financial crisis that began in 2008, and there was no comparison to prior recessions to rely on. Each of the DuPont businesses was impacted differently. The good news was that I knew the businesses and the people well. There is no preparation in a situation like that, but I relied on my knowledge and judgement to make decisions quickly and lead the company through the uncertainty. 

How does Carbon’s innovative approach to producing polymer products significantly contribute to a sustainable future?

I’m excited about the opportunities Carbon’s technology affords on several fronts to encourage more sustainable manufacturing practices and products. For example, we work with customers to identify ways to reduce the amount of material used to make a given part, including through part consolidation and also through Carbon software-enabled lattice designs that can replace dense, solid parts.

Our technology also lends itself to producing products closer to their point of use, which can lessen energy consumption by reducing inventory warehousing and transportation burdens.

Another big focus for us—and a huge area of opportunity—is materials. Developing new polymers is front and center for Carbon—polymers that both perform better than any other additive materials out there and that also reduce environmental impact through the use of bio-feedstocks.

We recently launched a rigid polyurethane material, Carbon RPU 130, that has a combination of toughness, rigidity, and high temperature resistance not seen before in an additive, while also being nearly 30% plant-derived and thus more environmentally sustainable than comparably performing polymers used in injection molding. RPU 130 is designed for demanding automotive, industrial, and consumer product applications. We’re excited to build on this work as we continue to expand our extensive materials portfolio. 

In a 2014 profile published in Barron’s, you said that without the encouragement of a high school history teacher - who noticed your gift for mathematics - you likely would not have become a mechanical engineer. What can schools do to help students find their callings more by design, than serendipity?

I recently chaired the National Academy of Engineering’s Committee on Educator Capacity Building in PreK-12 Engineering Education. Our work led to an NASEM report we published just last month that underscores a significant deficit we have in the U.S. with respect to incorporating engineering concepts into training programs for our teachers.

What this means is that engineering is virtually absent from most K-12 curriculum. While some teachers on their own are able to bring engineering concepts into the classroom, we need a systems-level shift that emphasizes teacher training to improve engineering education.

This would help not only students who could be naturally drawn to engineering, but also those who go on to pursue other careers; learning how to think like an engineer helps with problem-solving, teamwork, and communication skills that are relevant in any profession.

Not long after you earned your degree in mechanical engineering at Tufts, you realized you preferred working more with customers, which inspired you to pursue a master’s degree in management at the Kellogg School of Management. What led you to that epiphany?

Once I was actually out in the workforce it became clear to me that I was motivated by working directly with people, so it led me to start thinking more deeply about different ways I could build my career. Pursuing a management degree was a natural next step at that point, and I’ve been lucky to be able to hold leadership positions since then that join my engineering background with my passion for business. 

Your mother and father founded Brandywine Nurseries in the mid-40s, which your brothers now manage. While you were growing up, what was your role in helping out with the family business?

We’re a close-knit family, and we were all very involved with the family business. It was an expectation for me and my siblings as we were growing up. We were tasked with things like unloading Christmas trees—often on Thanksgiving! There were a number of other roles too. At one point I was home on a break from college and got put in charge of overseeing plant watering at a large landscaping job. Luckily I was able to delegate some of that! 

While on the subject of your parents, how did they influence your leadership style?

Both of my parents were incredibly hard workers, and women always contributed at the same levels in the family business as the men did. My mom was essentially a math genius and served as a corporate officer for decades. So, they led by example and had an incredible influence on me.

It was ingrained in me from the beginning to be tough and to be loyal. I always emphasize having clear expectations, open communication, and informed decision-making. I listen and learn a lot constantly. It’s important to bridge different teams to hit company-wide targets. All of this is rooted in the influence of my parents and my family in general.

What are some of the ways you attempt to attract, develop, and retain young talent at Carbon?

Carbon is a very mission orientated company, and especially with younger generations, I find that job satisfaction is tied very directly to a company’s mission and values. The people we attract to come work at the company believe in our mission to reinvent the way companies design, engineer, manufacture, and deliver polymer products. The work is challenging and the problems are hard, and this is enormously motivating.

Take our efforts around sustainability—it’s a big challenge, for example, to develop recyclable materials for additive manufacturing, and our materials team’s efforts in this area are truly inspiring. Consistent feedback we hear from our employees is that one of the main reasons they are motivated and engaged with the work is because the outcomes matter. 

What challenges do women chemists encounter in the workplace that men largely don’t experience? What can the chemical industry do to make the workplace more welcoming and rewarding for women?

I co-chair an organization called Paradigm for Parity, which is a coalition of business leaders dedicated to addressing the leadership gender gap in corporate America. Since its launch in 2016, we’ve grown to include over 100 companies, including Merck, AstraZeneca, and Eastman—all of whom have committed to achieving gender parity in leadership by 2030. This speaks to the long-overdue culture shift toward achieving true workforce quality for women.

While we do see momentum now, what motivates this work for me is that women in the chemical industry and otherwise currently face many of the same challenges I faced as I was building my career initially. I’ve seen and experienced firsthand the challenges women encounter in getting promoted and holding leadership roles. It’s critical for companies to be honest in assessing where gender disparities exist in their leadership and throughout their organizations. Companies that don’t pay attention to this lose in the long run.

If companies take steps to think through diversity at every level, we’ll make great strides in making sure women are truly represented not only at the executive level, but across the business, giving women more opportunities to grow.

What non-technical traits do you most highly value in your Carbon scientists?

We have a world-class team at Carbon that includes scientists and engineers who aren’t just well-recognized in their fields, but who are curious about many fields and who are collaborative—people who are motivated to see how science can be applied to help solve challenges across a range of disciplines and industries, people who think holistically and have the imagination and drive to invent new ways of approaching practical, everyday problems. This inspires me every day! 

What’s a recent book you enjoyed?

David McCullough’s “The Wright Brothers.” I found it fascinating to learn their story as told in this book. The Wright Brothers’ tenacity and drive overcame great challenges and changed the world.  

Ellen J. Kullman, Chair of the Board of Directors, Carbon
Ellen J. Kullman, Chair of the Board of Directors, Carbon

Ellen J. Kullman is the Chair of the Board of Directors at Carbon, the world’s leading digital manufacturing company. Previously, she was Chairman and CEO of DuPont—the nineteenth executive and first woman to lead DuPont in its 212-year history.

At DuPont, Kullman led double-digit growth of the company’s Safety and Protection business portfolio and guided the company’s focus on growth in emerging international markets, championing the power of DuPont science and global market knowledge to transform industries.

Kullman is co-chair of the Paradigm for Parity coalition and a board director of United Technologies, Dell Technologies, Amgen, and Goldman Sachs. She is a member of the U.S. National Academy of Engineering and past president of the U.S. China Business Council.

Kullman holds a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering from Tufts University and an MBA from the Kellogg School of Management of Northwestern University. She lives in Palo Alto with her husband and has three adult children.

Copyright 2020 American Chemical Society (All Rights Reserved)

Ellen J. Kullman, Chair of the Board of Directors, Carbon

Ellen J. Kullman is the Chair of the Board of Directors at Carbon.