President and CEO of Carbon
Ellen Kullman, CEO of the 3D printing startup Carbon, is no stranger to leading a company through crisis. Before becoming the CEO of the California-based company, she spent 27 years with chemical giant DuPont—seven of them as its CEO. She was the first woman to lead the more than 200-year-old company. Ellen 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. She serves on the board of trustees of Northwestern University. Ellen has been named one of the “50 Most Powerful Women in Business” by Fortune and one of the “World’s Most Powerful Women” by Forbes.
Ellen, a Kellogg School alumna, spoke with Kellogg professor Jörg Spenkuch as part of a leadership and crisis management speaker series. “I spent 27 years in total at DuPont. So by the time I was the CEO, I was 20 years in. I knew the people very, very well. Sometimes you sit in your own environment too long; it’s like the frog in the frying pan. And you don’t see it, you don’t feel it. You’re not listening enough to the outside. And so it really is [about] having that eye to the reality of the situation, not what you’d like it to be, and really making sure you’re getting the straight, unvarnished truth about what the situation is. You really just have to make sure you have the right people holding the mirror up and telling you the truth,” says Ellen.
Sometimes leaders, particularly in crisis, face a trade-off between doing what they and others perceive as right and what is good for the bottom line. But for Ellen it was all about navigating correctly, “I grew up in the “four stakeholder” theory of leadership, meaning that if you make products your customers love, and your employees are actively engaged, and the communities where you operate want you there because you’re a good citizen, then your shareholders will benefit.”
Ellen adds, “If you were only looking at shareholder returns, you wouldn’t make investments in anything that didn’t pay back in a couple of years. When you’re on the front side of science, paybacks can be longer than that. And I think you even see with the high-tech companies out there in Silicon Valley: these guys have huge valuations and they haven’t made any money yet. So you need to take a look at more than just the bottom line. You can cut research and development, and you’re not going to have a company in five years, or ten years, right? So you have to take a longer-term view.”
“I always try to use principles to make my decisions as opposed to one-offs, because otherwise, how can you explain that you spent the money in that case but didn’t spend it in another case? If you can establish some principles around those engagements, whether people agree with you or not, at least they have an opportunity to understand,” says the steadfast leader. “The only thing you have is your reputation. People forget the specifics. People couldn’t tell you whether I had TSR to beat the market or not. But what they could tell you is: Do they believe I’m an ethical leader? Do they believe I stand on principle? And do I face issues head on?”
Ellen says, “You need to make those decisions based on, can you live with yourself? I’ve had men leave DuPont, go to another company, and within a year call and say, “Can I come back?” And these were actually people I wanted. So, [I said] sure. But I interviewed them before they came back. I wanted to understand what was going on. And frankly, in a couple of these cases, they were asked to do things that they believed were unethical. And that was something they just couldn’t live with.”
Ellen didn’t start out as the CEO of DuPont; you rose through the ranks. How was journey, she says, “Have a high ‘say-do ratio.’ So if you say you’re going to do something, do it. And if you do it, do it well. I had a reputation for saying what I was going to do and getting it done. The other thing is, can people trust you? And it’s not, are you trustworthy or not? It’s, do they believe you are? Every company that you work for writes a book on you. And that book starts the day you walk through the door, and it doesn’t end when you leave. Know your book, right? Know what people say about you in the company.”
“I was known to have very sharp elbows early in my career. I played competitive basketball in college, so I had to bring them in a little bit in order to really excel in the DuPont culture. And all the things that make you great as an individual contributor or a middle-level manager work against you as you get to higher levels. You need to manage more through influence. You need to understand people and where they’re coming from and look for common ground. And it’s not about winning or losing, it’s about coming together to get the company or the business into a better place.”
“As a Carbon board member I had a first-row seat to the incredible innovation coming out of this company. I really believe that Carbon is in a position to pave the way for a stronger manufacturing future. I always said it would take a compelling reason for me to take another operating role. And Carbon is compelling. Everything we are doing to reimagine the way products are designed, engineered, and manufactured across many different industries is inspiring,” she says.
According to Ellen, it’s truly an interesting time to be in this industry. “We’re starting to realize the potential for digital and additive manufacturing technologies to reimagine how products are designed and made. The COVID-19 crisis in 2020 has only underscored this. Additive companies have stepped up to meet challenges to help address supply shortages caused by regional shutdowns and disruptions. The pace of product innovation has also been remarkable,” she explains. For example, to address the shortage of swabs needed to increase testing capacity for COVID-19, Carbon production partner Resolution Medical launched a new Lattice Swab, Crafted with Carbon™ Technology that’s been assessed by Stanford and others to be a safe and effective solution. The process from design to production took only 20 days, and clinical assessment with 400 patients happened in 50 days. This type of accelerated product innovation—and accelerated product introduction—can’t happen with traditional manufacturing methods. It’s inspiring to see how far the industry has come. “Additive manufacturing can provide ways to circumvent problems disrupted global supply chains are having and get needed products to market faster; I think this has big implications for a digital future for manufacturing. You can reimagine how supply chains work with digital additive technologies. This is a big reason why I’ve always been so inspired by what we are doing at Carbon—redefining how products are made and brought to market.”
Carbon, the leading 3D printing technology company, has been named to Fast Company ’s prestigious annual list of the World’s Most Innovative Companies for 2021.
“Manufacturing and supply chain industries showed immense resilience in the last year. These industries have realized that traditional practices and systems will not always meet the needs of today’s reality. The 3D printing process has proven the ability to bring better products to market in less time, with the ability to produce these products where we need them,” adds Ellen. “This recognition of innovation by Fast Company is a proud moment for Carbon and the 3D printing industry.”When the COVID-19 pandemic hit and shelter-in-place orders were issued in March 2020, Carbon leveraged its Digital Light Synthesis™ (DLS™) process to innovate and produce urgently needed products, including face shields and nasopharyngeal swabs for COVID-19 testing.
Carbon created and validated an open-source face shield design, posting the design publicly on the company website in a matter of days allowing partners across the globe, as well as others with industrial-grade 3D printers, to manufacture face shields for healthcare and essential workers in their local communities.
Carbon is a 3D printing technology company helping businesses to develop better products and bring them to market in less time. The Carbon DLS™ process combines versatile printers, advanced software, and best-in-class materials to deliver functional parts with end-use performance and aesthetics, helping engineers and designers to create products that outperform. From prototyping and low-volume production to production-at-scale, hundreds of global organizations, including adidas, Ford Motor Company, and Becton, Dickinson and Company, use the Carbon process to create a wide range of functional end-use parts and print them reliably wherever and whenever they need them through our production network partners.