Let me introduce you to Kenneth Frazier. He is chairman and Chief Executive Officer of pharmaceutical giant, Merck. He is one of just three African-Americans running a Fortune 500 company (as of March 2018).
Kenneth Frazier was born December 17, 1954 in Philadelphia. His father, Otis, was a janitor who grew up in the Carolinas in the 1900’s. He states his father was denied an education. Because of this, Kenneth Frazier put a high value on education from a young age. After graduating high school early at 16, he went on to attend Pennsylvania State University. During college, Frazier raised newts and tadpoles and sold them to local stores for extra money. Frazier then studied law at Harvard, graduating with a JD in 1978. Afterward, he began his law career at Drinker Biddle & Reath.
Kenneth Frazier’s outstanding law career
While at Drinker Biddle & Reath, Frazier defended death row inmate James Willie “Bo” Cochran, who had been accused of murder in 1976 in Birmingham, Alabama. In 1995, after spending 19 years on death row, the United States Court of Appeals overturned Cochran’s conviction. This landmark case helped start the movement for Alabama reviewing cases of people wrongly convicted and awaiting execution.
In 1992, Frazier left Drinker Biddle to join Merck’s pubic affairs division as general counsel. He became senior general counsel in 1999. While general counsel, Frazier is credited with overseeing cases against Merck, including the mammoth case against the company’s anti-inflammatory drug, Vioxx.
Then, in 2006, Frazier was appointed executive vice president in addition to his role as general counsel at Merck. In 2011, he became Chief Executive Officer and member of the company’s board of directors.
Impact beyond Merck
Frazier isn’t only dedicated to his executive roles. He’s passionate about progression initiatives in developing communities and countries. He has spent time living and working in Soweto, South Africa to help fill the need for lawyers in the country. Because of the effects of apartheid, black law students weren’t allowed to study at that time, and so the country has a lack of black lawyers.
Frazier on racism in the United States
“George Floyd could be me.” – Frazier stated in an interview with CNBC. Referring to the brutal murder of 46 year old black man, George Floyd by a white police officer in May, 2020 in Minnesota. The Floyd case was alarming due to the nature of his death, but it was far from novel. The United States has been grappling with high numbers of black victims of police brutality for years. But the Floyd case was pivotal in starting a larger public movement to eradicate this horrific injustice.
Despite being at the helm of the largest corporations in America, Frazier has the keen awareness that he is a black man living in a country still plagued by racism. He is not numb or blind to the fact that black people still face discrimination and sweeping injustice.
The message in this video below is both poignant and powerful. It’s a wake up call to all Americans, regardless of color, highlighting injustice and calling for change.
When powerful people like Frazier speak out about racial injustice, people listen. And this is why it’s so significant when a black man holds such outstanding positions. He is able to bring attention to issues facing the black community.
Listen in to what Frazier has to say:
Kenneth Frazier reminds all of us of the commonality of man. That no matter the amount we earn, where we live, or the color of our skin, health and safety are our primary concerns. And when those concerns are threatened, everything else becomes irrelevant.
As powerful people like Frazier speak out about injustice, and show the world that it’s time to rise above these heinous acts, it puts an even brighter spotlight on these atrocities and lays the ground for pivotal change.