Dr. Mehmood Khan, executive vice president and chief scientific officer of global research and development for PepsiCo, addressed graduates from the College of Business and Management in Minnesota on June 2. The Class of 2013 was honored in a commencement ceremony at St. Catherine's University in St. Paul.
The following is the transcript of Dr. Khan's commencement address:
President Loftus, Vice President
Bojar, Dean Hollbrook, faculty, distinguished guests, and most of all – the
graduating class of 2013, thank you for having me here today.
I’m so happy to be here to celebrate
all of you, as well as the 25th anniversary of Cardinal Stritch
University in Minnesota. I’m so happy to be back in this great state; the place
where my career in the United States began.
In his last great work, Four Quartets,
T.S. Eliot wrote that “home is where one starts from.”
And, graduates of the class of 2013 –
whether you’re from Rochester, Eden Prairie, or Coon Rapids – this is where you
start from on this newest journey.
In many ways, your lives and your
stories already exemplify the advice I wish to share with you today.
Today, MBA’s and business degrees in
hand, you become CEOs. You are now the
CEO of you, incorporated. So far, to
get to this place, your performance has been very impressive.
But to keep performing, you must keep
reinventing yourselves and the organizations to which you devote
and as you reinvent yourselves within
the context of a changing world, you must ensure that your values – your
purpose – remain anchored and constant.
In the next several minutes, I’d like
to share with you how I’ve approached the challenge of transformation, in my
own life and in the organizations with which I’ve worked. And my hope is you’ll find within my
experiences lessons that help to guide you as you begin the next chapter in your
lives -- as you build corporation you.
The process of transformation begins
with accepting the fact that there will always be something that we don’t know,
something we know we don’t know, something we can’t see.
I remember, when I was younger, my
mother used to say to me, “” which means, “The darkest spot in the
room is right underneath the lamp.” Her
point was that no matter how much light you shed – no matter how knowledgeable
you are – the answers to your questions are often right underneath your nose
where you can’t see them. I’d like to add an addendum to that
saying for you.
You see, the only way to illuminate
that spot under our nose is to move the lamp, so that spot is
If we look throughout history, we find
that downfalls – whether by people, organizations, or nations – often come from
not moving the lamp; from not embracing change. Not being willing to undergo the process of
reinvention. In order to succeed, we
have to be humble enough to know that there are always things we haven’t
learned yet – but we can, if we are willing to.
There’s a famous
story about Michelangelo. He had just finished “David” – perhaps the defining
masterpiece of renaissance sculpture – and an admirer asked him, “How did you
learn the genius of Michelangelo?” He responded, “ancora imparo."
Here, at a Franciscan
school, I trust there are more than a few people who understand Italian, but
for those of you who can’t, I’ll translate. He said, “ancora imparo”, “I am still learning.”
That quote hangs on a
plaque in my office today. I keep it there to remind myself that if the genius
Michelangelo can turn around and say, "Well I've just finished David but
still learning,” then
there’s no reason I should stop learning either. Neither should you.
I guarantee that you
will all be faced with situations in the future where you will be forced to
say, “I don’t know.” Do not fear those situations. Instead, embrace them, and
even more so, push yourselves to constantly find and conquer those things you
“know you, don’t know.” Continue to learn every day.
I make it a point to do so. And because
of this, my eyes have been opened to new practices and ideas, and in some
cases, new careers.
After medical school, I took a job teaching
at the Mayo Clinic, just down the road in Rochester. I had a mentor here in Minnesota,
Dr. Frank Nuttall, who offered me one of the most important lessons I’ve
received. It wasn’t about endocrinology
“Everything I’m teaching
you in my lab will become obsolete,” he said. “I’m not teaching you science. I’m teaching you how to think.”
I remembered his words a few years later
when I made tenure, which was one of my goals. At that major milestone, when I
could have settled in for a comfortable and predictable career trajectory. It was at that moment, I left for a
job in business, in a country I didn’t know, where they spoke a language I
I imagine you, also, will have moments
where – all of a sudden – a comfortable and predictable trajectory presents
itself to you. I am not advising that
you look a gift horse in the mouth, but I am saying that those are the moments
when you should be aware of encroaching complacency.
I left the Mayo clinic for Takeda
Pharmaceuticals, in Japan. My father asked me, “Did you have a problem in
practicing medicine?" It is a valid question. Why, when I had worked so
hard to be a doctor and teacher, would I want to leave it all behind?
What I told my father was that I
wanted to fulfill my own dreams. And those dreams were not about treating one
patient at a time, but about discovering and researching drugs that can touch
millions at a time.
There was one more reason I wanted to
change, and it was on a more personal level. I was afraid of not learning. I
was afraid of plateauing. Eventually, I was able to work my way
up to president of Takeda. I directed millions of dollars in research, and we did
some important work there.
So there I was: formerly a tenured
professor, now running Japan’s largest pharmaceutical company. And then I was
given the opportunity to re-invent myself again. I was offered a job as chief scientific officer,
Global Research and Development of PepsiCo, and I took it.
This time, my friends, family and
mentor were asking me for what reasons would someone of my deep education and
science background want to join a food and beverage company. To them, my
decision seemed to be off course and off track. However, from my
point of view, the fact that a global company of PepsiCo’s caliber would be
interested in someone like me was a unique opportunity. I saw it as an open
door to use all of my expertise to help the food and beverage industry think
My advice to you all is cherish that
ability to change, and the ability to cause
change. I’ve found that if you’re
willing to embrace personal reinvention, you will become the type of leader
that can help organizations reinvent themselves, too.
What my mentor didn’t fully accept at that
moment he was questioning my decision is; just as people must reinvent
themselves (and science is constantly being reinvented), businesses must
reinvent themselves as well.
Even great companies must constantly
be changing. History is littered with
once strong companies – companies like Kodak and Polaroid – that no longer
Now, Pepsi-Cola has been around since
the 1880s. And PepsiCo today owns many
of the brands that you may not even have realized helped get you through here:
whether you started your day with Tropicana orange juice or Quaker oatmeal. And whether you got through a late night with
the help of some Gatorade or Mountain Dew and a bag of Doritos, just to name a
few of our twenty-two billion dollar brands.
Even with all of that history, and all
of that staying power, PepsiCo knew it had to change. This guiding principle
manifests itself in a number of different ways: Sustainable environmental
practices, building a better workplace, and most importantly to me, making a
wide range of products to meet changing consumer needs from treats to healthy
I am leading this
work in two ways.
First, I am leading
the work to make our traditional products healthier. For example, we’re reformulating popular
products to have less salt, use healthier oils, as well as several other
changes. We do not trumpet this work,
but it is a significant shift.
More visibly, we are
investing in healthier foods -- 100% juices, oats, grains, dairy. These
good-for-you products now account for 20% of our company, and that number is
rapidly on the rise. That’s why a doctor
was going to a food and beverage company; because that company wanted to
change, and take nutrition seriously. And because I was willing to change, I have the opportunity to help lead
For what it’s
worth, my hire at PepsiCo started something of a trend. Nestle, Unilever, they
have all brought in R&D leaders with health care backgrounds. So there’s a lesson in that, too: don’t be afraid to be the first, to start
your own trends, your own movements.
As I said at the
beginning, you are all CEOs of your own brand. You have invested in yourselves, and I’ve spoken to you about pursuing
This is what is
required to perform, and it is necessary, but it is not sufficient.
When you look in the
mirror after a day’s work, the CEO and the one voting shareholder meeting face-to-face, I want you to ask not about shareholder value but about shareholder values.
“Am I performing in a way that advances my own personal values? Does what I’m doing have purpose?”
That’s the return you
want to maximize, for yourselves, and for our world.
The PepsiCo corporate
guiding principle that I just referenced – the one that is being used to
reinvent the company, has a name. It’s called, “Performance with Purpose.”
We called it that
because we wanted value-driven action. We recognize that our company does not
operate in a vacuum. It operates in communities throughout the world. And our
associates are members of these communities too. We drive the same roads, our
children attend the same schools, we shop at the same stores, etc.. We are not an abstraction; we are a company
of real people – parents, spouses, volunteers, mentors, etc., who care about
health and sustainability.
No matter where you
go, whether it is Rochester, or Japan, or anywhere in between; never lose sight
of your values. Jobs will come and go, but your values will always be
speakers will tell you that you are capable of doing something great in your
I don’t think that’s
true. I don’t think you can only do one great thing. I think you can do
two, or three, or five, or a dozen great things if you perform with purpose.
If you continue to
learn, nothing can hold you back.
If you’re willing to
keep re-inventing yourself, you’ll have no upper bound.
If you let your
values guide you, you will find fulfillment.
It is traditional upon graduation to
move the tassel on your mortarboard from right to left. It may seem like a
small change – after all, it’s just string. But it means so much more. It
signifies both the change you are making today, and all of the changes that are
yet to come.
In chemistry, when a substance
undergoes a chemical change, there is often a release of energy – like an
explosion. When we, as people, undergo those changes, we have those bursts of
We can make and build amazing things
with that burst of energy. We can lead others with that burst of energy. We can better the world with that
burst of energy.
Cardinal Stritch University Class of
2013, do not be conformed to this world. Be transformed by the renewing of your
mind. Keep changing. Keep learning. Never stop.