Dr. Mehmood Khan addresses the Class of 2013 in Minnesota

Monday, June 10, 2013 3:45:00 PM

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.

Put simply:   

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 yourselves, 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 illuminated. 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 I'm 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 or diabetes. 

“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 didn’t speak.

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 differently. 

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 exist.

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 eats. 

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 that change. 

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 innovation. 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 there.

Most commencement speakers will tell you that you are capable of doing something great in your life. 

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 energy too.

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.

Thank you.