(Bloomberg) -- Merck & Co. Chief Executive Officer Kenneth Frazier is one of only four Black CEOs at the helm of a Fortune 500 company, a reflection of how difficult it remains for people of color to ascend the executive ranks of corporate America, he said.
“I would say that if you had gone back 25 years, the most pessimistic observer would have thought we’d have more than 4 out of 500,” Frazier said in an interview on Leadership Live With David Rubenstein on Bloomberg Television. “We have to recognize that there are subtleties to our history around race.”
“It’s much harder for many African Americans to find their way into those positions,” Frazier said.
Since taking the helm at Merck in late 2011, Frazier has bolstered the Kenilworth, New Jersey-based company’s cancer-treatment franchise with the top-selling immunotherapy drug Keytruda and by increasing spending on research and development. During his tenure Merck also won the first-ever U.S. approval for an Ebola vaccine, and it is now one of many drugmakers pursuing vaccines and treatments for Covid-19.
Frazier, a Harvard-trained lawyer, said his path to success was made possible by social engineers in Philadelphia who sought to desegregate schools by busing students from the inner city to predominantly white school districts.
“That closed what I call the opportunity gap that many African American people in this country still face every day,” Frazier said. “By fortune, I happened to be put on that bus, and I know that changed the trajectory of my life.”
Later, Frazier said he was provided another critical opportunity while working at a law firm as outside counsel for Merck. The drugmaker’s then-CEO, P. Roy Vagelos, offered him a role in the company’s legal department, where Frazier served for a year, and then shortly after moved into the business-side of the company.
Vagelos, who made diversity of management a priority, encouraged him, saying, “I think you can do more than law,” Frazier said. Now, Merck has one of, if not the most, diverse management teams in the country, he said.
Merck has been seeking a successor for Frazier, who said he’s focused on business continuity during the pandemic and won’t leave until the board asks him to step down.
“I’m going to stay as long as the board wants me to stay,” he said in the interview. “The board will make a decision when they think it’s the right time for that decision.”
In April, Frazier announced a three-pronged approached to curb the novel coronavirus pandemic, unveiling plans for an experimental pill to treat Covid-19, and two vaccines to prevent it. Frazier previously told Bloomberg that Merck’s objective is to deliver solutions that can be manufactured at scale and deployed globally.
Asked if he sees himself as a role model in the workplace to those seeking to rise to higher ranks, he said, “I don’t think I have a choice because of the scarcity.”
“I do think in the last few weeks with the whole George Floyd situation, we’ve now got an opportunity as a nation to look at the discrepancies between the stated creeds of this country, and the realities of this country,” he said.
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