Kenneth C. Frazier, executive chairman of the board and former CEO of pharmaceutical giant Merck, earned the 2021 John Wooden Global Leadership Award in recognition of his business leadership, his philanthropy, his focus on innovation and his commitment to promoting racial and economic equity. He was honored on March 31, 2022, at UCLA Anderson’s first in-person Wooden gala since 2019.
The annual award is named for legendary UCLA basketball coach, author and leadership expert John Wooden (1910–2010) and recognizes exceptional business leaders who exemplify Coach’s values — popularly expressed in his well-known Pyramid of Success. “There’s no box in that Pyramid that Ken does not check,” said Les Brun, chairman and CEO of Sarr Group LLC and lead independent director at Merck, commenting on why Frazier is so deserving of the recognition.
Prior to Frazier’s retirement in mid-2021, there were only four Black chief executives in the Fortune 500 list and in the top 50 companies of the S&P 500. Frazier substantially increased Merck’s investment in research, while refocusing the organization on the launch and growth of products that provide far-reaching benefits to society. Under Frazier’s leadership, Merck developed life-saving medicines for cancer immunotherapy and HPV.
A lifelong advocate for social justice and economic inclusion, Frazier is the recipient of numerous awards and honors, including the Anti-Defamation League Courage Against Hate Award and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund National Equal Justice Award. In the spring of 2021, he was among more than 70 Black executives to sign a letter arguing against more than 90 election restriction bills introduced in 48 states. Published as a two-page ad in the New York Times and the Washington Post, the letter was a response to the swift passage of a Georgia law that makes it harder for Black Americans to vote. Frazier led the effort with Kenneth Chenault, chairman and managing director of the venture capital firm General Catalyst, former chief executive of American Express and the 2009 John Wooden Global Leadership Award honoree.
At the Wooden gala, Chenault and Frazier engaged in a frank on-stage conversation, acknowledging how the current crises of pandemic, war, national unrest and wage inequities necessarily affect an executive’s personal and business priorities. Chenault asked Frazier about his widely-quoted idea that a corporation should have a soul. “How can a company have a soul?” Frazier asked rhetorically. “There are two elements. The first element is purpose. Every company has a purpose: to serve society in its own unique way. These companies should be more than just vehicles for wealth creation.”
His own company, he said, “exists to alleviate human suffering around the world. And the people who come to work every day really believe in that. The second element is conscience — do the company’s strategies and behaviors align with its stated values?”
Frazier was the son of a janitor with a third-grade education — at a time when a person in such a trade might still earn a wage that secured a family’s food, shelter, clothing and even an occasional vacation. Frazier, who joined Merck in 1992 as general counsel and helmed the multinational company for the last decade of his 29 years there, is aware that today the same work and schooling aren’t rewarded the same way.
It’s why the Harvard Law School graduate co-founded (again with Chenault) the nonprofit OneTen, whose mission over the next 10 years is to hire, promote and advance one million Black individuals who do not have a four-year degree into family-sustaining careers. That college degree requirement, says Frazier, is the structural barrier to 76% of African Americans seeking family-sustaining employment. “Do we really have to exclude people because they don’t have four-year degrees?” he asked. “It’s not about lowering standards, it’s about creating opportunities. Talent is more evenly distributed in our society than opportunity is.”
Frazier finished the conversation with his thoughts about Coach Wooden, pointing out his childhood pastor was the uncle of Philadelphia-born basketball player Walt Hazzard, a star of Coach Wooden’s first championship team. “He taught people to care about others. It wasn’t about winning, it was about teaching people how to maximize the value of their lives. In the face of adversity Coach Wooden would remind us that we can and must make progress.”
A trio of UCLA basketball Hall of Famers paid further tribute to Coach Wooden. Two-time NCAA Champion and NBA Champion Keith Erickson paraphrased the coach, saying, “Friendship comes from mutual esteem and devotion,” and added, “He didn’t just say it, he lived it.” Erickson was joined on stage by Jamaal Wilkes (B.A. ’74), who also played for Coach Wooden, and Ann Meyers Drysdale (B.A. ’79), who played for the Bruins women’s team and whose brother David played for Coach Wooden.
First presented in 2008, the Wooden Award was last bestowed in 2019 to Mellody Hobson, co-CEO and president of Ariel Investments. Because of the pandemic, the award was not presented in 2020. However, five UCLA Anderson students were awarded John Wooden Fellowships in 2020, and they shared the stage with Frazier and the four 2021 fellows at the recent gala. “You know they’re going to change the world going forward,” Frazier said of the fellows.