Spotlight: Wendell P. Weeks ’81
Wendell P. Weeks ‘81, chairman and chief executive officer of Corning Incorporated, is passionate about science and technology. He believes that passion serves him well in his role as CEO. He recently delivered the Donald M. Gruhn ’49 Distinguished Finance Speaker Series lecture at Lehigh. Photo: Christa Neu
Corning’s Wendell P. Weeks ‘81 is passionate about science and technology. He believes that passion serves him well in his role as CEO.
I was born out West, and I grew up outside of Scranton, Pennsylvania. Neither of my parents went to college. My father worked in plumbing, heating and water systems, and my mother was a secretary at the local elementary school. They instilled the value of hard work in me early. But my dad’s business really struggled, so I also learned how tough things could be if you didn’t have a strong financial sense. That led to my decision to study accounting at Lehigh because I wanted to have a solid foundation.
My first job was with Price Waterhouse, where I worked as an auditor on the Corning account. I was so impressed with Corning’s people and culture, I just knew it was where I wanted to be. I felt like it was the kind of place that would not only make me a better leader, but also make me a better man.
After a few years at Corning, I decided to go to Harvard Business School and get my MBA. Somehow I had attracted the attention of Jamie Houghton, the CEO at the time. When he heard I was going to Harvard, he made me the most astounding offer: He said he would pay for my tuition; all he asked was a handshake that I would return. And of course, I did.
I met my wife Kim [Frock ’82] at Harvard Business School. We actually had been at Lehigh at the same time, but I never met her there—maybe because she was Phi Beta Kappa and a much better student than I was. When we attended HBS back in 1985, the seat you sat in the first day was where you sat for the rest of the semester. I didn’t realize that at the time, but I was smart enough to sit next to the pretty girl. She’s been at my side ever since.
Kim is my hero. She founded the Alternative School for Math and Science in Corning, because she recognized the public school system alone could not meet the needs of all students. She wanted to provide a challenging curriculum in a supportive environment, because middle school is a time when a lot of students start to struggle, and where girls are most likely to turn away from science and math.
My appointment to COO and then CEO would probably not have happened anywhere besides Corning. I led the optical communications division, which became one of Corning’s most successful businesses. But it was also the business that almost killed the company when the telecommunications industry crashed in 2001. Jamie told me, “You got us into this, you’re the best one to lead us out.”
At Corning we don’t punish failure because if you haven’t had both successes and failures, how do you know the difference?
I have always been passionate about science and technology. I spend a lot of time in our R&D labs guiding innovation projects, and I have a bunch of patents. I know it’s unusual for a CEO to be so immersed in the technology, but it helps me make better business decisions for Corning and see solutions, connections and opportunities that I might not see otherwise.
One of the greatest disservices we do is to ask people when they’re 18 to choose what they’re going to focus on for the rest of their lives. Obviously, you need to pick something to study. But where you start is not necessarily where you end up. Some of the most interesting and successful people I know have had the most unusual journeys.
I believe as individuals, we have little meaning. We find our meaning through our relationships, our service to others, and the contributions we make to institutions that will outlast us.