Invest in education, people and the future, say Xerox and Amazon execs

By Hilary Parker
July 01, 2007

A failure to invest in science and engineering education could have dire consequences in today’s global economy, said corporate leaders from Xerox Corp. and Amazon.com in separate April addresses at Princeton.

Anne Mulcahy, chairman and chief executive officer of Xerox, and Amazon senior vice president Jeffrey Wilke ’88 shared insights from their careers in the final two events in the “Leadership in a Technological World” lecture series, sponsored by Princeton’s Center for Innovation in Engineering Education.

“We prepare students to lead by providing exposure to real-life leaders—leaders who understand technology, great leaders, experienced leaders, leaders with courage and integrity,” said Dean of Engineering H. Vincent Poor.

In her April 5 talk, Mulcahy reflected on lessons she learned “on the firing line” after she assumed the helm of Xerox in the midst of a corporate crisis, and the practices she used to lead the remarkable turnaround of the multibillion-dollar corporation.

“If there is a line between failure and success, it is certainly about the quality of your people and the innovation they bring to the market,” Mulcahy said, drawing a parallel between Xerox’s corporate crisis and the national shortage in the production of great engineers and scientists.

The growing technological prowess of other countries, especially China and India, can be viewed as good news for a competitive economy, according to Mulcahy. But the failure of the United States to nurture its own technological infrastructure will cause significant problems, she said, noting that federal funding for mathematics, science and engineering has declined by one-third since 1970.

Business, government and the educational system must collaborate to counter this trend, she said, in part by making the talent base more inclusive. Mulcahy praised Princeton for its focus on diversity, innovation and education, and said she looked forward to partnerships between Xerox and the University.

In an April 18 talk that focused on the importance of making decisions for the long run, Wilke said a lack of foresight can be blamed, in part, for the frequent decisions by corporate leaders to move operations overseas and for the current crisis in the nation’s production and retention of talented scientists and engineers. “The aggregate of these choices is a long-run outcome that should make Americans very nervous,” he said.

Echoing Mulcahy’s sentiments, Wilke called for a commitment from current and future leaders in industry, government and academia to support education in mathematics, science and engineering.

The lecture series, which will continue next year, was supported by the William Pierson Field lectureship fund. The series also included addresses by former Lockheed Martin Co. chairman and CEO Norman Augustine ’57 *59 and David Crane ’81, CEO and president of NRG Energy.