Merck & Co., Inc., Retired | Kenilworth, New Jersey | General Catalyst | New York, New York
For his distinguished tenure leading Merck & Co., one of the world’s most innovative healthcare companies, including driving breakthrough developments in immuno-oncology, and for his authoritative voice for social equity and expanded access to quality affordable healthcare in underserved communities.
As the COVID-19 pandemic amply demonstrated, pharmaceutical companies play a vitally important role in society and the people who lead them are among the most influential figures of the business community. Some stand out for dedicating their leadership to principles of justice and fairness, in addition to driving their company's growth. One such executive is Ken Frazier, retired chairman and CEO of Merck.
Raised in an economically disadvantaged neighborhood of North Philadelphia as the son of a janitor and grandson of a sharecropper, Frazier’s background is not one that often leads to the C-suite of a Fortune 500 company. Thanks to a family who instilled in him a passion for learning and a deep sense of ethics, as well as his own drive and hard work, Frazier was able to transcend his obstacles, succeeding in school and earning a scholarship to Penn State University, followed by a scholarship to Harvard Law School.
Even before he chose law as a career, Frazier was inspired by the example of Thurgood Marshall, the first Black Supreme Court justice. Frazier’s law career and pro bono work show that formative influence. Joining the prestigious Philadelphia law firm Drinker, Biddle, & Reath, he built a solid reputation as a brilliant corporate and criminal defense attorney, eventually becoming a partner in the firm. Among his most prominent successes was overturning the wrongful conviction of Bo Cochran, who had been on Alabama’s death row for nearly 20 years. Through Frazier's tireless efforts, Cochran was eventually granted a new trial, found not guilty, and freed. Frazier's work was not limited to the courtroom: on several sabbaticals from the firm, he taught trial advocacy to Black attorneys in South Africa during apartheid.
After 15 years at the law firm, Frazier initially led Merck’s public affairs division before becoming general counsel. He successfully led the company's legal team through significant challenges before moving on to positions of increasing responsibility at Merck, including leadership of the commercial division and eventually chief executive officer and chairman in 2011, becoming the first African American CEO of a major pharmaceutical company.
As head of an organization dedicated to saving and improving lives, and advancing medical science through medicines and vaccines, Frazier approached his job with the same commitment to principle and ethics that had guided him throughout his career. He steered the company toward taking greater risks for the fulfillment of its health mission rather than solely increasing its investment returns. Toward that end, Frazier's 10-year tenure at the helm of Merck was marked by an increasing emphasis on the research and development of new treatments and products, often placing long-term innovation ahead of short-term profitability. During Frazier’s time at Merck, the company introduced a major cancer innovation, KEYTRUDA, that has changed the treatment paradigm for several types of the disease.
In keeping with his personal passion for social justice, Frazier also placed renewed emphasis on Merck's involvement in philanthropic, educational, and humanitarian initiatives. He retired as Merck’s president and CEO in 2021, and stepped down as executive chairman in 2022, but Frazier's dedication to service has hardly diminished. Among his special interests are expanding healthcare access to underserved communities and increasing economic opportunities for underrepresented groups. The latter is the mission of OneTen, an organization Frazier co-founded and remains co-chair of. OneTen will provide training and family-sustaining jobs for one million Black Americans over the next 10 years, with the aim of making a meaningful, concrete, and lasting contribution to social and racial justice. Frazier is also chairman, Health Assurance Initiatives, at venture capital firm General Catalyst, where he advises on investments and partnerships for companies that are well positioned to help transform the healthcare industry through collaborative and responsible innovation. He also continues to serve on the boards of Weill Cornell Medicine, Eikon Therapeutics, the National Constitution Center and Cornerstone Christian Academy in Philadelphia, among others.
Frazier's distinguished career is one of a man who stands resolutely on principle and who acts in accordance with his own strong moral and ethical compass, one that often inspires the solidarity of others. Never afraid to choose a different path for the benefit of others, Ken Frazier has made an indelible mark on business, healthcare, and social justice—with more to come.
Information as of March 2023