Michelle Williams, PhD’87

Michelle Williams

Michelle’s story sounds like it must have been deliberately calculated and executed. How else does someone go from Jamaica at an all-girls boarding school to college in New York City to graduate school at the University of Utah to Global Group President of Arkema, a billion-dollar subsidiary of Altuglas International? Turns out, Michelle had zero plans whatsoever to lead an international company along her career path. Instead, she thought she might like teaching. As she says, “Plan A never works out, and sometimes it’s Plan H or Plan G that finally works!”

She came to the University of Utah after breezing through college so much so that it was all a blur, and she found herself in Dr. David Grant’s research group at the age of 19. “I had no idea what I was getting into.” She, like most 19-year-olds, was looking for adventure and eagerly said goodbye to her teary-eyed mother at the airport. Michelle was checking off her adulting list: she rented an apartment--her ​own​ place; figured out her schedule; supported herself on her tiny teaching and research stipend; and she made her way, “I mucked my way through it.”

Michelle is emphatic that “this is where I grew up.” Only second to her decision to have children, coming to the University of Utah Chemistry Department was the best decision she ever made. Despite her overwhelm when she began her graduate research, she was quick and willing to ask for help, and she’s continued to do so throughout her entire career. “The reality is that I have always found that there are people who will help you. There are always people who see something in you.”

As she was completing her PhD research and dissertation defense, Michelle began casually interviewing with companies while she waited for her experiments to finish. She turned down a job offer from Dow Chemical though the interview was one of the most impactful conversations she would have about her career. The interviewer advised her, “young lady,” at which Michelle rolled her eyes, “you’re going to have opportunities and opportunities, and you need to find a company that has the right personality to match your personality.” She turned down the Dow Chemical position, and, instead, accepted a job at Rohm and Haas.

The job at Rohm and Haas was a continuation of the sense of community she had come to love at the University of Utah. It was a small enough, family-owned company where she could build relationships, and the focus was on learning, training, development and growing people. From a young age, Michelle has developed and followed her core values through every step of the way.

 
by Anne Vivienne