Trustee, BS 1969 chemical engineering, MBA 1974 business administration
Since it began offering programs in fall 2013, Drexel University's Charles D. Close School of Entrepreneurship has quickly established its reputation as an incubator for budding young entrepreneurs to dream up - and start up - new business ideas. But it's not just undergraduates who benefit from the School's innovative curriculum. After accompanying Close School faculty, students and staff on a pilot travel program to Silicon Valley, two-time Drexel alumnus and vice chairman of the Board of Trustees Stanley W. Silverman '69, '74 was inspired to add a new entry to his already storied list of accomplishments.
Silverman earned a degree in chemical engineering and an MBA from Drexel, and he is the former president and CEO of PQ Corporation, a global company with core businesses in chemicals and engineered glass materials. The title of president - or higher - has preceded Silverman's name for the past 30 years, but it's not his status on the corporate ladder that drives him.
"If I look back and think about the common denominator in my life, it's that I want to make a difference in people's lives," he says.
To that end, Silverman has always made time in his busy schedule to give back, professionally and personally. His long history of service and philanthropy to Drexel has garnered him a spot on The Drexel 100, the University's most distinguished alumni recognition organization, and the A.J. Drexel Paul Award for Service to Alma Mater, the highest honor bestowed by the Alumni Association.
In recent years, Silverman has become a major benefactor and ally of the Close School. He serves on its External Advisory Board and, earlier this year, he and his wife, Jackie, gave a $2 million endowment gift to establish the Silverman Family Professor of Entrepreneurial Leadership, which is held by Donna De Carolis, founding dean of the Close School. "Donna is an extraordinary leader," Silverman says, "and she inspires her students to pursue their dreams as she dares to pursue her own dream - to change the world of entrepreneurial education."
Silverman's support of the Close School exemplifies his hands-on approach to service, and it's no surprise that he accompanied De Carolis, six of her staff and 16 of her students on their visit to California this March.
"Stan enjoys talking with the student entrepreneurs about their ventures and ideas," De Carolis says. "This, of course, is very valuable for them."
The itinerary included a visit to Apple, where Silverman observed students interact with Jim Bean '91, vice president of retail. The group also met with fellow alumni and executives working at hired.com, shazam, Autonet mobile and eBay. Silverman sensed the experience was life-changing for the students, but it wasn't until he boarded the red-eye back to Philadelphia that he realized what a profound impact the trip had made on him.
"I always sleep on the red-eye, but this time I was too keyed up," he recalls. "Watching our students and these people in California doing new things made me feel like I needed to do something new and reinvent myself."
Silverman asked himself, "What's your passion and what are you good at?" The answer was clear: leadership. Throughout his career, Silverman has been both a student and teacher of leadership; he has mentored and advised C-suite executives and lectured at Drexel and the Wharton School on the subject. In July, he took on the position of Leadership Catalyst at Tier 1 Group, a firm of strategists and advisors for preeminent growth, and approached the Philadelphia Business Journal about writing articles on what makes effective leaders. The publication offered him a weekly guest column. Silverman employs two student staffers at The Triangle - managing editor Julia Casciato '16 and chief copy editor Alexa Josaphouitch '17 - to edit his articles, which explore topics such as the importance of breaking paradigms, decision making, employee-manager relationships and more.
In addition to interviewing a variety of leaders for his articles - a recent post focuses on the impact of De Carolis' work - Silverman also draws on lessons learned from his own career. He shares a few of them below.
Silverman was 35 years old and a marketing manager at PQ when he discovered that a European competitor was dumping product at below market price in the U.S. He and a colleague decided to sue the company in international trade court - and won one of the highest dumping penalties ever imposed.
"We were in Washington testifying, and we were in an area and a place where people usually aren't so early in their careers," Silverman says. "It was a great learning experience to undertake something extremely stressful and see it through to the end. When they announced the decision, I felt like I won the Olympics."
Two years later, Silverman was promoted to the position of president of PQ's Canadian subsidiary.
Find a Way to Relate
Silverman's Co-ops at the Thiokol Chemical Corporation in Trenton, N.J. and the Sun Oil and Sinclair Oil refineries in Marcus Hook, Pa. provided formative experiences that taught him how to work with and relate to people, even through difficult circumstances. In the early 1990s, he was called upon to shut down a plant in Kansas City, Mo., and had to field the concerns of its employees in a tense town-hall style meeting.
"They said, 'All you know is how to sit behind a desk and make decisions that affect our lives,'" Silverman recalls. "And I told them about my time at Thiokol, where I worked in the plants alongside people of their fathers' and grandfathers' generation. It gave me instant credibility."
Learn From Your Mistakes
Silverman is not shy about discussing his mistakes because, he says, "People who never make mistakes never do anything." He emphasizes that learning must occur from missteps.
"I once misjudged the timing of an investment," he says. "We felt like there was a good market window, but the technology wasn't exactly ready yet. By the time we built the plant, the plant was obsolete and we had to take a write off. So I learned to be very careful about when a technology is ready and when you need to introduce it."
That being said, Silverman also believes there are key steps that leaders should take to help avoid mistakes.
"If you're about to make a decision that's going to be hugely impactful on your company, get a ton of advice and get people involved," he says. "If you're the leader, don't champion an idea; you don't want to influence your employees' thoughts. You want to hear what they honestly have to say about it, and you remain neutral until you feel you've gathered enough evidence for or against it."
Create a Sense of Ownership
At the heart of Silverman's philosophy of leadership is the idea that every member of an organization, no matter their place in the hierarchy, should feel a sense of ownership in the decision-making process, a lesson he learned from one of his plant employees. Although he concedes that a unilateral management style is sometimes necessary - in times of acute crisis for example - most long-term success is achieved by open-minded and collaborative leaders who make their employees feel valued and allow their voices be heard.
Silverman explains: "If I wanted to go in direction 'A' and an employee wanted to go in direction 'B,' I would hear them out. We would debate it, for an hour, for a day - however long it took. One of three things would then occur. I would sustain 'A' and thank them for 'B,' or I would say 'B' is really good. But more than half the time, because we rigorously tested the options against each other, we'd find a better direction, 'C.' This is because we were willing to debate the alternatives."
Silverman says transparent decision-making processes and the willingness to treat employees as equals when discussing ideas helped PQ's employees drive the company's earnings from $14 to $43 million in just five years.