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This Black History Month, we honor the GAME CHANGERS: Everyday heroes whose actions make life better for the people around them. SEE ALL OUR GAME CHANGERS HERE


Kenneth Frazier

Age: 56


Why he is a local hero: Frazier is the first African American to head a major pharmaceutical company.

It’s hard to believe that African Americans are still crossing a number of firsts off of their lists well into the 21st Century. Frazier, CEO of Merck,  is the first African American to head a major pharmaceutical company.

The Harvard-trained lawyer made a name for himself at the company by defending it against painkiller Vioxx claims, which was found to increase the risk of heart attacks and strokes. His performance cut the expected cost of settling claims and legal issues in half, and one industry insider called him the company’s “savior.”

Frazier was in line for a $23-million compensation package last year, but he has roots in fighting injustice. As a partner at the Philadelphia firm of Drinker Biddle & Reath LLP, Frazier and colleagues helped to free James Willie “Bo” Cochran, an Alabama man convicted of murder. The team won Cochran a new trial and he was acquitted 21 years after his conviction.

“He had an orientation to the challenges of dealing with people who were disadvantaged and disempowered that very few lawyers who haven’t done this kind of work bring to the process,” Bryan Stevenson, executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative and a consultant on the Cochran case, told the Harvard Law Bulletin.

“To create justice in the world and to do the things that really matter, you have to be a lawyer who not only has ideas in your mind but also conviction in your heart,” Stevenson continued. “I definitely think Ken fits that description.”

Frazier also helped to run Cornerstone Christian Academy, an inner-city Philadelphia school that was in trouble.

He also comes from humble beginnings. After his mother died when he was 12, his dad raised three kids in North Philly. Frazier also worked while in college to support himself.

“It’s actually misleading to say I grew up in North Philadelphia. I grew up in my parents’ house, which by accident of geography was in North Philadelphia,” Frazier told the Harvard Law Bulletin. “My father had a very strong view of what it took to be successful, and he in effect brainwashed all his children to think that we could do anything. He had very high personal standards. Although he was a janitor by accident of birth, I believe he could have been a CEO of any company.”

Frazier was also recently tapped to head Penn State’s investigation of sexual abuse allegations facing a former coach that led to the firing of Joe Paterno before his death. He is an alumni of the school and a member of its board of trustees.

The new CEO took over Merck during a time of transition. The company has cardiovascular drugs it is about to bring to market that have the potential of bringing in $1 billion per year but had a rough 2011. Frazier told Dow Jones he wanted to be judged by how he dealt with adversity.

“It was sort of a tough debut year,” Frazier said. “I acknowledge some shortcomings, but I think we also should be judged by how we deal with a shortcoming.”

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