Distribution and Manufacturing: Ingredion Incorporated
Ilene S. Gordon
Chief Executive Officer
The calculus of success
Ingredion’s Ilene Gordon brings a mathematician’s mindset to leadership.
Albert Einstein said, “Pure mathematics is, in its way, the poetry of logical ideas.” If that is correct — and who would care to dispute Einstein? — Ilene Gordon is an entrepreneurial poet.
Gordon has applied her love and facility for math to the operations of Ingredion Incorporated, which turns grains, fruits, vegetables and other plant materials into value‑added ingredients and biomaterial solutions for the food, beverage, paper and corrugated packaging, brewing and other industries. The company’s ingredients make crackers crunch, yogurts creamy, candy sweet and paper stronger, and they add fiber to your favorite nutrition bars.
The ingredients of Gordon’s own success are rooted in the methodical approach of the mathematician. “Even as a child, I was very interested in math and very analytical,” Gordon says, adding that she and her parents sometimes had to advocate to make sure she was given the opportunities she needed to pursue her passion for a field traditionally reserved for males.
She recalls being placed in the middle section of an elementary school math course when she was a 10-year-old simply because girls weren’t placed in the top section. “I had to change that paradigm,” she says. True to form, she succeeded and was placed where she belonged. “It was doable, but it took an extra energy.” Despite the inherent sexism of the situation, she says she never thought of it as a female‑male issue. “You are one person,” she says. “I always had this energy about what I wanted to get done.”
The issue persisted into middle school, where girls were assigned to a certain set of courses and boys to another. “I had to get permission from the principal to be assigned to woodworking,” she says. “I got it done.”
In all these efforts, she had the firm backing of her parents. “My parents always encouraged me,” she says, adding that having such mentors has been vital to her professional career. “It is important to surround yourself with people who are supportive of what you are trying to do.”
Gordon again was among the minority as a math major at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the 1970s, when undergraduate men outnumbered women 18 to 1. Gordon graduated Phi Beta Kappa. She saw math as the foundation of analytical thinking, which she recognized as a core competency of business leaders.
After MIT, Gordon accepted a position with Boston Consulting Group (BCG). She volunteered to move abroad and work out of the company’s London office, gaining her first exposure to international business. She believes the best leaders are willing to venture to unfamiliar surroundings. “I have trouble with people who never left where they were born,” she says. “I am looking for people who take risks and go out of their comfort zone.”
When BCG opened a new office in Chicago, Gordon was asked to move again to establish the new location. After BCG, she worked for a packaging company where she spent many years learning the business and gaining the experiences that would allow her to assume numerous VP roles — and become the first female officer — prior to Alcan’s acquisition of the company.
In 2003, Alcan asked Gordon to head its Americas packaging business, valued at $1.5 billion. In three years, she was promoted to running the global packaging business, valued at $6.5 billion, in Paris. Although her family was deeply established in Chicago, she took the risk, further preparing her to achieve her goal of becoming the leader of a global company.
That opportunity arose when she was invited to become CEO of Corn Products International. Though the company was one-third smaller than the business she was running, Gordon accepted the job. Soon after taking the position, she helped champion the acquisition of a $1 billion company that was renamed Ingredion Incorporated.
Gordon adheres to the “scientific method” in her leadership of Ingredion, where science is a key aspect of the business. During her first few months as CEO, she conducted an in-depth analysis and developed a strategic blueprint to drive growth and shareholder value.
Consistent with her growth strategy, Ingredion has made several additional acquisitions — large and not so large — to expand its portfolio of specialty ingredients, including the bold 2010 acquisition of National Starch for $1.3 billion. Gordon prides herself on acting as a bridge between the two. “I grew up as the middle child,” she says. “You always are trying to bridge solutions.”
That includes providing career pathways for young women who share her love of math. “I love being a STEM role model,” she says. “It is important to communicate to these women that they can be successful. You have to have the financial and analytical acumen.”
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