From aerospace to manufacturing, Rose Lee ’87 was born to lead

By Erin Philipson. This article originally appeared in the 2021 issue of MAE Magazine.

The importance of innovation and technology have woven through the various roles held by Rose Lee ’87 over the course of her career. After completing her bachelor’s degree in the Sibley School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at Cornell University, Lee went on to pursue an impressive career with a hand in all aspects of manufacturing and will soon become the CEO of Cornerstone Building Brands.

Rose Lee

Lee had always been interested in math and science as a child, so engineering was a natural fit when it came time to decide on a career path. After graduating valedictorian of Westmoor High School in Daly City, California, Lee applied to the College of Engineering at Cornell University. She committed to Cornell without having visited and when she arrived at the beautiful Cornell campus, she was not disappointed. Her years at Cornell were formative—instilling the work ethic that she has applied throughout her career. The combination of the high-quality faculty and students and the new challenges each semester was a major driver for Lee.

“Cornell is an institution that challenges you and helps you recalibrate, and even when you receive difficult feedback, that just makes you that much more aware about your gaps and what you need to work on,” says Lee.

As a first-generation Korean immigrant, Lee found a community at Cornell of fellow Korean American students, becoming involved in a range of extracurricular activities with the student group. Outside of the student groups in which Lee was involved, she found Ithaca to be an inclusive and community-focused place.

After completing her undergraduate degree, Lee entered the aerospace industry by joining Pratt & Whitney as a design engineer. Lee obtained her master’s in aerospace engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute during her time at Pratt & Whitney, applying her thesis to her work—creating a synergistic experience.

It was at Pratt & Whitney that Lee became interested in the leadership and management side of the business, deciding to pursue her MBA from the Sloan School of Management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Lee worked in consulting at Booz & Company, then held several leadership roles at Saint-Gobain and DuPont, most recently as the President of DuPont Water and Protection where she leads a diverse business creating water, shelter and safety solutions to create a more sustainable future.

DuPont is creating solutions to the global water crisis, an issue that leaves 785 million people without access to clean water. Her engineering background has been instrumental in understanding the underlying technology then working to expand these solutions globally.

“The power of innovation is really important,” said Lee. “My grounding in technology, and my appreciation for innovation has been a critical part of what I find motivating, interesting and just amazing at times.”

At DuPont, Lee is changing the narrative surrounding failure. Her view on failure came from her background in engineering, where researchers are constantly generating hypotheses, testing and retesting— learning from failures and moving the needle towards technological advancements.

“The big picture theme is to figure out how to fail fast and embrace failure so that you become more of a learning organization for yourself as an individual and as an institution,” said Lee. “If you figure out how to do that, I think that that’s one of the key attributes of a winning organization.”

Beginning on September 6, 2021, Lee will transition to president and CEO of Cornerstone Building Brands, the largest manufacturer of exterior building products in North America.