Alexion CEO Urges Grads to Consider ‘What’s Possible’

by Dave Cranshaw
UNH Today Editor

During his Commencement address, David Hallal, CEO of Alexion, told graduates of the Tagliatela College of Engineering and the College of Arts and Sciences that it was natural to consider a question that may have already been asked by their parents and professors: “What’s next?”

He challenged them to consider another question: “What’s possible?”

“This is the question you should be asking yourselves now and at each stage of your life,” said Hallal. “In fact, it’s a question I want you to ask every day.  When you ask ‘what’s possible?’ you can even achieve the impossible.”

(L-R) Allen Sack, David Hallal, President Steve Kaplan, Catherine Smith and Board Chair Phil Bartels

Hallal told the graduates about one of his meetings with a customer as a pharmaceuticals sales rep. “It was terrible,” he said. “After my longwinded introductory monologue, he simply stood up and left.

Video by Matt Scripter '14

“Quickly I learned that less talking, thoughtful questions and active listing would help me to find answers for my customers,” he said. And by the end of his first full year on the job, he was named salesperson of the year.

In the early 1990s he set his sights to working at Amgen, a fast-growing biotech company, but they were looking for people with 10 years of experience, and he had only three. Still, he was granted an interview, and “I boldly stated that what I lacked in years of experience, I possessed in learning agility and determination.”

He got the job. 

Years later, he arrived at Alexion to help launch a drug to treat PNH, a blood disorder. The disease, though, was so rare that physicians claimed they had never seen a patient with it, and they questioned whether Alexion could be a viable company.

“So we educated the medical community,” he said. “They needed to know that what appeared to be routine stomach pains could actually be a dangerous symptom of this deadly blood disorder. Finally, the medical community was convinced to look at their patients differently.”

Today, Alexion is No. 3 on Forbes’ list of the world’s most innovative companies.

“I am proud to say that we have saved many lives,” said Hallal. “Imagine if we believed the skeptics and had given up and said ‘why bother?’

“If you believe in yourself when most others do not, go for it – even if it is a little risky,” he concluded. “It takes courage and conviction to do things differently, and this is how you create new opportunities for yourself and others.”

As part of Commencement, Hallal was awarded an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree. Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degrees were also presented to Allen Sack, a retired professor who taught at UNH for 40 years and who is nationally known for his efforts to reform intercollegiate athletics, as well as Catherine Smith, the commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Economic and Community Development.

James Kielar ’16, president of the Undergraduate Student Government Association, encouraged his classmates to take a moment to acknowledge that they are now part of less than seven percent of the world’s population that has a college degree.

“Wherever your life takes you, apply the skills you have learned and mastered, and one day let’s meet again in Bartels,” he said.

Melanie Gonzalez ’16 M.S., executive vice president of the Graduate Student Council and president of the Community Psychology Club, conceded that she doesn’t know what the future will bring, but she said she is confident she will be successful because of her experiences at UNH that challenged her to leave her comfort zone.

“Allow yourself to change,” she told her classmates. “Let in new people, new experiences and new ideas. Be courageous enough to create new dreams for yourself.”

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