Run your own race

Jun 22, 2007

Derica Rice '88 always preferred to do things his own way, a talent that has landed him in the CFO job at health care giant Eli Lilly and Company.

Back in the years between 1983 and 1988, a tall student with a friendly face and ready laugh liked to hang out in the break room of the Academic Building. When Derica Rice '88 thinks about those days now, he still smiles.

Rice came to campus from Alabama and was surprised to find that the friendly gesture of making eye contact wasn't necessarily a common practice in the cold North. But the freshman was true to his "Southern hospitality" upbringing. "People considered me 'the geek in the break room,'" Rice remembers, laughing, "but I was the first one to meet all my classmates."

That strong sense of self has served Rice well through the years. Today he is the senior vice president, chief financial officer and highest-ranking black executive at Eli Lilly and Company, a multi-billion dollar corporation based in Indianapolis that employs 41,000 workers worldwide. The company is a leading innovator in developing best-in-class and first-in-class pharmaceutical products, and is committed to helping people live longer, healthier and more active lives. (Visit:

Rice is part of the company's senior leadership team, a member of the policy, strategy and operations committee, and the diversity leadership council. When he talks about his life story, it's clear that joining Lilly was almost destined for him.

Like many who arrived at Third and Chevrolet avenues in Flint, Rice was introduced to the idea of a co-op education by somebody's older brother. "I grew up with modest means in Alabama," said the former salutatorian of Austin High School in Decatur, Ala. "I knew I had the intellectual capacity but I had no reference point to draw on. A high school classmate's older brother (Ken Knable '87, Decatur, Ala.) was attending GMI at the time. It sounded like a co-op education could finance my education and begin to expose me to the business world," he added.

The fifth of seven children, Rice became the first person in his family to attend college. His co-op job was at the former Saginaw Steering Gear, now owned by Delphi. He quickly surmised his dislike for things mechanical, but was entranced by electronics and gadgets. A wise faculty member sent him into Electrical Engineering, where he earned his degree in 1988 and then an MBA at Indiana University in 1990.

Rice likes to say he entered the pharmaceutical business through serendipity. "My mother was a Type II diabetic and my siblings and I were trained by physicians on what to do with the clear vial of insulin that was always in our refrigerator. In all my years at home, I never once clearly looked at that vial until I was preparing for a job interview after graduate school. I went to the refrigerator, picked it up and read it. It said Lilly. In that moment," he recalled, "I realized how greatly indebted I was for the extra 25 years that vial had given me and my family. It allowed my mother to raise her seven children and build us a home and a community."

Rice took a job with Lilly in 1990 and worked in a range of sales, finance and general management positions in the United States, Europe and Canada. He is credited for sound decision making and a knack for asking good questions.

That's where the Electrical Engineering comes in handy. "I just traded one set of numbers for another," he explained. "Electrical Engineering is abstract. You can't see it. If you do see it - a blue arc - then you've done something wrong. It's mathematical modeling and analytical skills.

When linking the technologies that Rice studied in college to his work today, he said: "I'm still intrigued by things I don't understand. Lilly's a good match for me because we're asking an endless stream of questions, like 'What can we do better to fight cancer or diabetes?' We work to get rid of barriers that prevent people from realizing their full potential; in this case those barriers are diseases such as diabetes, schizophrenia or cancer. Could you implant electronic chips which determine when the body needs insulin?'

"That's the marvel of this," Rice concluded. "How hard would you work if you could remove the barriers of schizophrenia, diabetes or cancer? How many patients or families of patients can we help? Lilly allowed my mother to realize her potential and raise her seven kids. I'm at a corporation now that allows me to ask the limitless question both personally and professionally, 'How far can I dream?'"

Written by Patricia Mroczek