Stephanie Burns. Photo courtesy Dow Corning Corporation.
Silicones are man-made substances derived from the naturally occurring element silicon. Silicone chemistry produces air bags, hand lotions, spacesuit boots, fiber optics, and fabric softeners. It also captured the imagination of Stephanie Burns (b. 1955), who in 2003 became the first woman president of Dow Corning, a leader in silicones and silicon-based technology. Burns uses scientific and business insights to guide the development of her company. Before conquering corporate headquarters, she started her career as a researcher in France and went on to manage Dow Corning’s European business.
Burns was born in Wyoming, the daughter of a real estate agent (her mother) and a professor (her father, who taught English and history). She earned a bachelor’s degree from Florida International University in Miami and a doctorate from Iowa State University in organic chemistry. After that she did postdoctoral work in France.
Burns’s specialty was organosilicon chemistry, the chemistry of compounds containing carbon and silicon. So it is no surprise that she went to work for Dow Corning in 1983, a leader in organosilicon science. Her husband, Gary, also an organosilicon chemist, joined Dow Corning at the same time. Burns focused her research on silicones, which are a type of polymer. They are very resistant to heat, so much so that the tiles on the underside of the space shuttle are made from silicones. Burns developed new ways to make heat-resistant rubber from silicones and earned two patents in this field. She also holds a third patent for a completely new silicon-containing polymer that she invented.
Burns moved from research into corporate management at Dow Corning and was sent to Brussels, Belgium, in 1997 to oversee important operations in Europe. Then in 2000 she returned to the United States to take up the role of Dow Corning’s executive vice president and to serve on the company’s board. In 2003 she was promoted to president and chief operating officer. As president she steered the company toward researching new uses for organosilicon materials in cutting edge areas like biotechnology and solar energy. In January of 2004 she was named CEO.