Charlotte Farmer says learning from failure, finding trusted advisers, and knowing when to “pivot” have been keys to her success.
Farmer, who received her master’s degree in chemical engineering from Tickle College of Engineering in 1996, is senior vice president and chief operating officer of UL Research Institutes (ULRI), a nonprofit research organization dedicated to advancing public safety through rigorous safety science research into selected global risks.
“Everything we do helps to democratize ingenuity,” she said. “It stretches scientific discovery for safety science. And everything we learn, we give away to establish standards for the safety of products at home, work, school, etc.”
She is most proud of establishing a global impact strategy focused on resilience in sustainability, individual and societal health, and safety at the human-digital interface.
Farmer’s path to the pinnacle of her career hasn’t been easy.
She worked hard to juggle schoolwork, part-time jobs, and community service with motherhood. With scholarships and money earned by working as a seamstress, she completed her bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering at Tennessee Technological University.
After graduating, Farmer spent seven years working at Eastman Kodak and another seven years at the company when it became Eastman Chemical.
When Farmer encountered obstacles—such as watching colleagues get promoted while she wasn’t offered the same opportunities—focused on being more proactive in her own success. She conferred with company executives, and she created a professional development program “to help level the playing field” for herself and others.
In time, with Eastman’s support, she earned her master’s degree at the University of Tennessee. She then completed an MBA from the University of North Carolina Kenan-Flagler Business School at Chapel Hill via the competitive Consortium for Graduate Study in Management Fellowship. She went on to earn her doctorate in systems engineering from George Washington University in Washington, D.C.
Before joining ULRI, Farmer spent 10 years working at Booz Allen Hamilton and almost 11 years at The MITRE Corporation.
Along the way, Farmer found mentors and trusted people—her personal “board of directors”—who “provided tough love to illuminate my blind spots” on matters regarding her professional, intellectual, financial, physical, and social/spiritual growth.
“You’ve got to be agile and reassess where you are at any given time,” she said. “You’ve got to step back and determine if your current condition will enable you to accomplish your desired goals.”
If not, she says, “you’ve got to pivot.”
Farmer was listed as one of Savoy magazine’s 2020 Most Influential Black Executives in Corporate America. She was named a 2021 Paul Harris Fellow by Rotary International. And she was a 2023 inductee into the Black Engineer of the Year Hall of Fame.
Farmer has three grown sons. Her oldest, G. James Farmer (Chemical Engineering, BS ’04), is a strategy consultant in Washington, D.C. Her middle son, Derel, is a communications director; and her youngest; Taylor, is an officer in the U.S. Army.
She considers her husband, Derek Farmer, who passed away in August 2023, her “guardian angel.”
In her free time, to offset the “intensity and seriousness” of her work, Farmer enjoys watching comedies that incorporate positive life lessons. Her current go-to: Ted Lasso.
“I consider myself a lifelong learner,” she said. “I recently told an audience that I have never failed a day in my life. Even when there’s a perceived failure, I’m learning. And if I’m learning, I’m not failing.”