Kimberly-Clark's Robert Long: Nurturing Others Is the Best Investment

Feb 1, 2023 8:30 AM ET

Robert Long, Kimberly-Clark’s chief research and development (R&D) officer, is passionate about improving consumers’ lives through innovation and inclusion. We spoke with Robert about leadership lessons learned from his childhood, the importance of seizing opportunities and investing in others, and the legacy he wants to leave. 

Q: What was your childhood like? 
RL: I grew up in a single-parent household in Washington, D.C. for the first 14 years of my life. My father wasn’t involved in the day-to-day activities of our family, and my mother kept everything together. She was our beacon. I’m the second youngest of seven children, and because my mom worked around the clock to support us, we had to grow up on our own in many ways.

I learned several lessons from my mom throughout my childhood. She was constantly challenging us, and I learned the value of hard work from her example. She was also extremely resourceful and found opportunities for us that we never would have found on our own.

Those are all qualities that I've carried into my adult life. In fact, her persistence is how I landed at a prestigious, predominately white boarding school in Virginia during my high school years, and the people I met there changed the trajectory of my life.

Q: What led you to Princeton University to continue your education? 
RL: My mom enrolled my brother and I in a very exclusive boarding school for high school. My brother was one of the first Black students to attend this all-boys school, and I was the only Black student in my graduating class.

This experience was a game-changer. I grew up in an all-Black neighborhood, and I was suddenly surrounded by people who didn’t look like me. While it was challenging and lonely at times, this experience helped me understand that I could absolutely accomplish what others could – regardless of my skin color.

During that time, I participated in sports and excelled at track, eventually becoming one of the school’s best athletes. My Spanish teacher, Mr. Vasquez, saw potential in me both athletically and academically and encouraged me to apply to Princeton University for college. I was later accepted and offered a full-tuition scholarship, which was the only way I was able to attend. His belief in my potential was a pivotal moment for me.

Q: How did your career path shape you as a leader? 
RL: I studied chemical engineering at Princeton, and as a sophomore, I had a summer internship with Procter & Gamble (P&G) to better understand the chemical engineering profession. I received a full-time position upon graduation and worked at P&G for a quarter of a century. I then joined Coca-Cola, where I spent almost 20 years.

During this time, I lived all over the world, including Latin America, Europe, Asia and North America. These experiences opened my eyes to the power of inclusion and the critical importance of having diverse voices and backgrounds in the room when testing and evaluating potential materials and products.

At this stage, I’ve had the privilege of working with and leading in three of the most established consumer goods companies in the world and learned so much about myself and others in the process. I learned to not only advocate for myself but also to advocate for others – that’s inclusion at its best.

I also learned about the magic of moving outside my comfort zone. In one chapter of my career, I left a great job in an international location by taking another role in the U.S. that no one seemed to want. It was a tough transition and a job that challenged me immensely every day, but that decision ultimately strengthened my skillset and led me to where I am today.

Q: Tell us a bit about your family. How has fatherhood impacted your career? 
RL: I have four children – three girls and one boy. My two oldest girls are from my first marriage, and they’re both successful professionals in the financial and communications industries. I’ve been married to my wife now for almost 17 years, and we have a 16-year-old daughter with special needs and a 12-year-old son.

Overall, my kids have impacted how I show up in both my personal and professional lives. They’ve shown me that people want to be noticed and recognized. They also want to be nurtured, and they know when they’re being left out. Nurturing others is the best investment and one that always pays off.

Q: Has raising a daughter with special needs changed your perspective? 
RL: My daughter’s diagnosis is unclear. She wasn’t able to walk until she was four, is fairly nonverbal and has very limited mobility. Being a father to a child with special needs has not only taught me a lot about inclusion but has also shown me that no matter the obstacle, there’s always hope and a chance to make your own way in the world.

It’s also important to give people opportunities to achieve things they may not know they can – similarly to how both my mom and former high school Spanish teacher saw my potential and invested in me. People have given my daughter opportunities to try new things – many of which I never thought she’d be able to do.

She’s now able to read, which is truly a miracle, and she has a great ear for music. She has even introduced me and my friends to musical artists we wouldn’t have considered if not for her recommendations! My daughter brings joy to everyone she meets.

Q: Why did you join Kimberly-Clark? 
RL: Our CEO Mike Hsu’s leadership and our company’s purpose of Better Care for a Better World, which is the rallying cry for our technical team, deeply resonated with me. We are on a mission to deliver more sustainable products to more consumers without sacrificing affordability or quality.

In 2020, I was looking toward retirement. But then the tragic killing of George Floyd – a Black man in the United States – happened, and I knew I needed to change my course. Those of us who were excelling and growing in our careers needed to be more visible. I realized that if I retired and sat on the sidelines, I couldn’t be a positive example to those who look like me.

I felt an obligation to show others that it is possible to overcome obstacles in life and achieve a fulfilling, high-level career. By joining the Kimberly-Clark team, I’m not only able to help develop innovative products that improve the lives of millions of people all over the world in a sustainable way, but I can also help others who are looking to advance in their careers by advocating for them.

Q: You serve as an executive sponsor for Kimberly-Clark’s African Ancestry Employee Network (also known as AAEN). What have you gained from this role, and what’s the value employee resource groups like AAEN bring to the company? 
RL: These employee resource groups give team members an opportunity to be understood, valued, and supported. Everyone wants to be seen – both in their careers and personal lives – because we all have the innate need to feel valued and wanted.

For me, it goes back to my childhood and feeling valued when people noticed and included me. I see it in the special needs community, too. My daughter may not be able to articulate it, but she can sense when people are acknowledging or ignoring her.

As a sponsor of AAEN, I’ve had the opportunity to meet more of the incredible talent at Kimberly-Clark than I would not have encountered otherwise. I’ve gained relationships with people that have lasted throughout my career from involvement in similar groups and communities.

Q: What does Black History Month mean to you? 
RL: Black History Month is a great example of people rising up, refusing to back down from challenging obstacles and changing their circumstances. If I tie it back to my career, innovation is all about tomorrow being better than today.

This month is a reminder to everyone that there are always opportunities to overcome your current situation, and you don’t have to stay in your present reality. There’s hope for a better tomorrow.

Q: What’s the legacy that you’d like to leave at Kimberly-Clark and in your community? 
RL: I know what it means to start with very little and achieve something you’re proud to call your own. I want my life to be an example of what it looks like to never give up, regardless of the obstacles. 

I was the only Black student in my high school graduating class, and I was totally outside of my comfort zone. I hope people look at my life experiences and think, “If he can do that, I can, too.”

I also want to show others that there is power in recognizing and finding your passion and purpose…and then sharing it with the world. Everyone can make a positive difference in their work and in their community, and people feel empowered when their efforts and accomplishments are noticed. I want to inspire those around me to follow their passion and help others at the same time.