Get to know: Michael Okoroafor ’82, leading the way in sustainability

Michael Okoroafor

After more than 30 years as an educator, scientist, packaging expert and leader, Michael Okoroafor ’82 says his new position is the pinnacle of his career.

As the first chief sustainability officer at McCormick & Company, Okoroafor is now tasked with executing the company’s sustainability efforts worldwide.

“McCormick’s commitment to operating sustainably beyond 2025 is also a top priority,” Okoroafor said. “We are under way on our journey to achieving our 1.5 degrees Celsius greenhouse gas emission reduction by 2030 and Net Zero by 2050 targets.”

This is no small undertaking. With 14,000 employees, thousands of agricultural partners and millions of customers across 170 countries and territories, McCormick touches nearly every corner of the globe.

McCormick’s goals are outlined in its Purpose-Led Performance strategy, which Okoroafor played a significant role in launching almost six years ago. In his view, corporations must be a vehicle for good, and the scope of McCormick’s sustainability goals address more than just environmental concerns.

“It’s holistic sustainability: people, communities, and the planet that we share,” Okoroafor said. “When I talk about communities, I’m talking about the communities where we live, where we work, and more importantly, where we source our ingredients.”

This outlook stems from his humble upbringing, where he experienced firsthand the challenges that many farmers in developing countries face.

Modest beginnings

Okoroafor was born the youngest of four children in eastern Nigeria. When he was four, his father died.

This placed his mother as the family’s sole provider. To this day, Okoroafor is overwhelmed by her brilliance as a subsistence farmer and matriarch. She raised Okoroafor and his siblings by allowing them to assist on the farm but mandated that their education came first.

For secondary school, she sent Okoroafor to an all-boys Catholic boarding school. It was there that he developed the skills and values that would shape the rest of his life.

At the University of Nigeria, one of Okoroafor’s undergraduate professors introduced him to University of Detroit. After requesting a brochure, the budding scientist was intrigued by the University’s academic offerings, but it was its Jesuit mission that ultimately sold him on an institution nearly 6,000 miles away.

“It was a university that mirrored my upbringing in terms of making sure you uplift people, that you’re benevolent, and that you are making an impact on people’s life,” he said.

Okoroafor’s first trip to the United States came when he enrolled at University of Detroit in the early 1980s. He pursued a master’s in industrial polymer chemistry, honing skills and a knowledge base that will serve him in a variety of career pursuits for years to come, including at McCormick.

“A big portion of our [sustainable] packaging commitment has to do with plastics,” Okoroafor said. “That deep knowledge of understanding plastics, and what is possible and what is not possible means you can’t fool me. When we make a commitment of having no single-use recycled plastic at McCormick, I understand it.”

He enjoyed his time at University of Detroit to the point that, after going on to also complete his Ph.D. in Organic Polymer Chemistry at another institution, he returned as an assistant professor.

Additionally, Okoroafor and his wife were married on the McNichols campus.

After this stint as an educator, he went on to work at a number of notable companies, such as PPG Industries, Coca-Cola and H.J. Heinz, eventually specializing in global packaging. As an inventor, he has more than 40 patents and is published in over 35 technical publications.

A leader in sustainability

Okoroafor first came to McCormick as the vice president of Global Packaging Innovation in 2015. Thanks in part to his work creating and implementing sustainability goals, he was named vice president of global sustainability and packaging innovation a year and a half later.

Over the next few years, he earned two notable recognitions. In 2018, he was inducted into the Packaging and Processing Hall of Fame. He was named a 2020 honoree to the Environment+Energy Leader 100.

As McCormick’s Chief Sustainability Officer, Okoroafor is leading the Fortune 500 company to even greater heights. This includes improving the livelihood of farmers across the globe. If his mother were alive today, he says she would be so proud that she’d be “dancing.”

From a technical standpoint, Okoroafor’s education in industrial polymer chemistry ensures that he also has the knowledge necessary to succeed.

“I bring to my job, not just a sense of strategy, but a sense of deep technical understanding of what needs to happen, so that we can make meaningful progress,” Okoroafor said.

But Okoroafor knows the job mandates more than strategic thinking and a sound academic foundation. In his view, McCormick is ahead of the curve with its Purpose-Led Performance initiatives.  So, it’s no surprise the company made the Corporate Knights Global 100 Sustainability Index in January, ranking the highest among food product companies.

Thus to increase the company’s reputation as a leader in sustainability, he’ll also need to continue to lean on the values instilled in him as a child and at the University of Detroit.

“There is a scripture, ‘To whom much is given, much will be required,’” he said. “I would be remiss if I didn’t tell you that what keeps me awake at night is ‘am I doing enough to make sure that I am accomplishing what is expected of me?’”

For him, the more success and influence he earns, the more it demands he do for others worldwide and the planet they share. In his role at McCormick, he is in a position to do just that.

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