Second chances — not everyone can say they've had even one in life.
If Mark Whitacre, PhD, keynote speaker for SupplyExpo were a feline, he would have easily used up his nine lives. As we sit at a beachfront hotel on Florida's gulf coast with Whitacre and his wife, Ginger, talking about the upcoming Warner Brother's movie, The Informant, starring Matt Damon as Whitacre, they both look as far removed from a life of prison cells and weekly visitations, FBI agents and court rooms as any average American couple could be.
Whitacre not only served as an informant for the FBI in the mid-1990s, in what would be declared the largest price-fixing case in US history, he was also convicted of fraud and served eight years in prison. The Informant chronicles this experience.
Just 18 months before our interview, Whitacre walked out of federal prison to his waiting wife. This was second chance No 1. Whitacre admits that Ginger's support during his imprisonment meant more than anything. On three occasions, Ginger packed up their family and home to live close enough to visit her husband on a weekly basis for those many years.
Such a long time behind bars allowed Whitacre to think about his future and come to grips with his life. "One of the most common phrases I heard from other inmates was, 'I'm innocent,'" Whitacre says. "I was the only prisoner who said, 'I am guilty.'" Whitacre vowed to use those years to better himself, by earning two more PhDs and a law degree, and formulate a plan to prevent others from following his ill-fated path.
He started his mission on the day he left prison. This was second chance No 2. Little did Whitacre know his decision to study selenium decades earlier at Cornell University would lead to an opportunity for a career do-over. While Whitacre was incarcerated, Paul Willis, CEO of Cypress Systems, contacted him out of gratitude. Willis says he owes the success of his company to Whitacre's early research on selenium, which ultimately led to the development of SelenoExcell. Without any reservations, Willis offered Whitacre a job as the COO of his company.
Whitacre refers to this paradoxical circumstance as a return to his roots. "When I decided to study selenium," he says, "I talked my way into the office of Dr Jerry Combs, the world's leading expert on selenium." Combs was so taken by his enthusiasm for the subject, he offered Whitacre a full-ride scholarship.
Today Whitacre is applying that same level of passion to selenium research, cancer prevention, and a message to future and current business leaders. Though Whitacre wore a wire for the FBI for three years, he accepted the role reluctantly. "I am the perfect example of someone who can do heroic acts and make mistakes simultaneously," he says.
"In all honestly, the reason this case happened is because of my wife, Ginger," Whitacre admits. "It had very little to do with me. I was a person stuck in the middle of something I had no interest in doing. In hindsight, I wish that I could have come forward and helped the FBI for all the right reasons, but at the time, I simply could not." He admits that he never would have stepped forward had it not been for his wife. She gave him an ultimatum: "tell the FBI or I will." "She is the true national hero," he says.
Whitacre believes that this level of personal conflict is more common today than people realize, but not everyone has a moral compass to guide their decisions. "Luckily, for me, people can also be forgiven from the very souls they love and cherish the most, and be welcomed back into the business world and society with support from the very people who imprisoned them."