Who Is Kenneth I. Chenault?

Kenneth I. Chenault is a business executive who works in the financial services industry. Chenault is best known for the time he spent as chair and chief executive officer (CEO) of American Express (AXP). Chenault started with the company in 1981, where he moved up the ranks to lead the company, becoming one of the first African Americans to lead a major company. He left the company after 37 years and joined venture capital firm General Catalyst in 2018. He also sits on the board of a number of other companies, including Airbnb and Berkshire Hathaway.

Key Takeaways

  • Kenneth I. Chenault is a business executive known for his role as chair and CEO of American Express.
  • Chenault worked with American Express between 1981 and 2018.
  • He was only one of five African-Americans to serve as a CEO of a Fortune 500 company when he left the company.
  • Chenault joined venture capital firm General Catalyst in 2018 after stepping down from American Express.
  • He sits on the board of a number of companies, including Airbnb and Berkshire Hathaway.

Understanding Kenneth I. Chenault

Kenneth I. Chenault was born in New York in 1951 and earned his undergraduate degree from Bowdoin College and his JD from Harvard Law School. He began his career as an associate with Rogers & Wells then worked as a management consultant for Bain & Company before joining American Express as director of strategic planning in September 1981.

Chenault worked with American Express in a number of different areas since he joined the company in 1981. He became president of the consumer card group in 1989, then assumed the role of president of travel-related services in 1993. Two years later, he was named vice president chair of the company. Chenault served as the company's president and chief operating officer (COO) in 1997 before taking over as chair and CEO in 2001. He became one of the first African Americans to head a Fortune 500 company.

In the fall of 2017, Chenault announced that he was leaving American Express in February 2018. He accepted the position of chair and managing partner of General Catalyst, a venture capital firm that makes growth and early-stage investments in companies like Warby Parker, Stripe, Airbnb, and Snapchat. Chenault's decision to enter the Silicon Valley market was due to changes and maturation in the digital space.

Chenault joined the boards of several companies, including Airbnb (ABNB) and Berkshire Hathaway (BRK.A/BRK.B). He also served as a board member at IBM and is a board member of the Council on Foreign Relations. He lives in New Rochelle, New York, with his wife and children. He is also a member of the Westchester Country Club.

Special Considerations

In 2008, with the global credit crisis, American Express was facing headwinds as the world was contracting. The Federal Reserve System approved the company's application to become a bank holding company. This allowed American Express to receive emergency financing from the TARP program.

During his time at the helms of American Express, Chenault also helped increase the company's market share by expanding its customer base. Chenault achieved this by offering credit cards in addition to charge cards and adding membership rewards programs.

At the time of his departure as American Express CEO, Chenault was only one of five African-Americans to serve as a CEO of a Fortune 500 company. He is also the first African-American to serve on the board at Facebook (FB). Chenault often addresses the need for diversity in the corporate world, citing upper management's lack of seeking out diverse candidates rather than there being a lack of talent.