Spotlight: Kenneth Chenault

Valentina Lara


Kenneth Chenault is a rare sort of executive. He’s the former CEO of American Express and the third African American to reach that title in a Fortune 500 company. But if you sat down to speak with him, that’s not where he’d start.  He would, in the way a warm and friendly neighbor would greet you as you moved in next door, probably start by asking you a few questions about yourself. 

That’s the kind of leader he is. 

The sort of leader who pushed Amex through 9/11 with no sidestepping the truth about the company’s uncertain future. All the while remaining hopeful and resolute for a better path forward. 

And when it comes to creating a more equitable workplace, Chenault brings the same energy. He makes plenty of room to shed light on how companies big and small can improve racial equity and balance in the corporate world. 

Chenault was born only three years before the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision struck down prevailing separate but equal laws, affording him more opportunities. He was forged in an ugly time in America, and he carries some of that burden, just as many black and brown people do even 50 some odd years later. 

When he took the helm at Amex in 2001, there were only two other Black CEOs. Dismal numbers – scary even. He isn’t shy about stating that every company has to make the opportunity to not only attract people of color, but to train and retain them well by creating a culture and environment where they feel not just tolerated, but fully embraced. There needs to be a fleshed-out diversity plan that is not only about inclusion at the lower rungs, but provides a real and attainable path all the way up to the top. It needs to be etched into the fabric and ethos. He says:

“Just think if businesses had taken a stand in the 1800s, and the 1900s, in the ’30s, in the ’40s, the progress that could have been made, this is not something that can be a flavor of the year. This has to be an ongoing effort.” 

Great words from an inspiring man.