Kenneth Irvine Chenault (1951- )

Kenneth Irvine Chenault and Wife at President Barack Obama's Second State Dinner, May 2010
Public Domain Image

Hand-picked by his American Express predecessor, CEO Harvey Golub, to lead the company upon Golub’s retirement, Kenneth Chenault is an attorney and the CEO and chairman of American Express.  Named one of the fifty most powerful African American executives by Fortune magazine in 2001, Chenault is one of only a handful of African-American CEO’s of a Fortune 500 company.

Chenault’s solid middle-class upbringing in the mostly white neighborhood of Hempstead, Long Island may have predicted his future.  Born in Mineola, New York on June 2, 1951 to Hortenius Chenault, a dentist, and Anne N. Quick, a dental hygienist, Chenault was the second born of four children.  Both of Chenault’s parents attended Howard University and Chenault likewise enjoyed the advantages of a good education, attending the private, innovative Waldorf School in Garden City through the twelfth grade.  Chenault was captain of the track and basketball teams.  His athletic ability earned him an athletic scholarship to Springfield College in Springfield, Massachusetts.  Leaving Springfield before completing his degree, Chenault transferred to Bowdoin College in Maine, earning a B.A. in history, magna cum laude, in 1973.  Chenault next attended Harvard Law School, receiving his J.D. in 1976.  Chenault’s 1977 marriage to Kathryn Cassell, an attorney with the United Negro College Fund, produced two sons, Kenneth Jr. and Kevin.

Prior to coming on board with American Express in 1981, Chenault spent two years as an associate with the corporate law firm of Rogers & Wells in New York City and two more years with the Boston consulting firm, Bain & Co.  While at Bain, Chenault was mentored by fellow Harvard Law School alumni, Massachusetts governor and 2008 presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, who credited Chenault in a 1997 Ebony interview with clear vision and the ability to get things done even in confusing circumstances.

Romney’s assessment of Chenault is borne out in Chenault’s rise through the American Express corporate structure.  After joining American Express in 1981 as the director of strategic planning, Chenault quickly moved up the company’s corporate ladder being promoted to vice president of Merchandise Services in 1983, executive vice president and general manager of the platinum/gold card division in 1986, president of AmEx Consumer Card and Financial Services groups in 1990, vice chairman of AmEx in 1995, president and chief operating officer in 1997, and AmEx CEO and chairman in 2001, a position he still holds today.  Chenault also serves on the boards of several companies and nonprofit organizations including Bowdoin College, the NCAA, and the Arthur Ashe Institute for Urban Health.  Chenault is also a member of Sigma Pi Phi fraternity.