Kenneth I. Chenault ’73, H’96 to Receive Bowdoin’s Highest Honor
Chenault’s nomination for the Bowdoin Prize was approved in February 2020 by the Bowdoin College Board of Trustees and confirmed by the Committee of Award, the members of which are the presidents of Harvard University and Yale University, and the chief justice of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court. The announcement and planned event were delayed a year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Chenault served as chief executive officer and chairman of American Express from 2001 to 2018. He has been called “one of the most successful and talented business strategists of our time,” “a powerful communicator and ubiquitous motivator,” and “the best CEO of his generation.”
Chenault joined American Express in 1981 as director of strategic planning, after working first as a lawyer and then for Bain and Company, and he rose steadily in the ranks as a visionary leader, first heading up the consumer card group and then travel related services, followed by a two-year stint as vice chairman of the entire company and four years as president and chief operating officer before becoming CEO in 2001.
The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, cemented Chenault’s reputation for exemplary leadership. Eleven American Express employees lost their lives that day, and the company’s corporate headquarters adjacent to the World Trade Center was badly damaged. Chenault had been chairman and CEO for just a few months, but his careful and humane stewardship of the company, its customers, and its employees during that traumatic and demanding period has been written about widely as a textbook example of leadership and integrity in a crisis. Chenault later had to lead American Express through a global economic turndown and the financial crisis of 2008.
Currently chairman and a managing director of the venture capital firm General Catalyst, Chenault is recognized as one of the business world’s experts on leadership and brand management. He has been honored by multiple publications, including Fortune magazine, which named him as one of the “World’s 50 Greatest Leaders” in its inaugural list in 2014, describing Chenault as “the most accomplished leader in global finance.”
“Ken is a leader. He's competitive. He's smart,” said Warren Buffett, the chairman and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, while describing Chenault. “But the real test of leadership is when you go up the mountain, and your troops follow you. And they follow you because they believe in you. They believe that you see the valley over the top of the mountain. And though they can't see it, they follow.”
Buffett also called Chenault “the gold standard for corporate leadership and the benchmark that I measure others against.”
Reflecting on his career for a special that aired on PBS, Chenault spoke of the impact he hopes he has made. “My most important legacy that I can leave is that I made a meaningful difference in people’s lives. I hope I have been a catalytic agent for change,” he said. “I firmly believe that none of us should be satisfied by the status quo—you should always try to change the status quo.”
Chenault has said that because he believes so strongly in leadership, what he looks for and tries to assess is integrity. “Compassion can be offered without sacrificing a sense of urgency or a strong will to win,” he told Bowdoin magazine in 2004. “That’s one of the values I believe in very strongly, and I talk about it in the organization. I’m very competitive. I’ve got a strong will to win, but I want to win the right way. That’s my focus.”
Chenault’s service to Bowdoin includes his time on the board of overseers (1986–1993) and as a Reunion Committee member, Presidential Search Committee member (1989–1990), and as a panelist for the Inaugural Symposium in 2015 and featured speaker during the College’s AF/AM/50 Celebration in 2019. He established the Pamela E. Herbert Memorial Scholarship Fund in 1989 in memory of a member of the Class of 1990 killed in the Pan Am Flight 103 bombing over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988. He was awarded an honorary degree in 1996.
Chenault serves on the boards of Airbnb and Berkshire Hathaway. Chenault is also on the boards of numerous nonprofit organizations, including the Harvard Corporation, the Smithsonian Institution’s Advisory Council for the National Museum of African American History and Culture, the National September 11 Memorial Museum, Bloomberg Philanthropies, the Council on Foreign Relations, the board of trustees for NYU Langone Health, and the Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence Institute Advisory Council at Stanford University. He is a cofounder of OneTen, a coalition of leading executives coming together to upskill, hire, and advance one million Black Americans over the next ten years into family-sustaining jobs with opportunities for advancement.Chenault was named to the NCAA board of governors in 2019, part of the initial class of independent governors.
He and his wife, Kathryn, live in New York City, and they have two sons.
The Bowdoin Prize
The Bowdoin Prize was established in 1928 as a memorial to William John Curtis, LLD, of the Class of 1875, by his wife and children. It is awarded every five years “to the graduate or former member of the College, or member of its Faculty at the time of the award, who shall have made during the period the most distinctive contribution in any field of human endeavor.” The Bowdoin Prize is presented to those who are “recognized as having won national and not merely local distinction, or who, in the judgment of the committee, is fairly entitled to be so recognized.”
The first Bowdoin Prize was awarded in 1933 to Dr. Fred Houdlett Albee, Class of 1899. Other Bowdoin Prize recipients are US Senator Paul Douglas (Class of 1913), Red Cross commissioner Harvey Dow Gibson (Class of 1902), Bowdoin president Kenneth C. M. Sills (Class of 1901), Rear Admiral Donald MacMillan(Class of 1898), US Supreme Court Justice Harold Burton (Class of 1909), journalist William Hodding Carter Jr. (Class of 1927), penologist Austin H. MacCormick (Class of 1915), Dr. Leonard W. Cronkhite (Class of 1941), former Northeastern University president Asa S. Knowles (Class of 1930), Olympic gold medalist Joan Benoit Samuelson (Class of 1979), Bowdoin professors Samuel S. Butcher and Dana W. Mayo, US Special Envoy for Middle East Peace and former US Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell (Class of 1954), former US Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen (Class of 1962), US Ambassador Thomas R. Pickering (Class of 1953), and L.L. Bean chairman Leon A. Gorman (Class of 1956), Geoffrey Canada (Class of 1974), and Stanley Druckenmiller (Class of 1975).