Kenneth Chenault currently serves as the chairman and managing director of General Catalyst, an American venture capital firm headquartered in Cambridge, Massachusetts. While his official title involves him overseeing all business operations, Chenault believes that his actual purpose is to invest in positive change and “do good things in the world.”
And there’s no better place to see this than in his work, both previous and current. Before leading General Catalyst, Chenault was the CEO of American Express, where his 30-year career started by seeing the company revenue grow from $150M to $500M. As vice-chairman of the company in 1995, he showed compassion by insisting that the 16,000 employees they had to lay off were given 18 months of notice beforehand.
Chenault was always present with his staff in different ways, going as far as to travel to different Amdx offices to hold brown-bag lunches with his employees. He was known to respond personally to any question sent his way and mentor his employees himself. He also served on multiple boards and numerous non-profit organizations and has even spoken out about the faults of the previous American administration.
Today, as a leader in the venture capital industry, Chenault has led General Catalyst in various social causes, such as revolutionizing diabetes management via an AI-powered feedback loop solution between its service, the patient and its healthcare team. The company has also helped launch multiple businesses, like Airbnb, HubSpot, and GitLab.
Chenault started his career at Goldman Sachs and earned his M.B.A. from Harvard. During his free time, Chenault works on his golf game. As an amateur boxer, he is also a junior board member of Haymakers for Hope, a boxing charity that organizes events to raise cancer research funds.
Kenneth Chenault, General Catalyst - Why We Recognized Him:
Kenneth Chenault not only directs General Catalyst’s mission to invest in “powerful, positive change that endures” but actively believes that business’s entire purpose should be to do good things in the world.
Or in his own words, “Over the past few years, we have watched the American business community move beyond caring simply about shareholders and bottom lines to embrace their relationships with their communities, employees and customers,”
Chenault says his leadership style is simple--he practices compassion, camaraderie, and connection with his employees. In fact, he could be a poster CEO for Social Capital based on such heartfelt sentiments and even greater and career proven actions.
Formerly the CEO of American Express, he began his 30-year career there by taking over the failing merchant services department, which was a mail-order business that sold stereos, jewelry, and other goods. After two years, its revenues skyrocketed from $150 million to $500 million. How did he do it? He insisted they offer better merchandize to the customer because it was the right thing to do.
But that was just the beginning of his Social Capital legacy and his dedication to kindness as a modus operandi. In 1995, as vice chairman of the company when he had to oversee the termination of 16,000 employees, he insisted on giving those terminated employees 18 months notice before their last day.
"You do what you can to be compassionate, even when the news is bad," Chenault said about the extraordinary measure. “The reputations of individual leaders are truly made or lost in times of crisis. You must gain loyalty by being decisive and compassionate. Otherwise, your reputation will vanish."
Chenault indeed made sure his reputation never vanished by always being present with his staff and in ways most would not consider, especially when leading tens of thousands of employees. Chenault travelled to different AmEx offices around the world a few times a year to hold brown-bag lunches with small groups of lower-tier employees. "The physical presence of a leader is important,” he said. “It shows the organization, no matter how large, cares about its employees.”
And he always responded personally to any employee who sent him a question, and he made sure everyone knew they could. Exemplifying his leadership style and the importance of giving people hope for the future, Chenault made a point to mentor and made sure others had mentors to help his people become better leaders as well.
Chenault has not changed his tune now that he is in the field of venture capital – an industry many often identify with being all about greed and maximizing profit. As the CEO of General Catalyst, his company values and eagerly searches out ways to build new business with more than just the profits in mind.
They have helped to launch businesses like AirBNB, GitLab, Kayak, Guild Education, HubSpot, and many others who he feels are making a difference or making people’s lives better. Livongo, for instance has helped revolutionize the successful management of diabetes by creating a comprehensive solution through an AI-powered feedback loop solution between its service, the patient and their healthcare team. One of their most recent investments of Curai Health is a virtual care company using AI to make high-touch, lower-cost primary care available to everyone.
Chenault himslef is a dynamo who also served on the boards of Airbnb, Berkshire Hathaway, Chief, Guild Education, and the Harvard Corporation and numerous nonprofit organizations, including the Smithsonian Institution’s Advisory Council for the National Museum of African American History and Culture, the National September 11 Memorial and Museum at the World Trade Center, Bloomberg Philanthropies, the Council on Foreign Relations, and the Human Centered Artificial Intelligence Institute Advisory Council at Stanford University, the Board of Governors of the NCAA and the Board of Trustees for NYU Langone Health.
According to Chenault leadership “is a responsibility and a privilege that must be cultivated.” And paraphrasing a quote by Napoleon, he said that “the role of the leader is to define reality and give hope.”
When it comes to how Chenault identifies good leaders, he looks for integrity, which he defines as “honesty and consistency of actions and words,” he looks for courage, which he defines as “constructive confrontation,” and he respects collaboration, which he defines as being “effective in helping the team to win.” Finally he applauds those who are actively “demonstrating an authentic concern for people, because as a leader, you affect the livelihoods of your people and the success of your organization.”
Tenure at Current Position
|General Catalyst||Sep 2019 – Present||WayUp|
|Harvard Law School|