The Bowdoin Award: Kenneth I. Chenault ’73, H’96 Receives College’s Highest Honor

Currently chairman and chief executive of venture capital firm General Catalyst, Chenault served as chief executive and chairman of American Express from 2001 to 2018 and has been called “the best CEO of his generation.”

The evening’s program included a conversation moderated by Ford Foundation President Darren Walker H’16. During an extensive discussion, Chenault shared how his family, his experiences at College and Harvard Law School, and his career inspired him to be what he calls an agent of change.

The conversation with Walker focused on Chenault’s relationship with Berkshire Hathaway Chairman and CEO Warren Buffett, who called Chenault “the gold standard for corporate leadership and the benchmark by which I measure others. But the real test of leadership is when you climb the mountain and your troops follow you. And they follow you because they believe in you. They believe you see the valley above the top of the mountain. And even if they can’t see it, they follow.

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 headquarters adjacent to the World Trade Center was badly damaged. Chenault had only been President and CEO for a few months, but his careful and humane management of the company, its customers and its employees during this traumatic and demanding period has been widely described as a classic example of leadership and integrity in times of crisis. . Chenault then had to lead American Express through a global economic downturn and the financial crisis of 2008.

In discussing leadership and its qualities, Chenault emphasized the importance of values ​​and character and the need to be both compassionate and decisive. “The most important legacy you can have is making a meaningful difference in people’s lives.”

Chenault, along with former Merck CEO Ken Frazier, who attended the ceremony, led the charge of more than seventy black business leaders to call on American companies to oppose ongoing efforts in many many states to suppress the vote. “We decided to do something that had never been done before – to get black people in corporate America to stand up and say, ‘We have to fight for the right to vote,’” Chenault said. “This impacts all Americans, but as black descendants of slaves and people who were lynched and killed trying to exercise their right to vote, we had to stand up.” He said corporations owe something to society, “And what’s more important than having a vibrant democracy?”

Accepting the award from Bowdoin Board Chairman Scott Perper ’78 and Bowdoin President Clayton Rose, Chenault thanked his family and the Bowdoin teachers with whom he had formed close friendships and of whom he says that he still feels the major impact today.

Earlier in the evening, members of the Bowdoin College Black Alumni Association (BCBAA) had the opportunity to speak with Chenault about their experiences at the College. In accepting the award, Chenault spoke of the sense of community he felt as a student. “I want to thank my black colleagues at Bowdoin, because we were pioneers,” he said. “It was a special bond that we formed.”

The Bowdoin Award was established in 1928 in memory of William John Curtis, Class of 1875, by his wife and children in recognition of “the most distinctive contribution in any field of endeavour”. Curtis was a native of Brunswick, a prominent lawyer and a generous benefactor, both of Bowdoin and his home town. When he died in October 1927, he was so revered in the city that all businesses in Brunswick were closed for his funeral. And as the New York Alumni Association said of him at the time,He deeply loved the College, he deeply believed in it, he looked to his future with confidence and he gave his time, energy and money with unfailing generosity in its service.

In her introductory remarks to the event, Rose shared information that had recently come to light – that William Curtis’ father, Captain John Curtis, had direct ties to slavery as a shipowner and merchant seaman. who frequently transported cotton from Mobile, Alabama, to England in the years before the Civil War. Rose noted that Captain Curtis’s son, William Curtis, while succeeding on his own, directly benefited from his father’s deep ties to slavery through the station in life into which he was born, the privileges that this conferred upon him and through his probable inheritance.

“It is widely known, though until recently almost never part of the common historical narrative,” Rose said, “that slavery and the industries associated with slavery were a vital part of the economy. of New England in the 17th and 18th centuries, and for much of the 19th century and that prominent figures in New England communities accumulated substantial wealth and power through these industries and their direct ties to slavery.

Rose noted that the Curtis family history is particularly relevant in the context of an ongoing project in Bowdoin that initially examines Bowdoin’s history as it relates to Black and Indigenous communities. The first phase of the project is expected to be completed and made available to the Bowdoin community this spring. As Rose said, it will “help create a fuller and more complex history of the College.”

“Why am I raising this, as we come together on this joyous occasion to celebrate Ken Chenault?” Rose asked. “To that question, I would say this: because it is a real and important part of our past and who we are, and a part that is closely tied to this award. Like other important parts of our history that have been ignored and never discussed, this is something we need to recognize, illuminate and add to the reality of our history. We only remain a great educational institution if we live up to our obligation to seek the truth, to provide as full an understanding of our history as possible, to recognize and engage that history, and to allow it to inform and shape our coming.

Rose said Chenault had lived this philosophy for a very long time. “Some of you may know that his honors thesis at Bowdoin was a story of the Black male experience at the College, a story that revealed some very difficult truths, as well as incredible courage and accomplishments. “

When the program was nearly over, Chenault stood up and returned to the pulpit to congratulate Rose and Bowdoin for sharing what he called “the complete story of Bowdoin College.” He added that the impact of slavery is indeed still felt in this country and said there is redemption in its recognition.

“Truth. It is the oxygen of a healthy society, of a democracy,” he concluded.

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