Kenneth Chenault announced last fall that he was officially stepping down as the head of American Express — after almost 20 years of leadership that spanned such critical events as 9/11 and the financial crisis.
And since then, the race to draft Chenault has been on — everyone, it seems, was looking to secure a relationship with the soon-to-be-ex-head of American Express. Airbnb and Facebook both managed to add Chenault to their board.
“I literally have been inundated,” he reluctantly acknowledged in a conversation with The New York Times.
“People have talked to me about some very large companies and some digital technology companies. Obviously, I can’t say from a confidentiality standpoint.”
But Chenault, according to NYT reporting, has settled on his career’s second act — he will be reporting to Silicon Valley as a venture capitalist. He will be chairman and managing director of General Catalyst Partners, one of the most successful venture firms of the past two decades, with stakes in companies like Airbnb, Snap, Stripe and Warby Parker.
Chenault noted his choice to get involved was driven by his desire to see Silicon Valley and the tech it produces do more to live up to the challenges of society.
“What I think is happening right now in the digital space is a maturation cycle, and some people, as we’ve seen, are going to handle that well, and some people are going to crash and burn,” he said, without naming names.“Given their age and the scale and size and impact that they can have on our society, unless they make a step up, we are going to have some serious problems,’’ Mr. Chenault said.
And Chenault noted that, actually, the serious problems are already out there.
“Companies are starting to realize that they are growing up, and in growing up, they have to assume some broader responsibilities,” he added.
“Companies are at different stages, from a self-awareness standpoint, in accepting that reality.”
Chenault’s expertise as a manager and strategist are thought to be particularly crucial in an era where companies are staying in private hands for longer. Uber and Airbnb, for example, have both been privately held for over a decade, whereas the average time before an IPO used to be only about five years as recently as 2006.
“Many companies are designed to be finite,’’ Airbnb co-founder Brian Chesky, whom Mr. Chenault has mentored for years, wrote in a note to employees. “Finite companies are focused on beating their competitors and appeasing short-term interests. But business is not finite. Unlike sports, there is no time clock, so there can be no winning or losing — there is merely surviving and innovating to endure.”
Chenault believes he can help companies take a more expansive view – so that being patient and thinking around the corners becomes part of standard operating procedure for start-ups.
Chenault has also noted that he wants to take on the problem of lack of diversity in Silicon Valley both in race and gender of employees.
“Diversity in the technology digital industry is a big issue,” he said. “If we don’t make accelerated progress in that area, it will have dire consequences for our society.”
The venture capital industry is even more homogenous. African-Americans represent 3 percent of the venture capital work force, according to a study conducted in 2016 by the National Venture Capital Association and Deloitte University. Latinos represent about 4 percent.
“Venture capital firms have to be more catalytic agents of change, not just in the business development,” he said, “but in helping change the culture in the technology digital sector so there is a greater focus on the responsibilities they have.”