Kenneth Chenault, 1st African American Joins Facebook’s All-White Board. Can He Help?

Written by Dana Sanchez

 

Kenneth Chenault, the CEO of American Express, has joined Facebook’s all white, mostly-male board of directors as the social media giant works to fix its tarnished image and battered brand.

Chenault will join the Facebook board on Feb. 5, 2018. Its members include CEO Mark Zuckerberg; Marc L. Andreessen of Andreessen Horowitz; Erskine B. Bowles, president emeritus of the University of North Carolina; Susan D. Desmond-Hellmann, CEO of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation; Reed Hastings, chairman and CEO of Netflix; Jan Koum, founder and CEO of WhatsApp; Sheryl K. Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook; and Peter A. Thiel of the Founders Fund.

“I’ve been trying to recruit Ken for years,” Zuckerberg said today on a Facebook press release. “He has unique expertise in areas I believe Facebook needs to learn and improve — customer service, direct commerce and building a trusted brand. Ken also has a strong sense of social mission and the perspective that comes from running an important public company for decades.”

Chenault announced in October that he would retire as chairman and CEO of American Express on Feb. 1 after 16 years.

His appointment gives Facebook the guidance of a highly regarded finance executive and the first black director on its all-white board, USA Today reported.

COO Sandberg told the Congressional Black Caucus in October that Facebook was trying to bring its first black board member on board but she did not name the person.

After facing heat over Russian ads, Sandberg told the Congressional Black Caucus in Ocotber that Facebook would add an African American to its board. This effort feels forced, as if the board has no real conviction about this move to diversify. The pipeline excuse doesn’t really work at the board level.

Facebook’s lack of diversity has been a sticking point for years. Recent diversity data show things are not moving much in the company’s workforce, despite much-publicized efforts to diversify its staff.

Three percent of Facebook workers are African American, up from 2 percent overall. But in technical roles, African American representation has remained flat at 1 percent since 2014. The percentage of African Americans in senior leadership positions at Facebook has also barely changed.

Chenault is one of the longest-serving black CEOs of a major U.S. corporation and a veteran in a field long dominated by white men in top management.

Civil rights leader Rev. Jesse Jackson has for years been lobbying Fortune 1000 companies, including Facebook, to add people of color to their boards.

Jackson is executive director of the Rainbow PUSH Citizenship Education Fund Peachtree Project. Rainbow PUSH deals with economic equity issues, including profiling Fortune 1000 companies from the boardroom through middle management for inclusion and diversity:

For the last two years, Jackson and Rainbow PUSH have made a concerted effort to pressure Facebook, Uber, Amazon and other Silicon Valley companies to disclose data on hiring practices, workforce compositions and to hire more women and minority workers and executives.”

Chenault joined American Express in 1981. He became president and COO in 1997 and CEO in 2001. He graduated from Harvard Law School. He serves on the boards of IBM, Proctor & Gamble, the Harvard Corporation and other nonprofits including the Arthur Ashe Institute for Urban Health, the Smithsonian Institution’s Advisory Council for the National Museum of African American History and Culture, the World Trade Center Memorial Foundation, and the Bloomberg Family Foundation.

Chenault was the second black Fortune 500 CEO to announce plans to step down in 2017, along with Xerox Corp.’s Ursula Burns. That means there will be just three black CEOs running Fortune 500 companies.

Less than 5 percent of the 200 largest U.S. companies are led by African-Americans, according to a 2016 report from recruitment firm Spencer Stuart, USA Today reported.

Kenneth Chenault
Illustration: Sébastien Thibault

 

Sign up for the Moguldom newsletter — business news you need to know about economic empowerment for the digital age, delivered to your inbox.


About Dana Sanchez
Dana Sanchez was born in South Africa and is a U.S. citizen. After working in advertising, she went back to school and earned a master's degree in journalism from the University of South Florida. As a business writer, she won regional and national writing awards. As editor of a daily newspaper, she coordinated staff writers, freelancers and photographers in the fast-paced environment of daily news. Dana was an editor at Moguldom Media Group for four years, helping to build and manage a team of staff and freelance writers. She works now on Moguldom.com for Nubail Ventures. A long-distance hiker and cyclist, she writes about the business of technology.