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Former Amex CEO: The tech industry must diversity its workforce

Kenneth Chenault, left, chairman and managing director at

Kenneth Chenault, left, chairman and managing director at General Catalyst, speaks with SUNY Old Westbury president, The Rev. Calvin O. Butts, at an executive leadership forum at Crest Hollow Country Club in Woodbury on Wednesday. Credit: Barry Sloan

The technology industry needs to do more to diversity its workforce, Kenneth Chenault, the former head of American Express, told a crowd of executives and students at the Crest Hollow Country Club in Woodbury Wednesday.

Chenault, who was one of a small number of African-American CEOs at major American companies, grew up in Hempstead and led American Express from 2001 until he retired in January. He is now chairman and managing director of General Catalyst Partners, a Silicon Valley venture capital firm.  

“In the venture capital technology industries the lack of diversity is incredible,” said Chenault, who spoke as part of the Executive Leadership Forum sponsored by  SUNY Old Westbury.  “And so you have this very dangerous dynamic that the future is technology and digital, and yet people are being left behind.”

Chenault, who recently became a Facebook board member, wants to change that.

“Diversity in the technological and digital side broadly for all nationalities, races and genders is very, very important,” Chenault, 66, said.

Whites represent 83 percent of executives in the tech sector nationwide, according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

In response to a question from moderator Calvin O. Butts, the university’s president, Chenault said it was important for the United States to continue a strong trading relationship with China. The United States under President Donald Trump has instituted tariffs on some Chinese goods,  and China has retaliated, leading some analysts to express concern  about a possible trade war.    

“We have to be careful … of saying China is an enemy,” he said. “At the end of the day, what has happened in China in the last 50 years is amazing. It’s not the form of government I would choose, but I think we have to step back and say it is incredibly impressive what has been accomplished in China.”

He added that China has taken advantage of the United States in areas like intellectual property, and he emphasized that issue has to be dealt with. But he said relations with China, one of the world’s largest economies, are vital and the United States has to be more sophisticated in dealing with that country.  

“I take a view that China represents both an opportunity and a threat,” he said. “And it is our job, from the government standpoint, from a business standpoint, to figure out how to balance what we do.”  

Chenault waxed nostalgic about his hometown, but he said the village has suffered because of a “proliferation of gangs” and the “deterioration” of its school district

“I feel very loyal to my roots, but I have to be very candid ... Hempstead is in a tough situation,” he said. “The hope is there will be actions put into place both in the public and private sector” to improve the village.  

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