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Former AmEx CEO returns to give Waldorf School graduation speech

Kenneth Chenault, a member of the Class of

Kenneth Chenault, a member of the Class of 1969 and former CEO of American Express, speaks at the commencement for The Waldorf School in Garden City Friday. Credit: Barry Sloan

Former American Express chief executive Kenneth Chenault returned Friday to the private school that launched his education, urging graduates at The Waldorf School in Garden City to become leaders, driven by compassion and a commitment to service.

Chenault, who graduated from Waldorf in 1969, delivered the keynote address at the school’s 59th high school commencement ceremony.

He told the 33 graduates — the largest class in the school’s history — that leadership is a “privilege” defined not by title or stature but by exercising strong judgment, knowledge and compassion in service to others.

“Having a title does not make you a leader,” Chenault said. “Leadership is a privilege that has to be earned. If you want to be a leader you have to be willing to serve.”

Born in Mineola, Chenault attended Waldorf from kindergarten through 12th grade, serving as captain of the basketball, soccer and track teams and as a member of the student council.

Chenault, who has a bachelor’s degree from Bowdoin College, a liberal arts school in Maine, and a law degree from Harvard Law School, joined American Express in 1981 as director of strategic planning.

In 2001 he became CEO, leading a staff of more than 50,000 and serving as only the third African-American chief executive of a Fortune 500 company.

During his 17-minute speech, Chenault, who now lives in Westchester, urged the graduates to gather perspective and to avoid “group think” silos in which individuals only seek out information that reinforces their pre-existing world views. He said leadership in any capacity would require them to be receptive to a variety of viewpoints and opinions.

“As future leaders, be open to the views of others,” said Chenault, who now serves as chairman and managing director of General Catalyst, a venture capital firm. “Have civil discourse. Be introspective. And then have your vision.”

Members of Waldorf’s graduating class reflected that sense of diversity.

The 23 females and 10 male graduates come from a host of nations, including China, South Korea and Japan, and included six international students who lived in Nassau with a guest family. The preparatory school says it stresses a multidisciplinary approach featuring hands-on experience and encourages moral responsibility and civic engagement.

Boris Stephane Epie Ntongo, an international student from Gabon and Cameroon, said he wanted his class to be remembered for its “sense of inclusivity and togetherness; our ability to sympathize and communicate with not only each other but all those around us as well as the ability to touch the lives of those we meet.”

Senior Rachel Kang, originally from South Korea, said her education at Waldorf and her volunteerism in Cambodia, Mongolia, Sri Lanka and Guatemala provided instruction on her life’s purpose.

“To live not only for my own happiness and well-being but for the happiness and well-being of everyone who I might meet on my journey through life,” she said.

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