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Ken Chenault and Ken Frazier on the Challenge of Polarization Today

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In 2021, troubled by a law change in Georgia that could restrict voting access, Business leaders Ken Chenault and Ken Frazier partnered to gather the support of U.S. executives to take a stand. They secured more than 700 signatures for their statement opposing “discriminatory legislation.” But the pair told the audience at the TIME100 Summit on Wednesday that today’s political and social climate would make such an effort more difficult to achieve in 2024.

“I think it would be much harder to get CEOs to take a stand on those issues or many other issues,” said Frazier, the chairman of health assurance Initiatives at General Catalyst, and former CEO at pharmaceutical company Merck—which, as a premiere partner for the TIME100 franchise, was a sponsor of the event—during a panel discussion alongside Chenault. “It's amazing how much the pendulum has swung in the opposite direction in our society. We are, of course, an incredibly polarized society and a great deal of that has to do with the fact that, I believe, that the American people really don't know who to trust.” He went on to add that systemic inequality, less trust in institutions and a lack of shared identity have led to a divided society in which chief executives would not be as comfortable speaking up.

Chenault added that he and Frazier had been able to garner support from executives three years ago by reminding them that voting rights are not a political issue, but a matter of fundamental rights. “Right now it is so politicized that people can't focus on that fundamental issue.”

The pair, who were jokingly introduced at the start of the discussion, entitled Finding Hope in Opportunity, by TIME’s Executive Chairman and former Editor-in-Chief Edward Felsenthal as “the original Kens,” after an interview with Barbie director Greta Gerwig was screened at the event, discussed how to find common ground in such politically polarized times, and why diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) is more than just a buzz phrase in the workplace. 

The Kens, as they were dubbed by Ursula Burns in the 2021 TIME100 list, have made huge corporate achievements in their own right, but also as partners. “Having what I would call an enduring relationship that's really built on trust is very powerful,” says Chenault, the chairman and managing director of venture capital firm General Catalyst and a former American Express Chairman and CEO.

Chenault and Frazier first met only briefly at Harvard Law School. But they became close after Chenault reached out to Frazier when he moved to the Business unit at Merck.

“I got a phone call from Ken who said there's a lot about the corporate world that isn't written in books. And I think we should spend some time together because it's important for you to know the unwritten rules,” Frazier recalled on stage. 

It was their shared values that brought them together to oppose voting restrictions. 

“We both believe strongly that corporations exist, because society allows us to exist. And if you, in fact, want to build an enduring company…you need to be very concerned about our society,” says Chenault. “To the United States, there's nothing more important than our democracy. And the right to vote is fundamental to that democracy,” he added. 

Chenault also said that he and Frazier don’t believe corporations should speak on every issue, but some CEOs are currently too afraid to speak on the “fundamental” issues out of fear of backlash and alienating one side of the political divide. 

“The big challenge that we face in a polarized world is to be able to communicate with people,” says Frazier. “You can't possibly construct an effective argument to change someone's mind, if you don't understand how they think,” he said. He added that appealing to the remaining “shared values” of Americans, regardless of political leanings, is essential to find common ground. 

Using the example of DEI, Frazier said people may have feelings towards the term but he believes the average American is open to the prospect of expanding opportunities for everyone.  

Frazier and Chenault are both founding members of OneTen, a coalition of prominent business executives and their companies, who have pledged to aid the long-term professional development of one million Black individuals who do not yet have a four-year degree. 

Chenault observed that companies with diverse populations “seem to be working fairly well” and this makes him hopeful. But he added that there needs to be more alignment on core values and beliefs in America to transcend the nation’s political divides. 

The way to do that, according to Chenault, is to communicate in “matters of truth and facts.” 

“People have weaponized communications. They use gaslighting, they use fake news, they use alternative facts,” Frazier said. “If we can't communicate about facts rather than ideology, then I think we have very little opportunity to come to a common perspective on things.”

The TIME100 Summit convenes leaders from the global TIME100 community to spotlight solutions and encourage action toward a better world. This year’s summit features a variety of speakers across a diverse range of sectors, including Politics, Business, Health and Science, culture, and more.

Speakers for the 2024 TIME100 Summit include actor Elliot Page, designer Tory Burch, Olympic medalist Ibtihaj Muhammad, WNBA champion A'ja Wilson, author Margaret Atwood, NYSE president Lynn Martin, comedian Alex Edelman, professor Yoshua Bengio, 68th Secretary of State John Kerry, actor Jane Fonda, and many more.

The TIME100 Summit was presented by Booking.com, Citi, Merck, Northern Data Group, Glenfiddich Single Malt Scotch Whisky, and Verizon.

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