Kenneth A. Hersh

Class of 2024

  • President and Chief Executive Officer George W. Bush Presidential Center

The best bet you can make is on yourself.

Born in 1963, Ken Hersh was raised in Dallas, Texas, where his father was a podiatrist and his mother an economics professor. Unfortunately, it was not a happy marriage. “I grew up listening to a lot of arguments,” Hersh says. “To describe my home life, I would use the word ‘tense.’ In addition to strain between my parents, my mother was working on her Ph.D., trying to have a career, and raising three kids. She was under a lot of stress.”

While the home front was not ideal, Hersh thrived at school. He attended St. Mark’s School of Texas, a grades 1-12 school that provided him with the stability he craved. “The one value my parents agreed on,” he says, “was education. I have always been grateful that I was sent to St. Mark’s. My teachers were my role models and I made lifelong friendships. It was the place that was rewarding and a safe haven.”

When Hersh was 10, his parents separated; they divorced when he was 12. Not wanting to be a burden on his mother, Hersh began working at an early age. The summer after seventh grade, he developed his own neighborhood sports camp. “I recruited about eight kids, charging them each $1 day. We would play baseball, football, and basketball. They brought their own lunch and I gave them Kool-Aid. I earned $40 a week and thought I was rich. In hindsight, I was the cheapest neighborhood child care center.”

In high school, Hersh played soccer and golf. He also served as the editor of the school newspaper and was captain of the debate team, which participated on the national circuit. “Those activities had me thinking that I would one day be the next great trial lawyer,” he says. Summer jobs in high school included working the graveyard shift at McDonald’s, in the mailroom and loading docks of the Horchow Collection, and the grill at Jack-in-the Box.

Hersh was accepted to Princeton University, which he believes was a perfect fit for him. “Given my parents’ contentious relationship, I grew up self-reliant, which is exactly how Princeton’s curriculum is structured. In your junior year you write two papers, and as a senior you have a year-long thesis that is 40 percent of your GPA. In other words, they put a lot of emphasis on independent work. I thrived in that environment.”

Hersh believes that the most impactful thing that happened to him at Princeton was joining an organization called Business Today. He ran the organization during his junior year and worked for it over two summers. “We did fundraising around the country, put out a quarterly magazine, and organized a national conference. It was completely student led and it turned me on to business.”

After graduating from Princeton magna cum laude with a degree in politics, Hersh planned to go to law school and also earn an MBA. He was accepted to Stanford’s business school, but was waitlisted for the law school. Hersh was enticed by Stanford’s offer to defer enrollment for two years so that he could gain some work experience. He had a month to make his decision and he spent that time interviewing for analyst positions on Wall Street. Morgan Stanley offered him a two-year financial analyst position in New York City, which he quickly accepted.

Hersh’s time at Morgan Stanley ultimately changed his trajectory. The simple fact that he was from Texas prompted the company to place him in the energy group of their investment banking division. “I didn’t know the difference between natural gas and gasoline,” Hersh says. “I guess they assumed everyone from Texas must know oil and gas. The lucky thing was that in 1985, a lot of the big energy transactions were taking place. As a result, I crunched the numbers around some big oil and gas mergers. I was thrown into the fire and learned by doing. It was grueling 100-hour weeks, but I learned a lot. I also came to realize that I no longer wanted to pursue law. I wanted to stay in finance.”

In 1989, Hersh completed his MBA, graduating as an Arjay Miller Scholar. In the summer of 1988, while working on his MBA, Hersh wrote a report for Richard Rainwater, one of the legendary godfathers of what is now the private equity industry. Rainwater used that report to help form the basis for a new private equity fund called Natural Gas Partners (NGP). Hersh, along with Rainwater, Gamble Baldwin, John Foster, and David Albin, co-founded the private equity fund in November 1988 as an energy fund focused on the oil and gas industries.

By the early 1990s, the firm had established a pattern of funding entrepreneurs and helping startup companies grow. At NGP, Hersh and his partners pioneered an investment methodology that became the industry standard in structuring capital for the domestic oil and gas industry, thereby facilitating the unconventional shale revolution. Hersh served as CEO until 2016, and under his leadership NGP became one of the nation’s leading investment firms of the time. Ultimately, the firm became NGP Energy Capital Management and diversified into a firm with funds dedicated to energy, mining resources and minerals, agribusiness, energy technology and energy lending.

Toward the end of his time at NGP, Hersh started to realize he was gaining more personal satisfaction from his philanthropic work. “After my 50th birthday, I decided it was time to devote more time to my civic involvement,” he says. In 2016, he became president and CEO of the George W. Bush Presidential Center, which houses the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum and the George W. Bush Institute.

“It’s been an incredible joy to be a part of this mission-driven entity,” he says. “We’ve expanded the programmatic work of the Bush Institute around the values of freedom, opportunity, accountability, and compassion. We combine public programming and policy work in the areas of economic opportunity, strengthening democracy, and advancing free societies around the world.”

Ken Hersh is a frequent writer and speaker on topics ranging from economics and geopolitics to the energy industry and financial markets. In 2023, he released his book, The Fastest Tortoise: Winning in Industries I Knew Nothing About, which chronicles his journey in an industry he didn’t even know existed when he started. Going fearlessly into the unknown defined Hersh’s career and along the way he learned a few lessons, which he generously shares in his book.

In addition to several lifetime achievement awards in the energy industry, in 2023, Hersh received the Ernest C. Arbuckle Award, the highest award given by Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, recognizing excellence in the field of management leadership, and the H. Neil Mallon Award presented by the World Affairs Council to recognize his contribution to the region’s global presence. In 2019, he received the Henry Cohn Humanitarian Award, presented by the Texoma region of the Anti-Defamation League for advancing the cause of human rights, dignity, and equal opportunity.

Looking back over his career, Hersh is quick to give credit for much of his success to his long-time business partner, David Albin. “We were partners for nearly 30 years without a stitch of paper between us. We complemented each other and had total trust between us. That is one piece of advice I have for those just getting their start: Find people you want in your foxhole—your internal board of directors—and invest in those relationships.”

While reflecting on his career in preparation for writing his book, Hersh came to realize that much of his success and trajectory came to him because he was willing to recognize opportunities and put in the effort to see where they would lead him. “I call one chapter in my book ‘Raise Your Hand.’ I had the attitude that I would try to make things happen; that I would take a stab at something even if I was unsure of where to begin or where it would go,” Hersh explains. “It’s a mentality that really paid off for me. When I mentor young people today, I tell them the best bet you can make is on yourself.”

When asked for his definition of success, he says, “For me, it’s having no regrets when I look back. I think that at the end of the day, if you can look back and say: ‘If I had it all to do over again, I’d do it pretty much the same way,’ that sounds like success to me.”

Hersh has often been described as a master entrepreneur. “Entrepreneurship is everything,” he says. “You can be entrepreneurial in business and in relationships. In fact, life itself is entrepreneurial. Some people think about their future and they want it to be highly scripted. They’re very targeted. But I say, let the fog of the future excite you. If you are so specific about where you want to be 10 years from now, you could be letting opportunities pass.”

Humbled by his Horatio Alger Award, Hersh says, “To be associated with the Association’s mission aligns well with how I carry myself and what I feel is important about paying it forward. I look forward to a long association with both the people in the organization and the Scholars that it helps.”