7 CEOs Whose Religion Will Surprise You

15 minute read

When Apple CEO Tim Cook recently announced he is gay, he wrote, “I consider being gay among the greatest gifts God has given me.” Cook is not forthcoming beyond that statement about his religious beliefs, probably because people have strong opinions about how appropriate it is for executives to discuss their personal beliefs.

Most CEOs, in fact, keep their faith squarely out of the workplace, according to Andrew Wicks, a professor of business administration at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. “They specifically hide their religious faith, precisely because they fear people making a big deal out of their religious views,” said Wicks, who teaches a course called “Faith, Religion, and Responsible Decision Making.”

But Wicks says being open about faith is actually important because it is a powerful aspect of how business leaders define themselves.

These 7 executives don’t all share the same religious convictions – but they all say they are informed and inspired by faith and spirituality, both inside and outside the boardroom.

Indra Nooyi

PepsiCo (#43)


Born in southern India, Nooyi is among a small group of minority women who head Fortune 500 companies, and an even smaller group of foreign-born female CEOs. The head of the Purchase, New York-based PepsiCo is also a devout Hindu who abstains from alcohol and is a vegetarian because of her adherence to the religion’s teachings and traditions.

In a 1998 interview with Hinduism Today magazine, when she was Senior Vice President for Corporate Strategy and Development (she became President and CEO in 2006), she said she keeps a statue of the Hindu deity Ganesha, the God of Auspicious Beginnings typically depicted as an elephant with one broken tusk, in her office.

She also said she has taken to heart her mother’s deep and committed spiritual life. “Our house had a very large temple room, and my mother used to pray three or four hours every morning,” she told the magazine, “So the house was a deeply religious house, and every occasion of life and death was observed with great care and exacting standards.”

Nooyi, 59, is famously candid about the difficulties women face balancing family, children, and careers, saying in a July 2014 speech at the Aspen Ideas Festival that women “pretend we can have it all.” But in the Hinduism Today interview, the mother of two daughters cited her Hindu faith as a source of solace from the storms of guilt and stress.

“There are times when the stress is so incredible between office and home, trying to be a wife, mother, daughter-in-law and corporate executive,” she said, “Then you close your eyes and think about a temple like Tirupati, and suddenly you feel ‘Hey–I can take on the world.’ Hinduism floats around you, and makes you feel somehow invincible.”

Donnie Smith

Tyson Foods, Inc. (#93)

Christian (Southern Baptist)

It may not be unusual to find a powerful executive in church on Sunday morning, but it is less common to find one in a classroom leading a Bible study.

Donnie Smith, CEO of Tyson Foods since 2009, does just that at Cross Church, a Southern Baptist congregation in Springdale, Arkansas, the city where the company is headquartered.

“He not only teaches the Bible, he lives the Bible,” the Rev. Ronnie Floyd, senior pastor at Cross Church and the recently named president of the Southern Baptist Convention, told Fortune. “He’s just a passionate leader in his faith as well as in the corporate setting,” Floyd said.

Smith, 55, says he carries his faith with him in everything he does, including his business life.

“I don’t think you can say, ‘I do my church stuff on Sunday between nine and noon, and the rest of the time I am either out for myself or running my business’,” he told the Wall Street Journal in 2010, “My faith influences how I think, what I do, what I say.”

“Faith-friendly”—but not “faith-based”—is how John Tyson, the chairman of the board and the grandson of the company’s founder, describes the culture at Tyson Foods. Since 2000, the company has employed more than 115 chaplains whose presence on assembly line floors and office spaces is called a “ministry of availability” meant to offer employees counseling, support, and encouragement at work.

In 2009, the company also funded the Tyson Center for Faith and Spirituality in the Workplace at the University of Arkansas’ business school. The center’s mission statement says it seeks to learn and teach the best practices of companies “truly committed to higher values and to living in alignment with principles taught by the faith and spiritual traditions.”

Smith strives to be such an example, telling the Wall Street Journal, “There are a lot of great biblical principles that are fundamental to operating a good business. Being fair and telling the truth are biblical principles.” He added that Tyson’s business sector—food production—is one worthy of his time and attention. When asked whether he thinks a Fortune 500 CEO can get into heaven, Smith responded, “This one will, because I did what the Bible said I had to do to get into heaven. Feeding people is a laudable purpose in life.”

Daniel P. Amos

Aflac Incorporated (#125)

Christian (United Methodist)

The only child of one of the insurance company’s three founding brothers, Daniel Amos became CEO of Aflac Incorporated in 1990 and has said his son, Paul S. Amos II, currently Aflac’s president, will take over company leadership when Daniel, 63, retires.

Daniel’s father, also named Paul Amos, was raised in the Methodist church and founded the Columbus, Georgia-based company with his two brothers in 1955. (Paul, the last surviving brother, died in July of 2014 at age 88 of Parkinson’s disease.)

Faith permeates the family’s worldview as well as the company’s culture and ethic. In a March 2014 interview with the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer, Daniel Amos, 63, was asked about the verse from the Book of Luke, “To whom much is given, much is expected.” He responded by touting the virtues of anonymous giving, saying, “I think that’s one of the most important things that’s in the scripture is you don’t flaunt what you’re doing.”

Among his publicly known charitable activities, Amos serves on the board of trustees for the faith-based House of Mercy homeless shelter, which has a chapel attendance requirement for those who stay there, and which made news in 2011 for denying services to two women shelter leaders suspected were lesbians.

Meanwhile, Aflac and Amos have been recognized for having a progressive corporate social responsibility profile, most recently receiving the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Salute to Greatness Award in 2013 for involvement in community and humanitarian causes.

In a revealing interview with the Faith and Leadership program at Duke Divinity School, Paul S. Amos II, 40, summarized how religious values filter throughout the culture at Aflac.

Though it’s not a religious company, “faith is important at Aflac,” he said. Every employee receives a book called “The Aflac Way,” which outlines the company’s basic principles, ethics, and codes of conduct. “Almost all of those principles come in some way from Scripture, adapted for use in the workplace,” Paul Amos II said.

“They might be as simple as, ‘Everyone is important. No matter who walks through the door, whether it’s the man in overalls or a straw hat or the man in a $500 suit, everyone is treated equally.’” Paul, who will one day succeed his father as CEO, acknowledged that not everyone believes as he does, but said, “I believe Aflac’s success has come from doing the right thing, from fulfilling the promises that we make. We don’t make a tangible good. We make a promise. Really, that’s all we have—our word—so how we fulfill that promise and how we carry out those principles of Christianity, what we do to reinforce the body of Christ, makes all the difference in the world.”

Pierre Omidyar

eBay Inc. (#180)


Though he is no longer CEO of the online auction site he founded in 1995, Pierre Omidyar, 47, remains chairman of the company and a prominent public figure in the areas of innovation, technology, and media.

A follower of the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan Buddhist leader, Omidyar has contributed generously to support that leader’s message and travels, both with his wife Pamela and through his foundation, Omidyar Network. He donated funds to support a think tank, the Dalai Lama Center for Ethics and Transformative Values, at MIT, and he hosted the Dalai Lama during a 2012 visit to Hawaii, where Omidyar lives.

Born in Paris to Iranian parents, Omidyar’s family moved to Washington D.C. when he was a boy. Later, he became a naturalized U.S. citizen. His mother Elahé Mir-Djalali, who raised Omidyar after his parents separated, is a linguist who specializes in the meaning of culture. Mir-Djalali is also the chair and president of theRoshan Cultural Heritage Institute, which is based in Honolulu and dedicated to preserving Persian cultural heritage. Omidyar is listed as that organizations’ director.

Though Omidyar is currently funding an aggressive media network determined to expose government secrets, he is known as having a gentle, mindful presence. “Peace is an active state of being—it is not passive,” he said in a statement announcing the Dalai Lama’s Hawaiian visit in 2012. And his philosophical outlook has also informed his business decisions and instincts. “Everything I’ve done is rooted in the notion that every human being is born equally capable,” he told Inc. magazine in 2013, “What people lack is equal opportunity. My goal has been to expand opportunity to as many people as possible so they can reach their potential.”

James Tisch

Loews Corporation (#193)


James Tisch has a strong record as the leader of his family’s corporation, which was started by his father and uncle in 1946 as a single hotel venture before transforming over the decades into a major conglomerate. But parallel to Tisch’s business successes is his extensive involvement in and leadership of a prestigious list of major American Jewish organizations.

Tisch, 61 and the father of three, is an honorary member and past chairman of the board of governors of the Jewish Agency for Israel, which encourages American Jews to connect with, visit, or move to Israel, as well as past chairman of the board of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, an umbrella group that works on policy issues facing both American Jews and world Jewry.

He is past chairman of the board of the United Jewish Communities, which is now called the Jewish Federations of North America and is a nationwide network of Jewish social service, social welfare, and education organizations, and he is past president of UJA-Federation of New York, which is the nation’s leading Jewish charity. This last post, for which he was nominated in 1997, stirred some controversy when a group of prominent rabbis from the Reform Jewish movement, plus other Jewish leaders and anti-smoking advocates including the Sierra Club, objected to his appointment because Loews Corporation owned the Lorillard Tobacco Company—it was the corporation’s second largest holding—and the leaders felt the connection with the tobacco industry might tarnish the organization’s reputation and fundraising ability.

“Morality, ethics, Jewish law against self-destruction, and common sense mandate that it would be repugnant for a tobacco executive to be cast as the president and role model for any Jewish federation,” wrote New York philanthropist Henry Everett to the nominating committee in hopes of quashing Tisch’s candidacy. But the effort failed, Loews had ended all ownership of the Lorillard Tobacco Company by 2008, and Tisch remains an honorary board member at the Federation.

Tisch, who is known for his genial manner, told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz in 2011, when he was appointed chairman of the board of governors of the Jewish Agency for Israel, that he had thought his decades of communal Jewish service were over, but he still found himself saying yes to the request. “Yes, my schedule is busy,” he told the paper, “But I consider myself a very good delegator. I like to involve myself in the important strategic mission and I like to leave everything else for other people to do. I say: if somebody else could do it, why should I do it? I am happy to surround myself with good people and have them do their jobs.”

Arne M. Sorenson

Marriott International, Inc. (#219)

Christian (Lutheran)

In some ways, Arne Sorenson represented a sea change for the international hospitality company when he was named CEO in March of 2012—he was both the first non-Mormon to lead the company and the first CEO who was not a member of the Marriott family. But though Sorenson, 55, does not share the religious convictions or last name of the company’s owning family (J.W. “Bill” Marriott Jr. remains the company’s executive chairman and chairman of the board), Sorenson’s life and career have been driven by faith.

Born in Tokyo, Sorenson’s father was a Lutheran minister who had moved his family to Japan to do missionary work after World War II. Sorenson majored in both business management and religion at Luther College, from which he graduated in 1980.

While in college, he spent a summer in war-torn Beirut, sent by his father on a church mission trip. “I was there for three months and had a spectacular experience but I say to my kids now, can you imagine being sent by your parents into a war zone?” he told the London Evening Standard in 2013.

Today, he cites his academic work in religion as “relevant” to his career, where he encounters people from diverse religious and cultural backgrounds. “To have some schooling in understanding their religious traditions, even not being expert in those traditions, but understanding they’re traditions that are different from ours, and having an interest, I suppose, in trying to understand them, is a huge asset,” he said in a video interview produced by the college.

Faith-based family values were cited when Bill Marriott, a devout and high-ranking member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, tapped Sorenson into senior leadership at the Bethesda, Maryland-based company. “He’s not a big shot,” Marriott told The Washington Post in 2009, when Sorenson was named CFO, “He’s not a master of the universe, which is the last thing we need around here. This is a company that goes on family values and a degree of humility.”

Brian K. Bedford

Republic Airways Holdings, Inc. (#819)

Roman Catholic

In 1999, when Brian K. Bedford became CEO of the Indianapolis-based Republic Airways, which later acquired Frontier Airlines, he has said he made a decision to bring his Catholic faith in God with him to the workplace.

“We’ve been building a business together ever since,” he told The Denver Post in 2009, adding, “I needed to be a whole person in all facets of my life each day.” The 52-year-old father of eight children, Bedford told USA Today in 2011 that Triumph: The Power and the Glory of the Catholic Church by the historian H.W. Crocker III is his favorite book, and that he regularly listens to contemporary Christian music.

When he appeared on the reality TV series “Undercover Boss” in 2010, he spoke repeatedly of God, prayed with employees who shared their personal difficulties, and was filmed kissing a cross on his necklace and reading the Bible before he went to sleep.

Faith is visible throughout company literature, including Bedford’s practice of often signing company newsletters, “I pray for God’s continued blessings on our families and our airline.” A statement called “Our Vision,” posted on the company’s website, reads, “We believe that every associate, regardless of personal beliefs or world-view, has been created in the image and likeness of God.” The statement goes on to reinforce that the company does not require any particular type of faith from its employees, saying, “we seek to become stronger from our diversity.”

Bedford told USA Today he is very comfortable with his public expressions of faith, even if some might feel faith is best kept outside the workplace. “Things get controversial when bosses express their faith at the workplace,” he said, adding, “We try to live by the commandments. When we talk about faith in the workplace, we’re talking about treating people fairly. I think people find it an interesting aspect of who I am. Most CEOs wouldn’t be that intimate. It’s part of who I am. I don’t hide it. I don’t beat people over the head with it.”

This article originally appeared on Fortune.com

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