Mellody Hobson: The Power of Breaking The Mold - Sarah Chen
Impact Investing, Impact Washing, Investment, Philanthropy
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MELLODY hobson: the power of breaking the mold

Mellody Hobson, President & Co-CEO of Ariel Investments. Source: Starbucks Corp.

 

“Where are your uniforms?”


In 2006, Harold Ford Jr. called his friend Mellody, to ask for help with some national press as he was running for the US Senate in Tennessee. Mellody, an investor, in turn called a friend at a major media organization and put together a lunch. But when she and Ford arrived at the lunch, they were taken through the back room and yes, they were asked the question above [thinking they were the waitstaff]: “Where are your uniforms?”


From a child of a single mother that didn’t always make the rent on the South Side of Chicago, to her rise to the top of a $17 billion investment firm, to being the only current Black female to chair the board of a major Fortune 500 company and her marriage to Yoda’s creator, George Lucas—Mellody continues to break the mold. And today, she’s using her platform that she has built over decades to encourage all of us not to be colorblind but color brave and beyond that, live our truth and step into our unique power.

Mellody calls her success “a miracle, far beyond my wildest dreams” given where she’s come from. Her significant rise because, and not in spite of it, is why Mellody makes next on the list of #BillionDollarMoves we should all be learning from.

 

This article is part of the #BillionDollarMoves CEO series, which unpacks the mental models, and key leadership strategies of today’s movers & shakers as they navigated crisis, failure and built success.

#Billiondollarmoves dECONSTRUCTED

1. Don’t let your past limit your future

From Hollywood to Wall Street, few run in the circles that Mellody does with such grace, making it easy to assume that Hobson’s life seems ridiculously charmed. Yet of course, her childhood didn’t make her current reality an inevitable conclusion. As the youngest of six children to a single mother who struggled to make ends meet, Mellody often recalls how her childhood was haunted with “frequent evictions” and moves further down the grittier South Side of Chicago. While her mother, Dorothy Ashley was hardworking, she shares how she was “not a great businesswoman, with too good a heart”. Dorothy was an entrepreneur who would fix up, rent and sell apartments, but would not have the heart to evict those who could not meet their rent. Dorothy would also splurge on Easter dresses instead of paying the phone bill. Seeing how her mother struggled made her even more determined to get a good education (being the first in her family to graduate from university), and further led her down her path in the finance industry. “I was desperate to understand money. Not to make it, to understand it. I wanted to know how it worked, and I wanted to know so that I would have enough and would be able to make good financial decisions. That led me to Ariel.”

Her passions about financial literacy and leaving the world a better place have endured because of her Chicago roots and the many challenges she’s overcome, not in spite of them.

 

 

2. “Be the person who other people want to see succeed”—find & keep good mentors

Mellody at a young age, knew that education would be her ticket out of her current reality. Her stellar academic record attracted offers from top colleges, including Harvard. She was set on heading to Harvard until she met John Rogers, the founder of Ariel Investments (which he launched at the age of 24!) who was also helping Princeton recruit. “I grew up in a world where a strong, dynamic woman could achieve anything,” says Rogers. “And when I saw Mellody, I saw this bright, brilliant person who could indeed achieve anything.”

After graduating from Princeton, she returned to Ariel, where she had done a summer internship. “I was desperate to understand money, desperate for financial security. I felt like financial security would be the biggest gift I could ever have,” says Hobson often in her many interviews. She became an unofficial chief of staff to Rogers where she demonstrated her tenacity, skill and grit, early and consistently, and has stayed at the firm ever since (yes, she’s been at the same firm since graduation!). In 2000, she was named President, and in 2019, she bought an ownership stake from Rogers such that she is the majority shareholder at 39.5%, while Rogers retains his 34.1%.

Notably John Rogers has said this about Mellody, “Even though I founded Ariel, it has long been Mellody’s firm too. In all the years of working together, Mellody and I have evolved into co-leaders. Her decision-making has always been through a lens of ownership and entrepreneurship.” John’s framing of Mellody struck me—that at the heart of it, Mellody had always acted as if Ariel was her own firm: not in an ego-stroking way, but that she would do as John would, in the best interests of the firm, and that she was invested in the vision of what the firm could be. Notably, John demonstrated, to me, a mark of real leadership— to be quick to recognize and value someone like Mellody, while so many others would otherwise be intimidated or threatened.

 

3. Do or do not, there is no try—make the most impact with your platform

 

In 2014, Mellody was invited to give a TED talk and had thought long and hard about the topic she would focus on. While she had long been passionate about financial literacy and that would have been an obvious choice, she chose instead, to speak about race in America.

This, even though many of her good friends didn’t think it was a good idea for fear she would be “boxed in to the issue”, and that it would have unintended consequences on her career she had worked hard to build. ”But it is important to me, and I feel incredibly, uniquely positioned to talk about it”— and so Mellody began the talk with the story about how Harold Ford Jr., then running for the U.S Senate in Tennessee, and herself were mistaken as waitstaff in 2006. She chose herself, to be brave in her choice, and speaks of being color brave instead of color blind.

“When you say you’re color-blind, what I hear is that you don’t see me,” says Mellody. Being color-brave means acknowledging the role that race plays in America and how racial identities impact people today.

Having served on multiple company boards from Estée Lauder, DreamWorks Animation, Groupon and now actively serving on the board of Starbucks, JPMorgan Chase, (oh and yes recently joining the ownership group of the Denver Broncos!) she continues to champion this conversation.
In 2021, she launched Project Black, an initiative focused on transforming middle-market companies that are not currently minority owned into certified minority business enterprises and scaling existing Black and Latinx-owned businesses. JPMorgan Chase has committed up to $200 million to the initiative for future transactions — part of the bank’s commitment, announced in October, to invest $30 billion in efforts to advance racial equity, and I’m excited to see the impact this will create!

Mental models so you can think like MELLODY:

From Mellody’s tough childhood to the 2008 financial crisis that did, according to Morningstar, cause a dent on Ariel’s long-term record, it is no surprise that she’s often under tremendous pressure. How does she do it all? She often recounts a favorite advice from her husband, “If it’s a huge failure, you will wake up the next day, and get up and do all the same things that you do every single day. The thing is life goes on when you fail miserably, life goes on when someone dies”. This revelation continues to allow her to step into her fear. Here are three actionable questions you can ask yourself to think like Mellody:

 


1. How are you today letting your past hold you back from your future? Instead, how can you tap into a unique experience, and make that your strongest value proposition?


2. So often, we hear the advice on finding the best mentors and look outward. Have you flipped the script to look inward, at how you can be the person that others want to succeed?


3. Many leaders get to the point of comfort in their careers, where “more” is no longer necessary. But consider the impact you are creating beyond yourself that can truly make a difference—if not you, then who, if not now, then when? It can be easy to feel like we are just one voice and that our work on a big issue would not move the dial, but as Mellody has said aptly, “one voice has the power to shape the world”.


It’s clear that Mellody Hobson will remain one of the most notable leaders I’ll be watching, especially as she now expands her important philanthropic work with her husband, George Lucas including most recently establishing the Martin Scorsese Institute of Global Cinematic Arts at New York University, and establishing the first residential college at Princeton named for a Black woman (Hobson College) replacing Wilson College. To follow her lead, we must stay steadfast on our goal, lean into our voice, and be color brave. How else has Mellody Hobson inspired you?

 

 

This article is part of the #BillionDollarMoves CEO series, which unpacks the mental models, and key leadership strategies of today’s movers & shakers as they navigated crisis, failure and built success. Sign up so you won’t miss the next CEO profile: https://sarah-chen.ck.page/ceoseries

About the Author:

Sarah Chen is Co-Founder and Managing Partner of Beyond The Billion (launched as The Billion Dollar Fund for Women), a global consortium of venture funds pledged to invest and actively deploying over $1 billion into female-founded companies. In under two years, $638 million has been deployed by the consortium’s partner funds into close to 800 female founders, with 11 recognized as unicorns. While pioneering a corporate VC unit at a publicly-traded Asian conglomerate, Sarah was struck by the complete imbalance of investment dollars into homogeneous teams and the severe lack of women in positions of leadership, despite no shortage of highly qualified women. Young Global Leader of the World Economic Forum and Forbes 30 Under 30 VC, she is a recognized speaker, media commentator and adviser on VC, innovation, and women in leadership, having been featured on Fortune, Forbes, Der Spiegel, the Wall Street Journal, at the United Nations et al.