Mellody Hobson, President, Ariel Investments

Mellody Hobson, President, Ariel Investments

When Mellody Hobson was just 25 years old, she went on a life-changing trip with her boss and mentor John Rogers, founder and CEO of Ariel Investments.

The purpose of the trip was to meet with Jack Bogel, founder of The Vanguard Group, who transformed the mutual-fund company into an international colossus. “Finding a time when Jack and John could meet was extremely complicated,” Hobson explained when we met last December. “Then Jack said that he was taking a train from New York to Philadelphia. He said, ‘Ride with me.’”

Excited to get a chance to learn from the investment icon, Rogers and Hobson flew from Chicago to New York to hop on a train with Bogel. During the meeting, Rogers said to Bogel, “Mellody is going to be president of Ariel, and I want to make sure she’s exposed to everything.”

“When John said that, I was taken completely by surprise,” Hobson said. Yet, six years after that train ride, Rogers’ prediction was correct. Hobson was named president of Ariel in 2000.

The Importance of Financial Literacy

For Hobson, managing money isn’t just her business, it’s also her passion.

Hobson explained, “If we could be more financially literate as a society, it would have an enormous, transformative impact on a variety of issues. Parents could learn to pass wealth onto their children. Retirees could be financially secure in their old age, and the recent mortgage crisis could have been avoided.”

The root of Hobson’s self-professed “obsession” with the importance of financial literacy can be found in her own childhood. As the youngest of six children raised by a single mother, Hobson grew up around a lot of economic insecurity. She now knows how her own family’s life could have been vastly improved with a sounder understanding of how to manage money.

“Raising the level of financial literacy could have profound implications. I think it’s an issue that can move the needle on society and poverty,” she said.

Hobson is committed to sharing her knowledge to help empower others. She is a regular contributor and analyst on finance, the markets, and economic trends for CBS News. She also contributes weekly money tips on the Tom Joyner Morning Show and writes a column for Black Enterprise magazine.

A Gender Bias Still Exists

When it comes to the lack of senior executive women working in financial services today, Hobson believes that the ever-present gender bias is partly to blame.

To illustrate her point, she told me about a recent meeting she had with someone to get their advice on how to approach a prospective client. Hobson said, “The man advised me to have John Rogers, our CEO, approach the client. When I asked why John needed to do that, the man said, ‘Man to man would be better.’ He also added that I could, ‘flash my pretty smile to get his business.’ It was appalling.”

Yet, even in the face of gender bias on the work front, Hobson believes that women must take responsibility for their careers. “We need to make sure our voices are heard. I’ve been in too many meetings and board meetings where the women don’t speak up as much as the men. I’ve seen women wait for the safe moment to share their ideas, which are often the best of all the ideas.”

Keep Going. Keep Pushing.

For Hobson, getting knocked down is inevitable. The real test of success is how you get back up. She believes this is especially true for women.

She said, “Often women aren’t given the same benefit of the doubt that men are given, so we can often get more discouraged. I would advise: Keep going. Keep pushing. Do not give up.”

Being tenacious and persistent is not just important for one woman’s individual career; it is meaningful for all women. Hobson explained, “It’s important to understand that women leaders play a very crucial role for those who are going to come behind us. That is not something I take lightly.”

Your Ideas Are Good

Though Hobson is proud to say that she’s never been a shrinking violet, and, thus, hasn’t encountered much reticence in voicing her own opinion, she got a key piece of advice from John Rogers when she first joined Ariel.

“He told me that, throughout the course of my career, I’d meet a lot people who would have bigger titles than me and more experience, but that never meant that their ideas were better than mine.”

Hobson shares this advice with the many people she mentors. “I tell them to remember that their ideas are good. And even if they’re not the best ideas in the room, they’ll get credit for putting them on the table.”

Don’t Admire the Problem. Fix it.

Hobson says her major pet peeve is when someone walks into her office with a problem, yet fails to come in with ideas for a solution.

“There are people who love to talk about what the problem is. At Ariel, we always say, ‘We’ve admired the problem long enough. Fix it.’ Even if it is not the winning solution, you will get credit for having thought about a solution.”

People respond to problem-solvers. “Good ideas can propel you to places you’d never thought you’d go,” Hobson said.

Go All Out

Hobson says that the one piece of advice she gives to people just graduating from college or business school is to “go all out.”

“In the early years of your career, when you are typically unencumbered by a lot of responsibilities that will come later, it is an opportunity to really dig in. I was very conscious about this when I first started out. During that early phase of my career, I knew I could outwork anyone because I didn’t have to go anywhere. I could work through the weekend. I could work late at night.”

It was that commitment to work and delivering more than what was asked of her that propelled Hobson up the ladder.

Everyone Needs Gravity Boots

Hobson says that she doesn’t work the hours she used to when she was just beginning her career, but that’s hard to imagine. With all the responsibilities she has both at work and outside it, it seems that Hobson has more hours in the day than the rest of us.

She’s not only the president of Ariel and a regular contributor to CBS News, but she’s also the chairman of DreamWorks Animation, a director of The Estée Lauder Companies Inc., Groupon, Inc., and Starbucks Corporation. She’s a board member of The Field Museum, Lucas Cultural Arts Museum, The Chicago Public Education Fund, The Sundance Institute and is on the board of governors of the Investment Company Institute.

She’s also the chairman of After School Matters, a non-profit that provides Chicago teens with high quality, out-of-school programs.

When I ask her how she manages to juggle all these myriad commitments, she says, “I do the things I really love. I’m learning so much from being the chairman of Dreamworks. And I love After School Matters. I feel like I was put on earth to do this work.”

It was August of 2012 when Hobson was appointed to be the chairman of After School Works. “I keep thinking how lucky I am that I get to be part of this organization and meet these wonderful Chicago kids. They serve as an enormous source of inspiration. It keeps me very grounded.”

Hobson continued, “Everyone needs gravity boots. You have to stay very close to what got you there.”

The incredible portfolio of Hobson’s commitments plays a big part in making her the dynamic and inspiring leader she is. “I feel so lucky about the places I go and the people I am fortunate enough to meet and learn from,” she says. “I’m always sad that other people aren’t there to experience it as well. I wish everyone could be there with me.”


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