How can we get better at receiving negative feedback? Mellody Hobson, Co-CEO and President at Ariel Investments and Chair of the Board of Starbucks, joins your host, Dr. Joe Sweeney, Executive Director of the Alliance for Decision Education, to talk about her journey to becoming one of Time Magazine’s “100 Most Influential People,” and a nationally recognized voice on financial literacy. Mellody and Joe discuss how to be courageous and patient in our investments and our careers, how organizations can put people first without compromising on profit, and how great leaders adapt when facing high-stake challenges and great uncertainty. Mellody shares insights from the COVID-19 pandemic when she advised Starbucks on supporting 440,000 employees across 83 countries, and worked with Chicago-based non-profit After School Matters to provide teens with urgently needed food and essentials. Mellody also shares a much-needed update to the idea that our children can “do anything.”
Mellody Hobson is a nationally recognized voice on financial literacy and Co-CEO and President at Ariel Investments. As Co-CEO, Mellody is responsible for management, strategic planning and growth for all areas of Ariel Investments outside of research and portfolio management. Additionally, she serves as Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Ariel Investment Trust—the company’s publicly traded mutual funds. Prior to being named Co-CEO, Mellody spent nearly two decades as the firm’s President.
Outside of Ariel, Mellody’s leadership has been invaluable to corporate boardrooms across the nation. She currently serves as Chair of the Board of Starbucks Corporation. She is also a director of JPMorgan Chase. She previously served as Chairman of the Board of DreamWorks Animation until the company’s sale and was also a long-standing board member of the Estée Lauder Companies.
Mellody’s community outreach includes her role as Chairman of After School Matters, a Chicago non-profit that provides area teens with high-quality after school and summer programs. Additionally, she is vice chair of World Business Chicago; co-chair of the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art; and a board member of the George Lucas Education Foundation and Bloomberg Philanthropies. She also serves on the board of trustees of the Center for Strategic & International Studies, and of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). Mellody is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, The Rockefeller Foundation Board of Trustees, and serves on the executive committee of the Investment Company Institute.
Mellody earned her AB from Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of International Relations and Public Policy. In 2019, she was awarded the University’s highest honor, the Woodrow Wilson Award, presented annually to a Princeton graduate whose career embodies a commitment to national service. She has also received honorary doctorate degrees from Howard University, Johns Hopkins University, St. Mary’s College, and the University of Southern California. In 2015, Time Magazine named her one of the “100 Most Influential People” in the world.
- Ariel Investments
- 100 Most Influential People
- 2022 Lincoln Leadership Prize
- Ariel Community Academy
- George Lucas Educational Foundation | Edutopia
- After School Matters
Joe: Mellody Hobson is a nationally recognized voice on financial literacy, and Co-CEO and President at Ariel Investments. Outside of Ariel, Mellody currently serves as Chair of the Board of the Starbucks Corporation. Mellody is also a Director at JPMorgan Chase, and she previously served as Chair of the Board of DreamWorks Animation until the company’s sale. Mellody’s community outreach includes her role as Chair of After School Matters, a Chicago nonprofit that provides programs for teens, and she also serves as a board member of the George Lucas Education Foundation.
Mellody earned her BA from Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of International Relations and Public Policy. In 2015, Time Magazine named her one of the 100 Most Influential People in the world and Mellody was recently announced as the recipient of the 2022 Lincoln Leadership Prize. The prize recognizes outstanding individuals for a lifetime of service and has previously been awarded to US Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Civil Rights Activists the Little Rock Nine and Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson.
Mellody, the absolute warmest of welcomes. I’ve been looking forward to this conversation. Thank you for making the time to talk with us today.
Mellody: Thanks for having me. I’m excited to be here.
Joe: I’m just gonna dig right in and start asking questions. I’m looking forward to the conversation. You’re co-CEO at Ariel Investments, can you tell us a little about the focus of your work there and how you started out in this field?
Mellody: Well, let me start off with the focus of our work. So, we are a global value asset manager and what that means is we invest in public company securities around the globe. In the US, we buy small and medium-sized companies that have a strong potential for growth, but are often undervalued or overlooked, widely misunderstood or ignored. And then globally, we buy stocks for which people maybe do not see the value that we see in them.
So, we’ve been doing that for the last 39 years. We turned 39 years old this January. And I’ve been at the firm … this will be my 31st year, which is nuts.
Now, to your point about: how did I get started in this field? Clearly, with a 31 year career at one company, I’m highly unusual. In my graduating class of 1100 people, I’m supposedly the only person who’s had the same work phone number since I graduated from college.
Joe: Oh, my gosh.
Mellody: And a lot of this has to do with I fell in love and just discovered the investment business, basically by accident, in meeting the founder of Ariel, John Rogers, when I was 17 years old. And I was bold enough to ask him if I could be a summer intern. I interned at the firm one year and then I went and interned at T. Rowe Price, the big investment firm in Baltimore, the next year. And I realized that I had found my calling, that the idea of investing and saving … which made a lot of sense based upon how I grew up with so much financial insecurity, I was craving those lessons. It really changed my life and I knew I would do it for the rest of my career.
So, I started as an intern and rose up to become President when I was about 31 years old and then I became co-CEO of the firm in 2019. And my responsibilities are everything outside of the investment area. I basically run the firm on a day-to-day basis. Whereas John Rogers, our founder and my co-CEO, is responsible for the investment strategies that we offer to our clients.
Joe: Well, I really appreciate that explanation. You kicked off a bunch of questions for me. One is more of a technical one, which is: what does it mean when you say you look for undervalued equities or companies? How do you know that something’s undervalued?
Mellody: Well, they say that value is in the eye of the beholder. And so, we have our own definitions of what value is, and they get pretty technical. But the idea is that what we’re looking for is … we’re buying things when they’re out of favor, when for whatever reason there’s a cloud over an industry or, or over a company, but we can see past whatever the short-term issue is. And because we take a long-term view, and have a turtle as a logo, and call ourselves “the patient investor,” that we can see that unrealized value that will come to us down the road.
As a result of that, I tell people that in really volatile and difficult times, that’s when we make the most money because basically what we do is we shop for years of future returns. So, value, for some people, I said it can mean very different things. We’ve defined what we’re looking for around what we call the “intrinsic worth” of a company. What would a rational reasonable person pay if they were to buy the whole business or if it were broken up into pieces and sold?
And on the domestic equity side, where we buy US stocks, we’re trying to buy stocks that are worth $1, but we only want to pay $0.60 for them. So, we want to buy them at a 40% discount to what we think they’re worth. And on the international and global side, we look at a bunch of valuation metrics that all come together to create a sense of the opportunity that might exist there.
Joe: I’m struck by the courage that it takes to have a conviction about something so consequential when the rest of the market is telling you, “You’re wrong.” And it’s striking me that it sounds very similar to a young woman going up and asking to intern for someone, to be courageous enough to push. I’m just wondering, are those connected in your mind? The internal fortitude and courage to differ from expectations and the ability to see a different value in the market and pursue it for the long term, even when everyone else is saying it’s not worth that?
Mellody: Absolutely. I think one of the things that makes for really great investing, and some of the greatest investors of all time, [is that] they have the courage of their convictions. Now, this isn’t just digging in on something because you think you’re right. These ideas are steeped in research. We have an informed point of view about why we can see and believe things will be different than the rest of the world believes. That takes a lot of courage.
You know, sometimes we’re out there … my visual is that we’re dangling from this tree branch by ourselves. But that doesn’t make us uncomfortable. I think there are a lot of reasons for that. John Rogers, who’s co-CEO, was an only child and I think that had a lot to do with not getting that stimulus of siblings who kind of beat you down on your ideas and force you at times to conform to a point of view. I think he was freed of that by being the only child and being told by his mother that whatever he enjoyed or believed or wanted to do, he was in a situation where his mother encouraged him.
I’m a de facto only child, because even though I have five older siblings, they’re so much older than me. And they say when you have more than five years between you, you’re de facto an only child. So, I think there are parts of that.
I also think that there’s a grittiness to us. And I think that grittiness allows us to have that internal fortitude at times that you need, especially in really, really difficult periods in the stock market.
Joe: So, was it the fact that you had older siblings that you had some awareness of the kinds of careers that were out there and that led you from international relations over to finance and investing? Or was there something else that let you know that that was a possibility?
Mellody: No, actually, I took the road less taken or less traveled in my family. I’m the only one of my siblings who graduated from college and just had a very, very different childhood and life experience, even though we have the same mother. And I think a lot of it was a function of, you know, I sort of was born different, and I didn’t have any knowledge of the investment field until I met John Rogers and became an intern. And that’s when I discovered the entire world of finance, which was eye-opening to me.
And in many ways, it created a great interest in me, because I longed for financial security for most of my childhood. And so, no, I had no exposure at all, which is also why I think exposure is so important to the extent that you can learn of all the possibilities, all the careers that are out there. I think it gives young people new horizons.
“I’m the only one of my siblings, who graduated from college … and I didn’t have any knowledge of the investment field until I met John Rogers and became an intern. And that’s when I discovered the entire world of finance, which was eye-opening … I had no exposure [to the world of finance as a child] at all, which is also why I think exposure is so important … I think it gives young people new horizons.”
— Mellody Hobson
Joe: Yeah. I imagine that … You mentioned last time we talked, you have a passion for educating people about how to make better decisions about their finances. I’m assuming that’s connected to your own journey. Do you want to tell us a little about Ariel Community Academy and what your interest is there?
Mellody: Sure. We started a school … it might be 25 years old now. It’s called Ariel Community Academy. We started before there was charter legislation in the State of Illinois. And so, we were part of something called the Small School Initiative that the Mayor of Chicago, Mayor Richard Daley, had put in place. He gave nine institutions the opportunity to run a school. There were hundreds of applications. We applied and we actually won. The person who was really behind this along with John Rogers was someone named Arne Duncan …
Joe: Ah, yeah.
Mellody: … whose name means something to you. Arne worked at Ariel running our foundation and Arne ultimately became the Secretary of Education. But he was the one that thought it would be really novel for us to start a school. And more importantly, for our school to really piggyback off of what made Ariel possible, which was this idea that when John Rogers was a child, his father, who had been a child of the Depression, had bought him stocks every birthday and every Christmas instead of toys and created this childhood habit that became an obsession that became a company.
And John clearly grew up being financially literate as a result of that exposure. So, we said, what if we could do that in a public school in Chicago and ultimately, that’s what we did. So, the Ariel Community Academy has a saving and investment curriculum that starts with every child in first grade.
We give every first grade class $20,000 real dollars to invest and the money follows them through their grade school education, with the students taking increasing responsibilities for managing the money.
Joe: That’s amazing. And then, I was reading a little about that. At the end of their school experience, it gets split. Some of the proceeds go back and fund the next first grade class’s investment and some goes into college funds for the graduates. Do I have that right?
Mellody: That’s exactly right. So, the money grows and when they get to eighth grade and they’re graduating, they take $20,000 and give it back to the incoming first grade class to make the program self-perpetuating.
Mellody: And then all profits that exist after that, they split half amongst themselves. And for every child that will put their money in a 529 Plan for college or future education, we will match that contribution with $500. And then additionally [with] the other half of the money, the students have to come together and decide on a philanthropic donation that is related to the school. Our kids, 80%+ of our kids receive free or subsidized meals, lunch and breakfast.
And so, we’re in a disadvantaged part of Chicago, but we want to make sure they see themselves as philanthropists as well, not as just recipients of philanthropy. And so, we want to really create and again, open their minds to the opportunities of what they can be, in terms of them being able to support something that they think is important for the school, in addition to benefiting from all of their hard work in terms of having invested the money for basically most of their life at that point.
Joe: Yeah. I mean, it really is a fantastic program. I was so excited when I saw it. I also noticed that it’s not just investing. There are three other areas in the futures program that are probably unique. There’s an education around personal finance, obviously. Also, one around economics generally and then [another] around entrepreneurship. And I was curious about the entrepreneurship one, in particular. I know some other schools do that, but how does that show up?
Mellody: A lot of our work is hands on, and it’s project-based learning. And so, in my other life as a part of the George Lucas Educational Foundation, we’ve done a lot of work around project-based learning. And how that actually sticks more for a student than the traditional “drill and kill,” as they call it. And so, in a project-based learning effort they’re given real life scenarios.
And so, being an entrepreneur and giving students the opportunity to grow, build, run something, etc., is something that we find to be life changing. So many young people want to chart their own course and to control their own destiny and they want to do that as entrepreneurs.
And so, we’re just, again, giving them the tools that they will need should they decide to go down that path. And sometimes, the great thing about everything we do in our stock market or financial literacy investing class [is that sometimes] you have a market crash.
“Being an entrepreneur and giving students the opportunity to grow, build and run something, etc.,
is something that we find to be life changing. So many young people want to chart their own course and to control their own destiny and they want to do that as entrepreneurs.” — Mellody Hobson
Mellody: That imprints and teaches students that the market can still recover from this. Maybe you had a business that you started and it didn’t do well. Again, you can internalize all of those learnings and then use them for the next time. So, that’s the goal. It’s not as if we expect them to come out of that being the next unicorn in America. But it is to get the values and get the know-how and the understanding and more importantly, to be able to handle the emotional ups and downs of some of these things.
Joe: It won’t surprise you, I think, to know that as soon as I saw that, I was thinking we have some other organizations that have talked to us about their entrepreneurship programs for kids and that decision-making is just throughout it. I think part of what’s intrinsically motivating for the students is that they have real agency. They have an opportunity to try to make sense of something on their own, with help, of course, and then to make a real decision of some kind. They make repeated decisions of different kinds, and get feedback from the world on, “Yes, that worked,” or “No, that didn’t work.”
I don’t know if that’s part of what you talk to them about or not. And if it is, I’d love to hear about it.
“Entrepreneurship programs for kids [have] decision-making … throughout it. I think part of what’s intrinsically motivating for the students is that they have real agency. They have an opportunity to try to make sense of something on their own, with help, of course, and then to make a real decision … They make repeated decisions of different kinds, and get feedback from the world on,
‘Yes, that worked,’ or ‘No, that didn’t work.’” — Joe Sweeney
Mellody: Well, for sure, there’s no question about it. There are a lot of decision trees in life, in general. And certainly, there are some that are significant in business. The agency that we give our students is not just the agency of the idea and creating, they’re using real money. You know, that’s one of the things that we think is [important,] you know, so many times it’s not real, it’s simulated. And so, that’s part of the exercise for us is you feel very differently when it’s real money as opposed to being something that is on paper or simulated.
Joe: Yeah. [Nassim] Taleb says, “skin in the game,” It changes your thinking pretty dramatically.
I’m wondering if we can shift for a second. We’ve talked about some of the challenges you faced during the pandemic with decision-making at Ariel Investments. I wonder if you could talk about that for a bit.
Mellody: Sure. That subject matter is pretty expansive, so tell me where you want to go: is it decision-making when the stock market is falling apart and you have a COVID crash and 22 days? Or is it decision-making when it relates to big decisions like how are you going to work from home or when do you return?
Joe: Yeah. I was thinking about your life a little bit and about some of the experiences you are having that are almost unique. You know, being the Chair of a Fortune 100 company is a very, very rare opportunity for anyone to live through. Being the co-CEO of a large investment company is a very rare thing. So, most of us on this side of the audio, are never going to have that experience.
So, I think getting a chance to hear what some of the decisions are that you’ve been working through during the pandemic, as the Co-CEO of Ariel, around what do you do with your workforce? What do you do with the culture? What do you do with trying to balance the human need and the business needs?
I think those are the things where you have an experience and an insight that … we’re all living different lives, most of us are not going to live through those decisions in that seat. I’d love to hear what goes through your mind? How do you approach a decision like that?
Mellody: I think the epic decision that occurred, especially early on for everyone, be it at Starbucks or be it at Ariel, was this whole question of, for me, you had to put people first.
Mellody: So, that decision was how do you do that when you had all these unknowns? We didn’t know so much. And things were playing out in real time, so the decisions that had to be made, for example, to close. We closed the stores at Starbucks. Then you had to ask yourself questions about, “How would people sustain themselves?” We paid hundreds of thousands of people while we were closed at Starbucks.
At Ariel, that was less of an issue because we have basically a white-collar workforce that could work from home. Then, understanding the sheer luxury of that, and I say that with true sincerity, that once you realize you could actually tech enable all of these people. Which is very different from handing someone their coffee.
I think it gave me a great perspective all around. I wasn’t one-sided in my point of view about what it meant to put people first. I saw it firsthand at Starbucks. So, when I’m a Chair, specifically a non-executive Chair, which is what I am at Starbucks, I really think through big strategic issues at the company. So we’re there for feedback and counsel. As Chair, people are counting on you. There are 440,000 or so employees that work at Starbucks globally in 83 countries.
We were in a situation where we had to adjust to municipalities and the issues they have in municipalities around rules for Starbucks, which makes it a patchwork quilt of rules, regulations and operations. And I remember we had a situation in a major city where you could only have drop off and pickup and we got really good at that. Curbside, drive-thru, et cetera. That really became one of the ways that we sustained the company and sustained revenue.
But I got a call from the head of a hospital and the head of the hospital said, “Listen, I need you to understand something. We have no food here. Nothing. And you are all we have. I am begging you to open that Starbucks in our lobby.” And it’s like one of these things you don’t even think of. He’s like, “Doctors need it. Nurses, they’re working around the clock. Literally, it’s one of the only things they’re holding on to.” Not to mention patients coming to visit. You couldn’t really go in to visit people. There’s a lot of waiting where you didn’t have the opportunity to go into a room. You know, things change so dramatically then with visitors. You’re having a baby. All those things.
Again, something that specific, that you just do not think of. And I called the team and I said, “How can we accommodate? And how do we need to think about this in similar situations?” And we gave them their Starbucks back. We worked it out with the municipality, but it was one of those [phone calls] like, “I’m not asking you, I’m begging you.” And I have to tell you I remember it like it was yesterday.
So, there were a lot of decisions that had to be made. How do you, then you’ve got to have — we call our employees at Starbucks “partners” — you have to ask partners to come into a hospital to work. There’s so many things that are like we care about you, too. How do we create that scenario for you where you feel safe? Remember, this was the beginning. No one even knew what [COVID-19] was. So those were some examples of tough choices.
And I can’t say at Ariel or at Starbucks, we made every choice perfectly, but I do think our intent was always [to put] people [first]. I really, I know that. Trying to understand their safety, their health, their well-being. At Ariel or Starbucks, I always pretend I’m sending my child into work there. She’s only eight. But I pretend, if she were 18 years old, what would I want for her?
Joe: Wow. I mean, that’s just, that’s an incredible story. And like just imagining the number of places where that was true. And the different circumstances that you were dealing with in each one of those …
Mellody: And I don’t work at Starbucks full time. I’m Chair.
Mellody: You can imagine what that leadership team was dealing with. Truly, there is no playbook for any of this. There’s no playbook for it.
Now it was a little different with Ariel, because we’ve been through rough stock markets before. And as I told our clients at that time, “we know trench warfare.” We’re actually at our best. We know how to be in a bunker. We know how to make investment decisions when it looks like the world is falling apart. And I say this with the words that I use at Ariel, “confident humility.” We know how to do that. And nothing goes in a straight line. It is not easy. It takes a lot of conviction. But over time, we’ve been able to demonstrate time and time again that we know how to react in those circumstances.
Warren Buffett has this amazing, simple thought. He says, “Champions adapt.” And that’s actually when you talk about the decision-making in some of these uncharted moments, you have to figure out “how do I adapt to this moment? I can’t hang on to whatever it was before. It doesn’t matter. It’s a new scenario.” And that’s hard for some people.
“No one even knew what [COVID-19] was … And I can’t say at Ariel or at Starbucks, we made every choice perfectly, but I do think our intent was always [to put] people [first]. … Truly, there is no playbook for any of this. … Warren Buffett has this amazing, simple thought. He says, ‘Champions adapt.’ … when you talk about the decision-making in some of these uncharted moments,
you have to figure out ‘how do I adapt?’ … And that’s hard for some people.” — Mellody Hobson
Joe: It sounds to me like when you think about your values and the decisions that you’re making, that you’ve got multiple stakeholders that you take seriously. Not just the investors, but also the partners at Starbucks or the employees at Ariel and the members of the community, like the hospital where you had a community to serve. There are some people who think that you should try to line up your values. You figure out what’s your one thing you’re really trying to do. Maybe it’s “return on investment for your shareholders.” And then, take the view “and keeping our employees happy helps with that in the long term, so that’s why we do it.” And there are some people that say, “No, no, reject monisms. There’s not just one value. You’ve got several values and you’ve got several groups of stakeholders that are important. And you actually need to find decisions and options that satisfy those multiple values or those multiple stakeholder needs.”
It sounds to me like you’re saying the latter, but I just want to check that I’m not being presumptuous. Is that right or are you more in the camp of, “Hey, when it all comes down to it, is this about shareholder value? And that’s why we try to keep our partners happy, our community members happy, et cetera.”
Mellody: In my mind, it is the latter. The goal is to understand that all of this fits together and you cannot have one without the other.
Mellody: You cannot have strong returns, both at a company level like Starbucks or at a portfolio level like Ariel, without understanding that the people that generate those returns are essential. So, therefore, every attempt must be made to create an environment where they can excel. Now, what I will say, and I want to make sure that this is very clear. This is a hard task.
The goal is not to make people happy. It’s creating an environment where they feel that they can thrive and feel fulfilled. It’s really hard, because different people want different things. But the values, I think, ultimately define the culture.
Howard Schultz at Starbucks talked about leading through the lens of humanity. So, this idea of creating a place, this third place, we call it, at a Starbucks, where everyone could feel comfortable and where humanity would really shine. That’s different at Ariel, but similar in so many ways, where we focus on patience and focus, on independent thinking, and teamwork.
“You cannot have strong returns … without understanding that the people that generate those returns are essential. So, therefore, every attempt must be made to create an environment where they can excel. … This is a hard task. The goal is not to make people happy. It’s creating an environment
where they feel that they can thrive and feel fulfilled.” — Mellody Hobson
Mellody: So, those are our four pillars. Taking that long term view, being willing to stand out on your own with your ideas. We call it focus expertise, going very deep, as opposed to being Jacks of all trades. And then last but not least, the only way we can win in our mind, is together. So, we are not about cult of personality, one man bands. I say at Ariel, “no heroes, no martyrs.” Both of those will kill you.
And so at the end of the day, it is a team effort. And I use all sorts of analogies all the time, mostly because I tell people which they often find to be funny — that when I first started working at Ariel, John Rogers had me read all these books about great coaches like Red Auerbach and John Wooden, Vince Lombardi, one my favorite books When Pride Still Mattered, and all these people to really understand: how do you motivate, engage, and keep teams together, so that they can win?
Joe: I completely agree with you. I’m delighted to have an opportunity for our audience to hear you express it. It seems to me like anytime you try to build a strength, there’s a complementing challenge that can come along with it. So, for example, you know, really valuing people and trying to create an environment where they can thrive and contribute and find meaning and all that can sometimes then make it more challenging to give them feedback. And you were on Adam Grant’s podcast recently and talking about feedback in the workplace.
And I was wondering if you could say how do you view feedback? And what role has it played in your own decision-making, or do you hope it plays in the decision-making of your colleagues and employees?
Mellody: I view feedback as being very critical. Not everyone likes it. My friend, Dambisa Moyo, was the one who told me, “Feedback is not a right. You’re not entitled to it.” So, whenever you get it, understand that it is a gift. And if you can get a gift, take it. And so, at Ariel, we’ve tried to think a lot about feedback, and try to engage in a way to help people understand why it’s very valuable to them.
And one thing about feedback is that it should not be conditional on how you receive it. So, we say to people, “You don’t condition feedback based upon, ‘Do I like the person, do I respect them?’” That can’t be a part of your thinking. You have to be open to feedback wherever you can get it, from whomever you can get it. And then you decide if you agree or not. But if you hear certain kinds of feedback repeated again and again, then you should probably listen hard, and do some self-reflecting.
I think feedback is essential to real growth as a human being. The only problem that I have found is, as I’ve suggested, everyone doesn’t like it. And so, the question is, it can’t be, “Oh, I didn’t like the way she said it,” or this, that, or the other. It’s just not the way it’s supposed to work.
“Feedback is not a right. You’re not entitled to it. … So, whenever you get it, understand that it is a gift. And if you can get a gift, take it … it should not be conditional on how you receive it. … You have to be open to feedback wherever you can get it, from whomever you can get it. And then you decide if you agree or not. But if you hear certain kinds of feedback repeated again and again, then you should probably listen hard, and do some self-reflecting. I think feedback is essential to real growth
as a human being.” — Mellody Hobson
Joe: Yeah. Have you figured out how you got to a place where you like it or you actually value it and want it?
Mellody: Well, I think I got really comfortable with John Rogers [who] always just gave it to me straight between the eyes. He didn’t sugarcoat anything with me, and I recognize that that came from a place of comfort. I would say to people if you give someone feedback and then they fall apart, then you don’t want to do it again if you’ve got to spend 20 minutes picking them up and putting them back together.
Your first thought is, “Oh, if I go down this path, this is an hour conversation,” that kind of thing. And I got rapid fire feedback as a young person at Ariel that made me pretty resilient, even if I don’t agree. I mean, there are times my husband says … he’ll give it to me straight as well and he says, “What I find about you, is you will reflect [on feedback].” I’ll spend a lot of time in my head thinking about what someone has told me, especially if it’s been given to me in a tough love way.
And I’ve had so many examples of it. One of my favorite stories [is when] I was giving a speech somewhere, and someone that I wasn’t really that happy with was at the speech. And she came up to me and she said, “Just in the middle of your speech, I want to let you know that I have to leave. I just want you to know, so that you don’t think that I’m being rude.”
And this was someone who had just not treated me well. [She was] always very short with me, always very difficult. And so when she said, “I want you to know I’m not being rude. I’m going to leave.” I said, “Well, why would you be any different than you always are?”
Mellody: So, I’m so proud of myself with the zinger. And I called my husband, we were dating then, and I’m like: “and then she said … and then I said … and then,” you know … so, he listened to the whole thing and he said, “Oh, you decided to be small, too.”
Joe: [laughs] Oh, man.
Mellody: It was like … ow! I still get chills.
Mellody: That’s all he said, “You decided to be small, too.” And I was like, “I don’t want to be small.” But that’s how he had to deliver it to me.
Mellody: That one stuck!
Joe: Yeah, that would.
Mellody: But I’ve got 20 of those. And the thing is, I didn’t fight back, there was nothing to say. I was like, “I decided to be small, too.” [laughs]
Joe: If this is too personal, just tell me and I’ll move on. But if it’s not too personal, how did you get to a place in that relationship where it was expected and okay to give each other challenging feedback.
Mellody: I think it’s a place of great comfort and safety. We both ask for it. My husband is George Lucas. I married Yoda’s dad. And my joke is always, when we first started dating, I used to joke with him that I alternated between the head deflator and gravity boots. And because there were so many people around him, who are always, you know, gaga.
So there were times I just remember we were having a conversation. It was super funny. I was with a bunch of friends and the stock market came up. And George started talking about something with a lot of conviction.
Mellody: And we’re in front of all these people then I look at him and I’m like, “Wait a minute, you don’t know what you’re talking about!” [laughs] in front of all these people.
Mellody: And he looked at me and he’s like, “No, I don’t.”
Joe: [laughs] Oh, that’s great.
Mellody: [laughs] And it was one of defining moments, I was like, “This is my actual industry! Don’t ever do that. I don’t wax on about movies and the technical aspects of making a movie.” But because it was him, everyone was leaning in and I’m like … wait a minute!
Mellody: You know, we were always just really direct with each other. And I mean, there are 100 examples [of feedback] that he has given me. I think self-awareness is hard sometimes.
Mellody: Even if you’re trying really hard. One year, my goal was to be intellectually honest with myself and then I realized I just needed help.
Mellody: So, I just said to some of the people around me, I didn’t have to say it to John, but certainly to George, “Call me out. Help me be a better person. I won’t always agree with you and maybe sometimes I’ll get a little annoyed. But I am asking for this.”
“One year, my goal was to be intellectually honest with myself … So, I just said to some of the people around me … ‘Call me out. Help me be a better person. I won’t always agree with you and maybe sometimes I’ll get a little annoyed. But I am asking for this.’” — Mellody Hobson
Joe: I’m struck by this theme that I’m hearing throughout your story about valuing your own growth more than your short-term comfort. A lot of us discount our long-term wellbeing, we don’t think strongly enough about the long-term effects of the choices we’re making now. But it seems like you somehow flipped over to the side of, “No, I’m thinking about the long-term me. I’m trying to become the best version of myself I can. And that means some discomfort in the short term, including getting feedback.”
“A lot of us discount our long-term wellbeing, we don’t think strongly enough about the long-term effects of the choices we’re making now. But it seems like you somehow flipped over to the side of, ‘No, I’m thinking about the long-term me. I’m trying to become the best version of myself I can.
And that means some discomfort in the short term, including getting feedback.’” — Joe Sweeney
Mellody: Listen, I am an imperfect person. Again, back to George. I posted a quote he once said to me. He said, “Mellody, you have to forgive people for being human.”
Mellody: And I have to forgive myself for being human, too. You know, there are things that I get really, really wrong. And I sometimes almost feel like I’m standing and looking at myself in circumstances and saying, “What are you doing?”
And that’s been helpful for me at times to rein myself in a little bit. But I need more work in that regard.
Joe: My recollection is you have a daughter?
Joe: So, what are you trying to pass on to her with regard to her personal self-directed growth [and] her decisions? Any aspect of this that we’ve been talking about. What are the big things you’re wishing for her that you’re instilling or nurturing?
Mellody: The first thing for her is I just want her to be kind. And I think that kindness is a very important characteristic and I think it goes a long way. And I also want her to not be afraid.
Joe: Ah. Yeah.
Mellody: Being brave is something that takes a lot of work. And so, I think people grow up and they become more and more afraid of the world at times. You can see that with certain people. And I just don’t want her to be that.
“Being brave is something that takes a lot of work. And so, I think [some] people grow up
and they become more and more afraid of the world” — Mellody Hobson
Mellody: Those are the two things I think about a lot. She’s smart. She’s getting a great education, those aren’t the things I worry about.
Joe: So, extending now beyond your family I understand you’re involved with After School Matters and the George Lucas Educational Foundation. And I thought you might like to tell us a little about what they do and how interested folks can learn more about them.
Mellody: After School Matters is the largest after school program in the United States, for teens. We have somewhere in the neighborhood of 25,000 opportunities for students in Chicago over the course of a year. We pay students to come to our programs. And we have created this great opportunity for them to explore any interest that they have.
We have over 1000 programs.
Mellody: So, we have everything from … we have an animation studio, we have a NASA space program. We have every kind of arts you could possibly imagine. We have hip hop dance. We have farm to table. You could learn to be a chef. You name it!
Students in the Chicago Public School System apply. And they do the programs after school in Chicago, all over the city. And so, it’s been really, really fulfilling. We see these young teens that find new loves and new passions through our programs.
We had one student come and speak at our board meeting once. He was a young African American teen, 17 years old, who told us how he discovered glassblowing.
Mellody: It was one of those moments like I was choking back tears. And it was the only program we had open. He thought it was a better idea for him to try to make money — these are his own words — “the legal way.”
Mellody: He goes to this glassblowing class, which he had totally discounted. He thought he’d just show up and collect the paycheck. And he said, “but I stood there and this teacher made the most beautiful thing I had ever seen.” And this is a 17-year-old Black youth telling the story. And he said, “All I could think of is I wanted to just make something really beautiful for my nephew.”
Joe: Oh, my gosh.
Mellody: So, he makes something for his nephew, and he’s walking home. And these are his words. He said, “I see my boys on the way. I’m walking home. I’m holding this thing that I’ve made. And for a moment, I’ve got apprehension. And then I show it to them. And they said, “How can you get us into the program?”
Mellody: It was literally … I mean … you know?
Mellody: That was the whole point. And you recognize that if you just put kids on track, we have a much higher graduation rate of students who are in our programs than the overall public school system. It’s true enrichment. It’s the enrichment that lots of people with money take for granted that they can give to their children, but there are scarce opportunities for kids who don’t come from money.
Joe: For folks who are listening and they want to contribute or get involved somehow, what would you recommend that they do?
Mellody: So, After School Matters is in Chicago, as I said. Certainly, we love donations. We have a huge budget and we’ve done some amazing things. COVID was particularly challenging because we ended up realizing our teens who weren’t in school were food insecure.
Mellody: And we ended up having pickup sites for food for families, which had never been a part of our remit before that. So, we’ve expanded some of our connections. We had to get all of our teens technologically enabled with iPads, et cetera because we wanted them to stay connected and they did. The paychecks were important to them as well.
If anyone has an interest in After School Matters, you can look up afterschoolmatters.org. And you’ll see it and all the wonderful programs we have, but we’re only in Chicago. Our goal is to serve every Chicago student that wants to participate. Right now, we turn away somewhere in the neighborhood of 20,000 students who ask for opportunities. So, that’s where we are with that.
I think you also asked about the George Lucas Education Foundation. So, a lot of that work, the big thing that we have is a website called Edutopia and it’s one of the most popular … it’s probably in the top two or three websites for teachers in the world. And it’s helped them to be better at their job. And what we do is we go and make movies on schools that work. And we document those success stories, because often they are lost with a person.
And so we want to institutionalize every form of success that we can. And we’ve chronicled schools all over the country and the world, although primarily a lot of our work has been in the US. We have a growing following around the world as well. And it’s on everything you can imagine.
We did work on schools that teach grit, based upon Angela Duckworth’s work, to very recently one of the most popular videos was where we chronicled a school that had come up with a room that students go to before school who are on the spectrum, to calm them. And it includes everything from a part of the room that is dark, to a part of the room that is extraordinarily tactile, to a swing. Literally, the teacher made it out of going to Lowe’s, I think. It wasn’t something that was really expensive. It wasn’t something that was impossible to attain, it was just thoughtful, finding a space for it.
And they found when these students came right before school and even spent 20 or 30 minutes in the environment that was most soothing to them it made their day go much better in quieting their minds and making them feel more comfortable.
Mellody: So, that was a really popular video that was sent out where people say, “Well, I can do this.” That’s the whole idea. All of our tips, everything that we are trying to show, must be practical in their application. No highfalutin, pie in the sky things. Really, if this were you, what would you do? How could you implement something like this?
Joe: So, something that Warren Buffett said — you mentioned him earlier — he talked about painting on a large canvas, and how that’s what he was enjoying at this stage of his life. And it strikes me that you’re just painting on a huge canvas. The number of places that you’re involved, and how you’re bringing your values to show up in all of those different places.
For folks who are young and just starting out their professional lives, how do you think about expanding the impact that you’re having? How do you get to be in a place where you’re getting to see your version of a better world coming to life, which is what it seems like you’re trying to do in so many places?
Mellody: When I married George, he told me, “Don’t spit in the ocean.” He said, “Whatever you can do, do at scale.” And he gave me just real life examples of that. He said, “You can scale change, Mellody. So, don’t go retail, go wholesale. Whatever you approach, think how many people can I affect, and go beyond the one to the many.” And so, that’s why something like After School Matters with 25,000 opportunities, where we want to get to, again, every teen that wants that opportunity, there are 100,000 teens in public schools in Chicago. That you can actually see a path to that, to delivering that kind of opportunity.
I think, for me, I’ve always wanted to be useful in whatever I was doing at work, at home, in any organization that I was a part of. And I can’t divorce myself from my own trauma. From the things that happened to me as a child that I’m still trying to overcome. And [I’m] trying to overcome them by channeling the energy into helping other people not have that experience. Be it financial illiteracy. Be it the enrichment programs that I wanted to do. Be it the ability to really understand that person who’s a barista at Starbucks who wants to go to college, and we have a program at Starbucks that I didn’t think of, but certainly embraced as a board member.
Again, going with that idea that you have of, “What is the role and responsibility of a corporation?” Profits, yes, but how can you magnify your effect? So, I think my canvas has expanded over time, based upon, first my interests, and secondly, my experiences. They are driving where I end up.
It’s overwhelming at times. I’ll tell you sometimes I bite off way more than I can chew. But I feel purposeful. So, even when I’m really tired and exhausted, I feel that I’m doing the right thing.
I read this quote this weekend that really stuck with me. You may know this, it said “No matter how smart you are, how much education you have, how much money you have, how many relationships you have, you’re only working at 40% of your potential.”
Joe: Oh, no. I haven’t heard that one before.
Mellody: And I was like, “40%?”
Joe: Oh, no. Yeah. [laughs]
Mellody: You certainly walk away saying, “Gosh, I could do better.” [laughs]
“I’ve always wanted to be useful in whatever I was doing … And I can’t divorce myself from my own trauma. From the things that happened to me as a child that I’m still trying to overcome. And [I’m] trying to overcome them by channeling the energy into helping other people not have that experience. Be it financial illiteracy. Be it the enrichment programs that I wanted to do. … It’s overwhelming at times. I’ll tell you sometimes I bite off way more than I can chew. But I feel purposeful. So, even when I’m really tired and exhausted, I feel that I’m doing the right thing.” — Mellody Hobson
Joe: There’s another one that comes to my mind a lot. I’m gonna get it a little wrong. I think it was Stephen Grellet who said something like “I do not expect to pass this way again. Therefore, any kindness I can show, any good deed that I can do, let me not defer or neglect it for I shall not pass this way again.”
It’s very similar to what you’re describing. It’s like there’s an urgency to now. There’s a need to do what you can for those who you can to lift them up and make their lives better.
Mellody: But also, I just want to… this is not a one-sided thing. I had the opportunity to meet someone who once said to me, “Don’t look down on people you help.”
Joe: No. Right.
Mellody: Most people do that. First of all, in the spirit of feedback, I was like, “How should I receive this? What is he trying to teach me? What is he trying to tell me?”
This is a two-way street. I get a lot out of it. I tell you that story about the glassblowing and the 17-year-old black kid in Chicago … do you know what he did for me that day? You know, that story still lives inside of me. And in moments of great sadness, pain, anxiety, whatever you call it, I can draw upon it to remember, “Mellody, stay focused. Something as small as a glassblowing opportunity could change someone’s life.” And then you feel better about yourself, honestly. So, you know, you can’t dismiss the joy you get. I don’t see myself as a savior. I don’t see myself as, you know, going in, it’s like, “Oh, I’m so awesome.” It’s like, “Wow, these people are feeding my soul. They’re making me remember who I am, where I come from, why these opportunities I’ve been given are such miracles, why I owe society back.”
Joe: I completely agree with you. it’s… it almost feels selfish to even mention just how much joy you can get from being able to give, or show up for someone.
Mellody: Which I think is totally underrated. You know, it’s like … what’s the point then?
Mellody: You know, my husband again, he’s like, “Pleasure is fleeting, Mellody. It’s a moment. Joy is lasting.”
Children bring joy and they’ve got some pretty significant pain points along the way. But, the halo of that joy is your whole life, you know. That’s very different from a good bite of cheesecake. [laughs] It’s not the same.
Joe: No, no. Categorically different!
I’m loving this conversation. You know I could talk with you all day. So, I’m going to try to close up by asking: in your mind what will look different in society when we succeed in our mission to ensure Decision Education is part of every middle and high school students’ learning experience? What do you imagine will be different in the world?
Mellody: Listen, I dream of a world of true equality where there’s no conditions around what we can achieve or what people think of us. That’s what I think happens when those breakthroughs occur. I always say, when I was growing up, my mother used to say to me, “Mellody you can be or do anything.” And I believed her. And I changed it a little bit with Everest, my daughter. And I say Everest, “You can be or do anything. But I want you to believe that is true of anyone and everyone.”
Mellody: That’s a very different way of looking at the world. Anyone can be or do anything.
Mellody: And that’s when we take off all the shackles, pun intended there, of what weighs us down around how we exclude, and how we put parameters around people’s success or potential.
“I dream of a world of true equality where there’s no conditions around what we can achieve or what people think of us. … I always say, when I was growing up, my mother used to say to me, ‘Mellody you can be or do anything.’ And I believed her. And I changed it a little bit with Everest, my daughter. And I say Everest, ‘You can be or do anything. But I want you to believe that is true of anyone and everyone.’” — Mellody Hobson
Joe: Yeah. Not to get too poetic, but when you start seeing the whole universe inside the other person it seems to me that when we start doing that with everybody …
Mellody: Yeah, but the problem is, it starts with yourself. You’ve got to get there on your own first.
Joe: Yeah. Right. Right.
Mellody: So, it’s very hard to see the potential in someone else, if you haven’t gotten straight with yourself. Which is where self-esteem and all these things become so important.
And that’s where that decision-making … and all this comes together there.
Joe: Yep. So, if there was a single tool, a decision-making tool, you could pass down to the next generation. Is there one that jumps to the foreground for you?
Mellody: I’m gonna go with something that is so cliché, it’s like, “Ugh.” But, you know, I think a lot of people second guess themselves or they try to do what they believe people want, or to do things to fit in. If you could use your internal decision-making guide as your first fallback, I think it would lead to different outcomes.
Joe: Yeah. I mean, that sounds to me a lot like being true to yourself and thinking about your real values. What do you really want?
Mellody, I just want to thank you very much for coming on the show. If listeners want to go online and learn more about your work or follow you on social media, where should they go?
Mellody: Well, certainly go to arielinvestments.com and you can see all the things we do at Ariel. And on social media, I’m just Mellody Hobson in all the various places, so take a look there, too.
Joe: So, for any books or articles mentioned today, check out the show notes on the Alliance site, where you can also find a transcript of today’s conversation and we’ll put a link to Ariel Investments as well so you can find it. Mellody, thank you just so much. I really appreciate your time and all you’re doing.
Mellody: Well, it’s my pleasure. Thank you for having me.
Check out our other latest episodes
Fear, Freedom, and Financial Decision-Making
with Morgan HouselJuly 20, 2022
What drives bad financial decisions when a crisis hits? Morgan Housel, award-winning author and expert on the psychology of financial decision-making, joins your host, Dr. [...]
The Science of Changing Course
with Dr. Jennifer LernerJuly 6, 2022
How can celebrating failure make us more successful? Tenured Harvard Professor and former Chief Decision Scientist in the U.S. Navy, Dr. Jennifer Lerner, joins your [...]
Stay informed and join our mailing list
We will send you occasional updates on the organization. Your information will not be sold or otherwise distributed.
"*" indicates required fields