Monday, Jun 25th

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Mellody Hobson: Investment Mogul



Mellody Hobson’s face is familiar to early risers – she’s the attractive financial contributor on ABC’s Good Morning America. She’s well suited for the job - polished and perky, with fine boned, bird like features and the figure of a disciplined ballerina. She talks about the importance of saving three months of living expenses in case of emergency and urges viewers to consolidate their 401ks. She’s worried about health care costs and department store credit card rates. In one folksy segment, she set up a booth on a downtown Chicago street, tacked up a sign that read 'Mellody’s Money Tips', and invited people to step up and share their intimate financial problems with the world. As a media personality, Hobson doesn’t exactly reinvent the wheel. But few African-American women know the story of the woman behind the smile.

Hobson was born the youngest of six children to a single mother in downtown Chicago. She studied hard, stayed out of trouble, and entered Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of International Relations and Public Policy. She was in her sophomore year when she began an internship at Ariel Investments, LLC – an investment management firm founded in 1983. She rose through the ranks at an astonishing pace. Only ten years later Mellody Hobson was named president and director of Ariel. The company is now, with over $5.5 billion in assets, the largest black owned money management firm in the country.

In the years that followed, the World Economic Forum named her a Global Leader of Tomorrow and Fortune magazine recognized her as one of 25 ‘Next-Generation Global Leaders’. In 2002, Esquire described her as one of ‘America’s Best and Brightest’. In 2004, The Wall Street Journal called her one of 50 ‘Women to Watch’ in the corporate world. Later that year, Time identified her as one of 25 business influentials setting the global standards for management, ethics, marketing and innovation.

As she rose to leadership at the firm, Hobson continued to support Ariel Community Academy, a public school on the south side of Chicago partially funded by the company. In addition to standard curriculum, the Academy specializes in educating inner city students on subjects related to savings and investing. Ninety-eight percent of the students are black and over eighty-five percent receive subsidized lunches. Despite the odds, Ariel has become one of the top schools in the city. When asked to advise parents in a 2008 interview, she was ready with bullet points - Create mini portfolio managers by giving children stocks instead of toys for Christmas. Start a ‘family 401K’ by matching every dollar your child saves with a dollar of your own. Divide allowances into short-term expenses, long-term expenses, and money for charity. As she explained her concerns to the host, her voice trembled with real passion. “It amazes me that in schools in America today you can take electives like woodshop, but you can’t take investments. How many people whittle furniture in their spare time?  We must stand up and we must demand that financial literacy is taught in schools.”  Somehow, someway, this black woman has beaten incredible odds. She’s won, and she desperately wants our children to win too.

The host of a radio program for business entrepreneurs asked her – what’s the key to a woman’s success? Hobson answered,  “Smile a lot. Let your heart be filled with joy and optimism.” It sounds like a cruel joke, in the context of many women’s realities. Not long ago, the Insight Center for Community Economic Development released the findings of a three year study: African American women in their prime working years have a net worth of $5 dollars. The researchers outlined the scenarios many are familiar with – 1 in 3 black men in prison. Unmarried women supporting not only their children, but in some cases their partners, their elderly parents, their extended family members, their houses of worship. It’s a demoralizing portrait of a group of women unable to cope. A group of women buried under the weight of their dependents and their charitable endeavors. A group of women abandoned - stretched to the breaking point, working harder, working longer, running faster, yet still falling behind.

In light of all the doom and gloom, it’s awfully nice to have Mellody Hobson around. Over and over again she stresses the basics: Put yourself first. Build your retirement nest egg so you won’t be a burden to your children when you get old. Learn to prioritize and separate the needs from the wants. Think about what’s really important to you, and put aside money to fund your dreams. It’s familiar stuff, but coming from her the words sound revolutionary. Nest Egg?  Put yourself first? The message is clear. This is a black woman who has won. Even if she doesn’t know it, her image beaming from our television sets every morning says volumes more than her advice ever could. Hobson says to us ‘It is not your destiny to work harder than a Georgia mule in a cotton field, only to have $5 dollars to show for it at the end of the day.’  She says  ‘Keep Pushing. There’s more to life than just ‘getting by’.  It’s a neat rebuttal to the researchers and social scientists whose bleak reports are constantly splashed across the media.  Enough with the pain, struggle and sacrifice. Let’s all be ‘Global Leaders of Tomorrow’. Hell, why not? You can be a winner, just like me.

For 40 years Hobson has worn her bright smile like a shield. With charm and guts, she took on corporate America . . . . . . . and she won! Despite all the statistics, in defiance of all the odds, a black woman can still win. It’s enough to fill your heart with joy and optimism.



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