Breaking Down Barriers for Women of Color

A conversation with Mellody Hobson, Co-CEO and President, Ariel Investments

Melonie Parker, Chief Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Officer, Google recently sat down with Mellody Hobson, Co-CEO and President, Ariel Investments to hear Mellody’s story of rise within the corporate ranks and her hope for the future and women of color in leadership roles. This interview was shared as part of the 2024 Catalyst Awards.


00:00:13,555Mellody, it’s so great to see you again. I still think fondly of when you came to Google a few years ago at our Women of Color conference, and then most recently, your lifetime achievement award with the Executive Leadership Council.

Congratulations again.

00:00:28,028Thank you so much. I remember going to Google for that conference and being so excited to be there. Of course, having so much admiration for the company that has been built over all these years. And the ELC, if you get a lifetime achievement award are they telling you you’re old? But that was very, very exciting to be honored amongst so many senior leaders from Corporate Americawho I admire.

00:00:49,257You know what I took away from your remarks at the Executive Leadership Council gala was really how you inspire followership. And you gave such incredible kudos to your co-founder, John, and gave an incredible walk through of your career. And I thought it would be so fitting for our conversation today. If you could talk about your role as co-CEO of Ariel Investments. You’re the chairwoman of the board for Starbucks. What have you learned along the way? Who and what has led to such tremendous success?

00:01:22,499Sure. I’ve talked a lot about growing up. I grew up in Chicago. I’m the youngest of six kids. My mother was a single mom. My siblings were much older than me, a couple of decades older. I was not planned and they told me that all the time. I’m the only Hobson. I have a different father than my siblings. And so I was this sort of misfit kid who was growing up in a circumstance that was challenging, often. I talk about the fact that we often got evicted or our phone disconnected or lights turned off, and that gave me a lot of focus. I became very, very focused on school because I felt that that was my best way to change my circumstances. Even as a child, I really knew and understood that. And it also ultimately led me to focus on the investment business because I was desperate to understand money. I wanted to understand how money worked. It wasn’t about having a lot. It was about how do I ensure that I am secure financially for the long term?And so I found my way to Ariel Investments, which was life changing as a summer intern —


00:02:24,352– when I was 19 years old between my sophomore and junior year at Princeton. And literally from that moment on, I knew what I was going to do. I came back to work at Ariel after I graduated from Princeton. I am the only person in my graduating class of 1,100 people who supposedly has the same work phone number for 33 years.


00:02:44,247Yes, I’ve had one job. The average American has 11 jobs in their lifetime. But I knew when I got there that this would be my home for a very, very long time. And it’s exceeded all of my expectations.

00:02:57,760No, that level of focus and commitment like it’s inspiring and it makes me think about just the challenges as a woman of color and a leader. Like what specific challenges have you seen, have you faced and what words of wisdomwould you share?

00:03:14,027One of my friends years and years ago who was on the board of Starbucks with me named Olden Lee, who was the head of HR for all of Pepsi. I was talking to him once about the challenges that we face as people of color and as women.

And he looked at me and he said, “Mellody, how long have you been black?”

“How long have you been a woman?” It sort of you know, underscoringthe point that the challenges – it starts very early. And you decide what you want to be. And I always had this perspective. I could be a victim or I could be a victor. And I wanted to be a victor. And so even though I knew there were many times when race or gender were being my words used against me, I did not allow that to happen. Now that doesn’t mean it wasn’t hard.

That doesn’t mean that sometimes I had challenges that kept me back, but I was always trying to find another way.

My husband always says to me, he says, “You’re the kind of person,if there’s a brick wall, you look for loose bricks.”

I’m that person. I’m looking for loose bricks.

And so there were times when those walls did exist, but I just decided to, to be and do something else.

I mean, I’ve told so many stories about, you know, people asking me to take their coats when they got to Ariel or things like that.

No, I’m happy to do it.

But they just didn’t realize I was President.

00:04:32,230Oh, yeah.

00:04:32,981And so, you know, I would do it,  put the coat away and then come and sit in the room and there’d be a little bit of shock and awe in those early years because I wasn’t someone that people knew.

It was unexpected.

It says a lot also about –

00:04:44,742It does.

00:04:45,326– people’s mental models. And one of my goals in life has always been to break their mental models. That, whatever they thought I’m supposed to be, you’re supposed to be how we’re supposed to show up, that I could break that, which then allows the opportunity for them to think about people like me and you in a very different way, open up their minds to what is possible.

00:05:04,679And like, when I think about the stories you know, that you’re telling now and the ones I’ve heard  you share over the years, one of the things that’s striking to me is that from the time you were a little girl, you were able to recognize that school and education, like, was a path forward.

So you’ve been navigating this journey for a long time. Like it didn’t just show up when you were at Princeton or when you interned, or when you came back to Ariel Investments. This is a lifetime of navigating and hitting against those walls. And I wonder what hope do you have for the future and for other women of color in leadership roles?

00:05:45,178They say that in America we have optimism and hope as unique American characteristics –


00:05:51,684and I think they are magnified in black people. I really do. I think that our expectations are not always as big as they could be just based upon the circumstances that we’ve come from and lived in.

But we always have this hope and belief that things will be better. There are lots of surveys that show that. And I think that’s one of the things when I think about all the things I do, I have great expectations for our society, for –

00:06:16,834I do too.

00:06:17,293– people who will come after me.


00:06:18,711Now that doesn’t mean we are there –

00:06:20,213That’s right.

00:06:20,963and we’ve had some setbacks.

00:06:21,839Yes, we have.

00:06:22,590Massive setbacks.


00:06:23,966But I do think that to the extent that we can continue to, again, break mental models, open up opportunities for others, do our job as well to carry us forward.

I think to the extent that that happens, there will be more Melonies and Mellody’s that can move in the world.

But there are too few of us. Our numbers are too small and we need to be more properly resourced to be able to go up against, the best and the brightest. And, and I think we have all of the talents, all of the skills.

You know, one of the things I say all the time, talent and genius do not discriminate.

00:07:00,878That’s exactly right.

00:07:02,004They actually show up in equal proportions. When you look in any ethnic community and gender as well. And so then the question is, what keeps that talent and genius from breaking out? It’s often the opportunities that are not there.

00:07:16,686That’s right. And the safety that people feel in those environments to navigate, to network, to strive, because often I find that women of color can toggle between hyper-visibility and being invisible. But when you feel your experiences are accepted in that environment, you navigate that path a little bit better. Mellody, can you share how do you believe leaders should help continue to create safe and equitable workplaces for women?

00:07:47,008I think a lot of things can be done. But in short, I have this saying that math has no opinion. The math tells the story. So first of all, you have to have people represented in the numbers that we are represented in society, and that has to be a goal. It’s not a quota. It’s a target. You’re targeting representation. I love Shonda Rhimes, who says she doesn’t like the word “diversity.” You would say,“What do you mean by that?”  And she always talks about the fact that when you walk around a metropolitan city like San Francisco, like New York, Chicago, Atlanta, etc., you see all these diversepeople in the street, every walk of life, gender, race, etc. You go up into these towers and the buildings get whiter and whiter and more male. And the higher up you go, the more male, the more white. And she’s like, “Diversity? Normal is on the street. Not normal is in the tower.” So we really need to aspire to what we see when we’re walking around every single day being represented in our environments.

The other thing that I think is very important, okay, the numbers are one thing. Asking and including people in decision making and having their point of view is what really allows, I think, companies to have superpowers, to use diversity to their advantage. What ultimately helps them better understand their customer, better understand the people who work inside of their company and therefore lower their turnover. All sorts of opportunities to scale growth in their companies through diversity or diversity can be an edge.


00:09:14,554And I think that when people realize they’re acting in their own best interest, I think that they get more excited about the opportunities here as opposed to seeing this as some kind of chore. But you have to actually really believe it.

00:09:27,191That’s right. You have to see talent as an asset, not just as an expense. And so how you view talent and how you create that environment for people to feel seen and heard and recognized and rewarded need all of those ingredients.

00:09:41,789But also understanding that talent comes from all walks of life. It can come in all shapes and sizes, all forms. And if you have an idea of talent that does not allow you to look beyond a mental model that you have. I keep using that term over and over again. You are limiting your opportunities. And so therefore you want to you want to have the opportunity to have the best and brightest and be unconstrained in what that looks like. And to the extent that environments become very homogeneous, you know you’re not doing that.

00:10:11,444Well it becomes such a clear marker, when you look around and there’s a very homogenous organization. It means that you probably need to go walk around a little bit more and figure out what do you need to add, not what do you need to fit into your environment.


00:10:26,459Thank you so much for your time today and this wonderful conversation.

00:10:30,129Thank you for having me.

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