Asked near the end of her fireside chat at the Bob Wright Symposium on Business Empowerment Thursday what it is she believes to be the absolute truth, Mellody Hobson responded quickly.
“Anything is possible, anything,” said the president of Chicago-based Ariel Investments, a firm that manages nearly $11 billion for its clients.
The Chicago native also chairs the board of DreamWorks Animation, a film production company, and she is a director on the boards of Estee Lauder and Starbucks. The financial whiz also is an analyst and contributor for CBS News.
“I say this all the time: my life is a miracle,” Hobson said. “It’s a miracle in every way. I am deeply appreciative for everything that has happened to me. I know that I worked really hard for it, but I also know the stars have to align in life.”
Such success in a variety of business and organizations was a common thread during the symposium held at the Columbus Convention and Trade Center. About 400 community and business leaders were in attendance for the event’s second year, with it moderated once again by veteran ABC News reporter and anchor Byron Pitts.
The forum’s namesake is Bob Wright, the Columbus native who became an eye doctor and served on Columbus Council before rising to millionaire businessman and now a philanthropist as well. He also serves on the board of directors with Columbus-based Aflac.
While there were several chat panelists served up to those gathered at the symposium, the one with the star power formed out of a humble childhood was Hobson, the youngest of six children with a single mother.
“It was just one of those existences of eviction, phones getting disconnected, cars getting repossessed, all of those things,” she said. “So I was obsessed with school, obsessed. That brought me a great deal of structure and I was really good at it. The second thing I was obsessed with was understanding money. … I really didn’t want to be in a situation my whole life where I felt that amount of insecurity.”
Hobson went on to graduate from Princeton University despite her mother wanting her to choose Harvard, another Ivy League school. After graduation, she found herself being mentored by Ariel Investments founder John Rogers, who had already chosen her to help lead his company one day.
“I’ve always taken a long-term view,” she said. “I’ve always had this sense of what could be over time. I’ve always been dogged about my work. I never minded the work. I never have.”
At one point during the symposium, Hobson touched on the topic of race and the indisputable fact that she is black, like most of those gathered for the event Thursday. She explained that black children are taught early in life that their color will impact them in some way. She recalled her mother asking after a birthday party with mainly white children how they had treated her. Her mother explained she would not always be treated well.
“It wasn’t from a sense of being suspicious or not trusting. It was just true,” said Hobson, recounting how she today discusses the issue of color and race with people, even with those who insist they are colorblind.
“I said, I want to turn this on its head. I don’t want anyone to be color blind; I want them to see race,” said Hobson, who is married to filmmaker George Lucas, the creator of the “Star Wars” and “Indiana Jones” movie franchises. “I want them to invite it into their life. I want it to be a purpose, a calling for them. And, ultimately, what I’m asking them to be is not color blind, but color brave — that you’re willing to have those uncomfortable conversations about race, that you’re willing to bring these differences into your inner circle. And I think that ultimately leads to more tolerance and a better world.”
Yet another dynamic speaker taking part in the all-day fireside chats was Jo Ann Jenkins, president and chief executive officer of AARP and author of the best-seller, “Disrupt Aging: A Bold New Path to Living Your Best Life at Every Age.”
She spoke about the growing senior population in the United States and the opportunities that creates for entrepreneurs. About 10,000 people each day turn 65, which will be the case for the next 14 years, Jenkins said, pointing out the fastest growing age group in the country is people over 85.
She also noted AARP recently launched a $40 million innovation fund to inspire young companies to develop products that can change people’s lives and have a positive impact on society. She said the organization has already invested in two major healthcare-related companies.
“Think about those business opportunities” Jenkins said. “Right now, people who are 50 and older spend $7.1 trillion for products and services. … So as you think about young businesses creating products and services that are going to serve people as they age, whether they’re 30 or 40, 50 or 60, 70 or 80, there’s a huge opportunity in the 50-plus marketplace for growing businesses, for new businesses, for technology businesses and the healthcare arena.”
Other speakers included Reginald Parker, founder, president and CEO of 510nano Inc.; Michael McCoy, president and CEO of Z Systems Corporation; and Judge Glenda Hatchett, known for her television show.
The symposium also featured return appearances from William F. Pickard, founder and chairman of the Global Automotive Alliance; Sylvester Hester, president and CEO of Global Automotive; Gale Hill, owner of AJH Inc., a McDonald’s franchise operator based in Columbus, Ohio; and Thomas W. Dortch Jr., chairman emeritus of 100 Black Men of America and chairman and CEO of Atlanta-based TWD Inc.
Ledger-Enquirer staff writer Alva James-Johnson contributed to this report.