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Her commitment to diversity is just like Yoda's: ‘Do or do not. There is no try.’

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette logo Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 12/12/2018 By Joyce Gannon / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Mellody Hobson smiling for the camera © Provided by PG Publishing Co., Inc.

As president of Ariel Investments, a Chicago-based firm with assets of $13.6 billion, Mellody Hobson reviews a lot of corporate reports that feature pages and pages about the importance of diversity and inclusion.

But when she turns to the section about senior leadership in those reports, frequently she finds the top executive jobs are held mostly by white males.

“I’m tired of people saying how important [diversity] is and doing nothing,” said Ms. Hobson, a 49-year-old black female.

Ariel was founded by a black man and two-thirds of its senior leaders are women.

Ms. Hobson has advocated for women and minorities throughout her career but since marrying filmmaker George Lucas five years ago, she’s taken to quoting Yoda, a character in her husband’s Star Wars movies, when she discusses diversity.

“I joke that I married Yoda’s dad and Yoda says, ‘Do or do not. There is no try.’ ”

“If you preach about it and put it in your mission statement and nothing happens,” that’s offensive, she told an audience of 200 Tuesday at a diversity summit at Heinz Field’s PNC Champions Club.

Companies need to hold leaders accountable for diversity and inclusion by setting goals and targets just as they do for profits and sales, said Ms. Hobson, keynote speaker at the summit sponsored by Highmark Health.

“You have to have incentives if diversity is truly important to you ... when things get measured, they get done.”

The event was the first of three Highmark plans in its new Women’s Summit series.

Highmark chose diversity as the topic for the kickoff summit, said spokeswoman Krista Lardieri, “because we are committed to progressing diversity and inclusion, not just within our own workforce but in our marketplace and across our community.”

According to a recent survey of 279 firms by consulting firm McKinsey & Co., only one in five senior leaders is female and one in 25 are women of color.

Among S&P 500 companies, women hold 4.8 percent of chief executive jobs and women of color hold 4.7 percent of senior level management positions, according to data from Catalyst, a New York firm that promotes acceleration of women in the workplace.

Ms. Hobson acknowledged the path to the top for minorities isn’t easy because of the low numbers of women and people of color in executive positions.

She started at Ariel as a summer intern, returned after graduating from Princeton University, “and had to put my shoulder to the wheel … working seven days a week,” she said.

In addition to holding down a demanding position at Ariel while commuting between Chicago and her husband’s longtime base in Marin County, north of San Francisco, Ms. Hobson is vice chair of the board at Starbucks, a director at J.P. Morgan Chase, and chair of the board at the Economic Club of Chicago.

She chaired the board at DreamWorks Animation until it was acquired by NBCUniversal in 2016.

Having sat at the table with powerful leaders like Starbucks’ former chairman Howard Schultz and DreamWorks’ co-founder Jeffrey Katzenberg, Ms. Hobson learned commitment to diversity has to come from the top.

“When those people speak with conviction, there’s not many of us who don’t believe them … there’s no splitting hairs. They cared about this issue.”

When a black director, Peter Ramsey, pitched the idea for his 2012 animated film, “Rise of the Guardians” to DreamWorks, “Jeffrey Katzenberg was salivating because he knew it would make me so happy,” said Ms. Hobson.

Prior to Ms. Hobson’s appearance at the summit, a panel that included female executives from Highmark, PNC Financial Services Group and the United Steelworkers discussed their own experiences with bias, juggling work and family, and finding mentors to help them navigate the workplace.

Marsha Jones, executive vice president and chief diversity officer at PNC, said as a female and woman of color, she had to be “twice as, twice as, twice as” prepared and available for work assignments as she advanced her career because “many mid-level managers are not accustomed to having experiences with people who are different than them.”

Joyce Gannon: or 412-263-1580.


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