In Her Words Dec 2012: Mellody Hobson

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Education underscores her work.

I was born and raised in Chicago. As the youngest of six, with a huge age gap between my eldest sibling, my early years were pretty unconventional. People are often surprised to learn that I went to work with my mother every day until attending kindergarten at William B. Ogden School at age 5. My mother was an extraordinarily hard-working, but mostly struggling, entrepreneur. To this day, I know my industrious ways and strong work ethic came from watching her.

To say that I loved school is somewhat of an understatement. My family would probably say I was obsessed – fanatical. It’s as if I was born knowing that education was my only lifeline. Case in point, one morning my school bus got into an accident. While classmates delighted in the likelihood we’d be late, I was a ball of anxiety. So in an unprecedented move by a second grader – and unbeknownst to the police and bus driver filling out reports – I got off the bus and walked. I never thought twice about it.

Until I was 22 years old and graduated from Princeton, it’s fair to say my life basically revolved around school. I was good at it. At the same time, I never felt my education would ever be complete. Therefore, 21 years ago I was lucky to join Ariel Investments – a company that prides itself on a learning culture. Education underscores our work, from our own need to continually teach ourselves about the ever-changing global markets to our ambitious efforts to help foster a financially literate society.

Like so many kids today, I had never learned about savings and investing in school. It boggles the mind that a high school student can take a class in woodshop or auto but never find one on investing. While almost everyone will one day be confronted with the investment choices on a 401k plan, how many people will have any use for whittling?

For this very reason, Ariel Investments launched Ariel Community Academy (ACA) 15 years ago in partnership with Chicago Public Schools. ACA is a small K-8 public school, located in the North Kenwood neighborhood, with a unique savings and investment curriculum. With the help of Nuveen Investments, our first graders receive a class portfolio representing $20,000 real dollars. As they work their way to eighth grade, students take on increasing responsibility for managing the portfolio – eventually becoming responsible for all stock picks. Our goal is to make students, parents, faculty, staff and the broader community financially literate. And these aren’t rich kids — 80 percent of the ACA student body receives free or subsidized lunch. By stressing financial literacy, we believe we can stop the cycle of poverty, which has tremendous implications for our entire society.

In the same way that my learning is never complete, so is my work in education. There’s always more to be done. It’s for that reason that when I was asked to serve as chairman of the board of After School Matters (ASM), I knew it was not just a privilege but also my duty.

As many know, ASM was the brainchild of Chicago’s former first lady Maggie Daley – a smiling force who worked tirelessly for young people in our city. Although it’s been over a year since she passed away, Maggie’s vision remains at the heart of ASM, which is now the largest out-of-school program of its kind serving 22,000 Chicago teens annually. Through nearly 300 innovative programs, students can explore a myriad of interests – from athletics to culinary arts, from dance to sculpture and even engineering. This remarkable organization enables teens to develop skills that can help them succeed beyond high school and into college, their careers and ultimately life.

While ASM is moving the needle with its remarkable programs, there are still too many area teens left on the sidelines. For example, this past summer, we had 30,000 applications for 6,000 spots. As such, we’re laser-focused on accommodating more teens.

So it seems, at age 43, I’m still obsessed with school. But now it’s an obsession with the students at Ariel Community Academy and After School Matters.

By Mellody Hobson, president, Ariel Investments and board chair, After School Matters

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About Mellody Hobson

Mellody Hobson is president of Ariel Investments, responsible for firm-wide management and strategic planning, overseeing all operations outside of research and portfolio management. Additionally, she serves as chairman of the board of trustees for Ariel Investment Trust. Beyond her work at Ariel, Ms. Hobson has become a nationally recognized voice on financial literacy and investor education, and she's Board Chair of After School Matters.