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TED2014

Mellody Hobson: Color blind or color brave?

March 20, 2014

The subject of race can be very touchy. As finance executive Mellody Hobson says, it's a "conversational third rail." But, she says, that's exactly why we need to start talking about it. In this engaging, persuasive talk, Hobson makes the case that speaking openly about race — and particularly about diversity in hiring -- makes for better businesses and a better society.

Mellody Hobson - Investment expert
Mellody Hobson is president of Ariel Investments, a value-driven money management firm -- and an advocate for financial literacy and investor education. Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
So it's 2006.
00:12
My friend Harold Ford calls me.
00:14
He's running for U.S. Senate in Tennessee,
00:16
and he says, "Mellody, I desperately need some national press. Do you have any ideas?"
00:20
So I had an idea. I called a friend
00:24
who was in New York
00:26
at one of the most successful
media companies in the world,
00:28
and she said, "Why don't we host
00:31
an editorial board lunch for Harold?
00:33
You come with him."
00:35
Harold and I arrive in New York.
00:37
We are in our best suits.
00:39
We look like shiny new pennies.
00:41
And we get to the receptionist, and we say,
00:43
"We're here for the lunch."
00:45
She motions for us to follow her.
00:47
We walk through a series of corridors,
00:49
and all of a sudden we find ourselves
00:51
in a stark room,
00:53
at which point she looks at us and she says,
00:54
"Where are your uniforms?"
00:57
Just as this happens,
01:02
my friend rushes in.
01:03
The blood drains from her face.
01:05
There are literally no words, right?
01:08
And I look at her, and I say,
01:10
"Now, don't you think we need
01:11
more than one black person in the U.S. Senate?"
01:13
Now Harold and I --
01:17
(Applause) —
01:19
we still laugh about that story,
01:22
and in many ways, the moment caught me off guard,
01:25
but deep, deep down inside,
01:28
I actually wasn't surprised.
01:31
And I wasn't surprised because of something
01:33
my mother taught me about 30 years before.
01:35
You see, my mother was ruthlessly realistic.
01:38
I remember one day coming
home from a birthday party
01:41
where I was the only black kid invited,
01:43
and instead of asking me the
normal motherly questions
01:45
like, "Did you have fun?" or "How was the cake?"
01:48
my mother looked at me and she said,
01:51
"How did they treat you?"
01:53
I was seven. I did not understand.
01:55
I mean, why would anyone treat me differently?
01:58
But she knew.
02:01
And she looked me right in the eye and she said,
02:02
"They will not always treat you well."
02:05
Now, race is one of those topics in America
02:08
that makes people extraordinarily uncomfortable.
02:11
You bring it up at a dinner party
02:14
or in a workplace environment,
02:16
it is literally the conversational equivalent
02:17
of touching the third rail.
02:21
There is shock,
02:22
followed by a long silence.
02:24
And even coming here today,
02:27
I told some friends and colleagues
02:28
that I planned to talk about race,
02:29
and they warned me, they told me, don't do it,
02:31
that there'd be huge risks
02:34
in me talking about this topic,
02:35
that people might think I'm a militant black woman
02:37
and I would ruin my career.
02:39
And I have to tell you,
02:42
I actually for a moment was a bit afraid.
02:43
Then I realized,
02:45
the first step to solving any problem
02:47
is to not hide from it,
02:50
and the first step to any form of action
02:52
is awareness.
02:56
And so I decided to actually talk about race.
02:58
And I decided that if I came
here and shared with you
03:01
some of my experiences,
03:04
that maybe we could all be a little less anxious
03:06
and a little more bold
03:09
in our conversations about race.
03:11
Now I know there are people out there who will say
03:13
that the election of Barack Obama meant
03:15
that it was the end of racial discrimination
03:17
for all eternity, right?
03:20
But I work in the investment business,
03:22
and we have a saying:
03:24
The numbers do not lie.
03:25
And here, there are significant,
03:27
quantifiable racial disparities
03:30
that cannot be ignored,
03:32
in household wealth, household income,
03:34
job opportunities, healthcare.
03:37
One example from corporate America:
03:40
Even though white men
03:43
make up just 30 percent of the U.S. population,
03:45
they hold 70 percent of all corporate board seats.
03:49
Of the Fortune 250,
03:53
there are only seven CEOs that are minorities,
03:55
and of the thousands of publicly
traded companies today, thousands,
03:59
only two are chaired by black women,
04:04
and you're looking at one of them,
04:06
the same one who, not too long ago,
04:08
was nearly mistaken for kitchen help.
04:10
So that is a fact.
04:13
Now I have this thought experiment
04:14
that I play with myself, when I say,
04:17
imagine if I walked you into a room
04:19
and it was of a major corporation, like ExxonMobil,
04:21
and every single person around
the boardroom were black,
04:25
you would think that were weird.
04:28
But if I walked you into a Fortune 500 company,
04:31
and everyone around the table is a white male,
04:34
when will it be that we think that's weird too?
04:36
And I know how we got here.
04:39
(Applause)
04:40
I know how we got here.
04:45
You know, there was institutionalized,
04:46
at one time legalized, discrimination in our country.
04:49
There's no question about it.
04:52
But still, as I grapple with this issue,
04:54
my mother's question hangs in the air for me:
04:57
How did they treat you?
05:00
Now, I do not raise this issue to complain
05:02
or in any way to elicit any kind of sympathy.
05:04
I have succeeded in my life
05:07
beyond my wildest expectations,
05:09
and I have been treated well by people of all races
05:11
more often than I have not.
05:14
I tell the uniform story because it happened.
05:17
I cite those statistics around
corporate board diversity
05:19
because they are real,
05:22
and I stand here today
05:24
talking about this issue of racial discrimination
05:25
because I believe it threatens to rob
05:28
another generation of all the opportunities
05:31
that all of us want for all of our children,
05:34
no matter what their color
05:36
or where they come from.
05:38
And I think it also threatens to hold back businesses.
05:40
You see, researchers have coined this term
05:44
"color blindness"
05:46
to describe a learned behavior where we pretend
05:48
that we don't notice race.
05:51
If you happen to be surrounded by a bunch of people
05:53
who look like you, that's purely accidental.
05:55
Now, color blindness, in my view,
05:59
doesn't mean that there's no racial discrimination,
06:01
and there's fairness.
06:04
It doesn't mean that at all. It doesn't ensure it.
06:05
In my view, color blindness is very dangerous
06:07
because it means we're ignoring the problem.
06:10
There was a corporate study that said that,
06:13
instead of avoiding race,
06:15
the really smart corporations
actually deal with it head on.
06:17
They actually recognize that embracing diversity
06:21
means recognizing all races,
06:24
including the majority one.
06:27
But I'll be the first one to tell you,
06:29
this subject matter can be hard,
06:31
awkward, uncomfortable -- but that's kind of the point.
06:34
In the spirit of debunking racial stereotypes,
06:38
the one that black people don't like to swim,
06:41
I'm going to tell you how much I love to swim.
06:43
I love to swim so much
06:46
that as an adult, I swim with a coach.
06:48
And one day my coach had me do a drill
06:51
where I had to swim to one end of a 25-meter pool
06:53
without taking a breath.
06:56
And every single time I failed,
06:58
I had to start over.
07:00
And I failed a lot.
07:01
By the end, I got it, but when I got out of the pool,
07:03
I was exasperated and tired and annoyed,
07:05
and I said, "Why are we doing
breath-holding exercises?"
07:07
And my coach looked me
at me, and he said, "Mellody,
07:11
that was not a breath-holding exercise.
07:13
That drill was to make you comfortable
07:16
being uncomfortable,
07:19
because that's how most of us spend our days."
07:21
If we can learn to deal with our discomfort,
07:24
and just relax into it,
07:26
we'll have a better life.
07:28
So I think it's time for us to be comfortable
07:30
with the uncomfortable conversation about race:
07:33
black, white, Asian, Hispanic,
07:36
male, female, all of us,
07:39
if we truly believe in equal rights
07:41
and equal opportunity in America,
07:43
I think we have to have real conversations
07:45
about this issue.
07:48
We cannot afford to be color blind.
07:50
We have to be color brave.
07:52
We have to be willing, as teachers and parents
07:56
and entrepreneurs and scientists,
08:00
we have to be willing to have
08:01
proactive conversations about race
08:03
with honesty and understanding and courage,
08:06
not because it's the right thing to do,
08:09
but because it's the smart thing to do,
08:12
because our businesses and our products
08:14
and our science, our research,
08:17
all of that will be better with greater diversity.
08:19
Now, my favorite example of color bravery
08:23
is a guy named John Skipper.
08:26
He runs ESPN.
08:27
He's a North Carolina native,
08:29
quintessential Southern gentleman, white.
08:31
He joined ESPN, which already had a culture
08:34
of inclusion and diversity, but he took it up a notch.
08:37
He demanded that every open position
08:39
have a diverse slate of candidates.
08:42
Now he says the senior people
08:45
in the beginning bristled,
08:47
and they would come to him and say,
08:49
"Do you want me to hire the minority,
08:51
or do you want me to hire
the best person for the job?"
08:53
And Skipper says his answers were always the same:
08:57
"Yes."
09:00
And by saying yes to diversity,
09:02
I honestly believe that ESPN
09:04
is the most valuable cable franchise in the world.
09:06
I think that's a part of the secret sauce.
09:09
Now I can tell you, in my own industry,
09:11
at Ariel Investments, we actually view our diversity
09:13
as a competitive advantage,
09:15
and that advantage can extend
way beyond business.
09:18
There's a guy named Scott Page
at the University of Michigan.
09:21
He is the first person to develop
09:23
a mathematical calculation for diversity.
09:25
He says, if you're trying to
solve a really hard problem,
09:28
really hard,
09:30
that you should have a diverse group of people,
09:31
including those with diverse intellects.
09:34
The example that he gives is the smallpox epidemic.
09:37
When it was ravaging Europe,
09:40
they brought together all these scientists,
09:43
and they were stumped.
09:44
And the beginnings of the cure to the disease
09:46
came from the most unlikely source,
09:49
a dairy farmer who noticed that the milkmaids
09:51
were not getting smallpox.
09:55
And the smallpox vaccination is bovine-based
09:57
because of that dairy farmer.
10:01
Now I'm sure you're sitting here and you're saying,
10:03
I don't run a cable company,
10:06
I don't run an investment firm,
10:08
I am not a dairy farmer.
10:10
What can I do?
10:11
And I'm telling you, you can be color brave.
10:13
If you're part of a hiring process
10:16
or an admissions process,
10:18
you can be color brave.
10:20
If you are trying to solve a really hard problem,
10:21
you can speak up and be color brave.
10:24
Now I know people will say,
10:27
but that doesn't add up to a lot,
10:30
but I'm actually asking you
to do something really simple:
10:32
observe your environment,
10:35
at work, at school, at home.
10:38
I'm asking you to look at the people around you
10:41
purposefully and intentionally.
10:44
Invite people into your life
10:46
who don't look like you, don't think like you,
10:48
don't act like you,
10:51
don't come from where you come from,
10:52
and you might find that they
will challenge your assumptions
10:54
and make you grow as a person.
10:57
You might get powerful new insights
10:58
from these individuals,
11:01
or, like my husband, who happens to be white,
11:02
you might learn that black people,
11:05
men, women, children,
11:08
we use body lotion every single day.
11:09
Now, I also think that this is very important
11:12
so that the next generation really understands
11:17
that this progress will help them,
11:20
because they're expecting
us to be great role models.
11:21
Now, I told you, my mother,
11:24
she was ruthlessly realistic.
11:26
She was an unbelievable role model.
11:27
She was the kind of person
11:31
who got to be the way she was
11:32
because she was a single mom
11:33
with six kids in Chicago.
11:35
She was in the real estate business,
11:37
where she worked extraordinarily hard
11:38
but oftentimes had a hard time making ends meet.
11:41
And that meant sometimes we got
11:44
our phone disconnected,
11:46
or our lights turned off,
11:48
or we got evicted.
11:49
When we got evicted, sometimes we lived
11:50
in these small apartments that she owned,
11:52
sometimes in only one or two rooms,
11:54
because they weren't completed,
11:55
and we would heat our bathwater on hot plates.
11:57
But she never gave up hope, ever,
12:02
and she never allowed us to give up hope either.
12:04
This brutal pragmatism that she had,
12:07
I mean, I was four and she told me,
12:09
"Mommy is Santa." (Laughter)
12:10
She was this brutal pragmatism.
12:13
She taught me so many lessons,
12:15
but the most important lesson
12:18
was that every single day she told me,
12:19
"Mellody, you can be anything."
12:23
And because of those words,
12:28
I would wake up at the crack of dawn,
12:30
and because of those words,
12:32
I would love school more than anything,
12:34
and because of those words, when I was on a bus
12:37
going to school, I dreamed the biggest dreams.
12:39
And it's because of those words
that I stand here right now
12:42
full of passion,
12:45
asking you to be brave for the kids
12:47
who are dreaming those dreams today.
12:49
(Applause)
12:52
You see, I want them to look at a CEO on television
12:57
and say, "I can be like her,"
13:01
or, "He looks like me."
13:04
And I want them to know
13:06
that anything is possible,
13:08
that they can achieve the highest level
13:09
that they ever imagined,
13:11
that they will be welcome
in any corporate boardroom,
13:13
or they can lead any company.
13:16
You see this idea of being the land
13:19
of the free and the home of the brave,
13:21
it's woven into the fabric of America.
13:22
America, when we have a challenge,
13:26
we take it head on, we don't shrink away from it.
13:28
We take a stand. We show courage.
13:31
So right now, what I'm asking you to do,
13:34
I'm asking you to show courage.
13:36
I'm asking you to be bold.
13:38
As business leaders, I'm asking you
13:40
not to leave anything on the table.
13:42
As citizens, I'm asking you
not to leave any child behind.
13:44
I'm asking you not to be color blind,
13:48
but to be color brave,
13:50
so that every child knows that their future matters
13:52
and their dreams are possible.
13:56
Thank you.
13:57
(Applause)
14:00
Thank you. Thanks. Thanks. (Applause)
14:05

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Mellody Hobson - Investment expert
Mellody Hobson is president of Ariel Investments, a value-driven money management firm -- and an advocate for financial literacy and investor education.

Why you should listen

Mellody Hobson handles strategic planning for the Chicago-based Ariel Investments, one of the largest African-American-owned money management firms in the United States. Beyond her work at Ariel, Hobson has become a nationally recognized voice on financial literacy and investor education. She is a regular contributor and analyst on finance, the markets and economic trends for CBS News, contributes weekly money tips on the Tom Joyner Morning Show and writes a column for Black Enterprise magazine. As a passionate advocate for investor education, she is a spokesperson for the Ariel/Hewitt study, 401(k) Plans in Living Color and the Ariel Black Investor Survey, both of which examine investing patterns among minorities.

Hobson is chair of the board for DreamWorks Animation. Her community outreach includes serving as chairman of After School Matters, providing Chicago teens with high quality out-of-school-time programs.

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