View From the Top: Mellody Hobson

The Ariel Investments president and board chair goes back to school.

From the November 5, 2012 issue of Michigan Avenue magazine

By Paige Wiser

mellody-hobsonTime obeys Mellody Hobson. So when she was asked to chair the non-profit program After School Matters, the head of Ariel Investments found a few hours a day more than the rest of us have.

She already serves on the board of the Chicago Public Library, the Field Museum, the Chicago Public Education Fund, and the Sundance Institute, as well as being a director of the Starbucks CorporationThe Estée Lauder Companies Inc.Dreamworks Animation SKG, Inc. and Groupon. But getting involved with After School Matters was an honor she couldn’t pass up.

“This spoke to me,” says Mellody. “I believe you make time for things that are really, really important to you.”

The program was created by the late First Lady Maggie Daley to give high school teens an innovative way to experience different interests. Since 1991, After School Matters has taught 100,000 kids through a network of public and private partnerships, with artist Dale Chihuly overseeing the creation of glass chandeliers for O’Hare Airport, and Magic Johnson leading a master class.

“These are kids who can’t afford ballet lessons, they can’t afford to go to a science camp,” says Mellody. “This should be a time for exploration.”

Building on Daley’s “vision and her empathy,” says Mellody, her first order of business is to expand the apprenticeship program. “We work with 22,000 kids a year now,” says Mellody. “We had 6,000 teens in the program this summer, but we had 30,000 applications. It’s like an Ivy League school, trying to get in.”

She’ll be bringing back winter and spring sessions, and trying to raise money to accommodate more teens. “I want to make sure that every teen has the opportunity to pursue their dreams,” says Mellody.

The overachiever knows the value of learning outside the classroom. Mellody grew up in Lake Point Tower, the youngest of six kids raised by a single mother. At St. Ignatius College Prep, she first learned to multitask. She wrote a column for the school paper, took part in school plays, joined the speech club, the French club, Students Against Drunk Driving, you name it. “I was after school for many hours,” laughs Mellody. “I think I turned out OK.”

After Princeton, she joined Ariel, where she rose from intern to its president and Chairman of the Board of Trustees in less than a decade. She started giving back to kids at Ariel Community Academy, a magnet school with progressive approaches like giving each first-grade class 20,000 real dollars to invest.

Mellody has added more hours to her day for a personal life, too. Since 2006, she’s been dating producer George Lucas, spotted by the paparazzi at the Oscars and in Cannes.

“Every single day I think, how did I get so lucky?” says Mellody.

She hopes that After School Matters will create some luck for Chicago’s next generation. “I go and watch them, and I cry,” she says, tearing up right then. “Not because I’m some crazy sap, but because you feel this enthusiasm and optimism that floods your senses. You can just see how much is ahead for them.”

Mellody’s advice

Be an original.

“My goal in life has been to be someone that doesn’t remind people of anyone they’ve ever met,” says Mellody. She tells teens to learn from pioneers like the Beatles, Madonna and Stevie Wonder.

Jump out of bed in the morning because there’s so much you want to do.

“You don’t pursue money or fame,” says Mellody. “You pursue happiness through fulfillment in terms of your work. And if you do that, all the other stuff will come.”

Take pride in how far you’ve come.

“I’ve had more than my fair share of an amazing life,” says Mellody. “I could die now. I could — I wouldn’t want to, but I could. I’ve thought about that. So if it somehow ended tomorrow, I’d feel good about what I’ve done.”

Express yourself. 

Although Mellody is perceived as all business, she indulges her quirks, too. Her office boasts stuffed animals from the Dreamworks movies she’s helped produce, and books are stacked in spirals waist-high. “My boyfriend tells me, have you ever heard of a bookshelf?” laughs Mellody. She also believes that feet should be fun; her exotic, fashion-forward shoes are definitely not made for walking.

Be loyal.

This is Mellody’s 21st year at Ariel. “I’ve had one job,” she says, and her co-workers have made long-term commitments, too. She could probably work from anywhere, but Mellody is a steadfast Chicagoan. “I’ve been a lot of places, but I’m always happy when I come home,” she says.

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