Mellody Hobson, co-CEO and President of Ariel Investments and chairwoman of Starbucks, spoke to the Bowdoin community over Zoom on Wednesday night in the final installment of the College’s “Conversations on Democracy” speaker series. Jennifer Scanlon, dean of Academic Affairs and the John S. Osterweis Professor of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies, served as moderator.
“It just seems a unique moment, as we’re looking at the state of democracy, to ask ourselves the role that business plays in supporting—or not—our democratic practices; voting in particular,” Scanlon said in a Zoom interview with the Orient. “What does it mean to be a business leader at this moment … in the aftermath of the assault on democracy on January 6?”
During Wednesday’s conversation, Hobson spoke of “leading through the lens of humanity,” a phrase used by Starbucks founder Howard Schultz.
“[It’s] looking at humanity in all of its forms, in all of the ways that [injustice] shows up, and taking that in consideration … it’s not easy, and it’s not about anyone’s personal beliefs. [It’s about what] is good for humanity and then, [in a] broader [sense], for society. That leads us into what we say or do,” Hobson said during the talk. “Though I think corporate America now has a real challenge in front of it.”
Hobson referred to corporate America’s current reckoning with race and societal issues as “civil rights 3.0.” She explained that, in her opinion, corporations are no longer insulated from public discourse.
“For people who don’t believe that, I give them simple examples,” Hobson said. “You have mental health benefits now in corporations—we didn’t have that before. You have live shooter drills in businesses. We didn’t have those things before, and it shows that corporate America can’t be silent. [Businesses] can’t look the other way on these issues, because these issues are inside of the organization.”
“Our people are demanding and expecting us to have points of view. Our society is questioning our values,” Hobson added. “And at the end of the day, again, all of this can either enhance shareholder value or detract from it—and I’m not saying that is the be all, end all the way to do it, but there are repercussions.”
When asked about companies which have been boycotted from both ends of the political spectrum—for political action and inaction—Hobson said she “recognize[d] that people are trying to do the right thing. There are repercussions for any point of view that one might have.”
Hobson explained that for Ariel Investments what might be perceived as partisan by some is simply logical to the company. Having witnessed this dichotomy in her own work, Hobson spoke of the “nudging” Ariel gives to companies they invest in.
“We might invest in a company that does not have a diverse board,” she said. “But then we’re going to lean hard in our conversations with them about why that doesn’t work long-term, and why in order to be … a world-class 21st century company, that will need to change.”
Hobson reminded the audience, however, that it doesn’t necessarily take a $15-billion portfolio and company ownership to enact change.
“Rosa Parks just decided not to stand up,” she said. “Understand your power.”