CEO Mellody Hobson was mistaken as kitchen help and takes the opportunity to use her experience to build awareness. Video by Ted talks.
In 2006, Harold Ford called his friend Mellody Hobson, to tell her that he was running for US Senate in Tennessee and that he needed some national press. Hobson, an investor, in turn called a friend at a major media organization and organized a lunch. But when Hobson and Ford arrived at the lunch, they were taken to a back room. Then they were asked: “Where are your uniforms?”
Hobson says that she and Ford still laugh about that incident, but also that “deep deep down inside, I wasn’t surprised.” Her mother was ruthlessly realistic, and had prepared her for such things. For example, after a birthday party where she was the only black person, her mother asked, “How did they treat you?”
Why did she ask that? Mellody wondered. Because, as her mother said, “They will not always treat you well.”
“Race in America makes people completely uncomfortable,” says Hobson. “Bringing it up is like the conversational equivalent of touching the third rail.” Friends had even warned her about talking about the topic here at TED, that it would make her a ‘militant black woman’ and hurt her career. But she realized, “The first step of solving any problem is not to hide from it. The first step to any form of action is awareness.”
So she decided to talk about race, and to share her experience so we could all be a little less nervous. She has heard it said that the election of Obama ended racism in our time. But she says, “I work in the investment business, and we have a saying — the numbers don’t lie.” And the numbers show clearly that there are significant disparities in household wealth, income, job opportunity, and much more. As just one example, white men are 30% of the US population, and have 70% of all corporate board seats. There are only 7 minority CEOs in the Fortune 250, and of thousands of publicly traded companies, only two are chaired by black women. “And you’re looking at one of them.”
Hobson wants to make clear, “I’m not here to complain. I’ve been treated well by people of all races more often than not. I have succeeded in my life more than my wildest expectations. I tell the uniform story because it happened. I tell the race stats because they are real.” And furthermore, those continuing problems threaten to rob future generations of their opportunities.