Starbucks Board Member Mellody Hobson: ‘Let’s be Color Brave’

(This is a transcript of Mellody Hobson's presentation at the 2015 Starbucks Annual Meeting of Shareholders on March 18, 2015)

One day, out of the blue, my friend Harold Ford called me up. It was 2006, and he was running for the U.S. Senate in Tennessee. He said, “Mellody, I’m trying to generate some national press attention, do you have any ideas?” So I got in touch with one of my friends who had an influential role at a major media organization. She was thrilled to help, and said, “Why don't I host an editorial board lunch for you and Harold in New York?”

I’ll invite all of our editors and it’ll be great.” So Harold and I went to the city for the party, and we arrived at the event in our best suits looking like shiny new pennies. We told the receptionist we were there for the lunch, and she motioned for us to follow her. We were not paying much attention to where we were headed until suddenly we end up in a stark room, and the receptionist turns to Harold and me and asks, “Where are your uniforms?”

At this point, my friend rushed into the room, saw what had happened, and the blood drained from her face. And I turned to her and said, “Now don't you think we need another black Senator?”

Harold and I actually laugh about this story and I’m sharing it with you because even though the moment caught me off guard… deep down I wasn’t completely surprised. And I wasn’t surprised because of a piece of advice my mother had given me almost thirty years earlier. She was a ruthlessly realistic woman and one day, when I came home from a birthday party where I was the only black kid invited, the first question she asked was not, “Did you have fun?” or “How was the cake? Her first question was: “How did they treat you?”

I didn’t understand. At seven years old, it never would have occurred to me that anyone would treat me differently – but she knew. My mother looked me in the eye, and she said, “They’re not always going to treat you well.”

Race today is still one of the most controversial and uncomfortable issues to discuss in America. Bring it up at the dinner table or the workplace, and the effect is the conversational equivalent of touching the third rail – shock followed by a long silence. Let’s face it, racial discrimination is a long-standing problem that has plagued our country for centuries. But we all know the first step in solving a problem is to stop hiding from it.

Now, I realize that the election of Barack Obama was supposed to signal the end of racial discrimination for all eternity, right? And the truth is, this country has made tremendous progress of which we should all be proud. But as we say in the investment business, the numbers don’t lie. Like those that show that there are still significant, quantifiable racial disparities in education, health care, income, household wealth, and job opportunities.

And consider this example from my world of corporate America: Even though white men make up only 30% of the US population, they hold 70% of all corporate board seats. Only 5 companies in the Fortune 500 have a black CEO. And in the year 2015, of the thousands of companies that are publicly traded, only two are chaired by a black woman—and you’re listening to one of them right now—the one who was mistaken for kitchen help not too long ago.

Now, imagine if you walked into the boardroom of a major company like Exxon and saw only black faces around the table. That’d be pretty weird, right? Well my question is this: When will we feel the same way about all those Fortune 500 companies that currently have boards with only white faces?

It is true that many of these disparities are due in part to a long legacy of institutionalized and at one time legalized discrimination. But as I think about my own life experiences – my mother’s question still lingers:

“How did they treat you?”

Now, I don’t raise this topic today to complain or elicit sympathy. I have succeeded in life beyond my wildest dreams, and have been treated well by people of all races far more often than I have not. I told the uniform story because it happened. I cited those numbers about corporate board diversity because they are real.

I mentioned the existence of racial disparities because they threaten to rob a generation of the equal opportunity that all of us want for our children, no matter what they look like or where they grow up. They also stand in the way of businesses reaching their highest potential.

You see, researchers have coined the term “color blindness” to describe a learned behavior where some people pretend they don’t even notice race. If they happen to surround themselves with people from their own race, it’s purely accidental. But color blindness doesn’t mean that we’re exhibiting a lack of prejudice. Color blindness means that we’re ignoring the problem.

Now, I will be the first to admit these conversations can be difficult, and sometimes awkward – but that’s the point. In the spirit of breaking a racial stereotype—specifically the one black people don’t like to swim, let me tell you a story about how much I love to swim. I love it so much that even as an adult, I swim with a coach. One day, my coach assigned a drill that required swimming all the way to the end of the pool without taking a breath.

It was really hard – and every time I failed, he made me start over. I thought it was a breath-holding exercise but at the end, he explained it wasn’t. I was stumped. Then what was it? “The point of the drill,” he said, “was to make you feel comfortable being uncomfortable because that’s how most of us spend our day. The drill teaches you how to relax into your discomfort and get through it.”

It is time for all of us to get comfortable with an uncomfortable conversation about race—black, white, Hispanic, Asian, male, female—all of us. If we truly believe in equal rights and equal opportunity, we can’t afford to be colorblind. We have to be color brave. We need to confront issues of race and diversity with courage, honesty, and understanding.

We need to find ways—as entrepreneurs, teachers, scientists, and parents—ways to pro-actively address race. Not just because it’s right, but because it’s smart. Because our businesses, our products, our research, our communities will be stronger and more vibrant with greater diversity.

My favorite example of color bravery comes from my friend John Skipper, the President of ESPN. John is a Lexington, North Carolina native—the quintessential Southern gentleman. When John took over the company, he demanded that every open job have a diverse slate of candidates for consideration—mainly so the network could capture the broadest possible audience.

He often talks about how a few senior leaders would bristle at this requirement. Sometimes, these executives would come to him and ask, “Do you want me to hire the minority candidate or do you want me to hire the person who is most qualified for the job?” Every single time, John’s answer was always the same: “Yes!” And today, after years of saying “yes” to diversity, ESPN is the most valuable cable franchise in the world.

John runs a hiring process that emphasizes diversity because he knows diversity isn’t just about the color of the faces you hire—it’s about the rich variety of viewpoints and life experiences that those faces bring to the table. In fact, studies show that corporate boards comprised of people with varied backgrounds and identifies tend to outperform those with homogenous boards.

In my line of work, sound investments require input and advice from a wide range of people. So at Ariel Investments, we view our diversity as a competitive advantage. And this advantage can go well beyond the world of business. University of Michigan professor Scott Page argues that really hard problems are best solved by people who come from different backgrounds and have diverse perspectives.

According to Dr. Page, the discovery of the smallpox vaccination that was ravaging Europe didn’t start with the brilliant scientists who had been studying the disease for years. It started with a dairy farmer who noticed that the only group of people who weren’t getting smallpox were milkmaids. With the help of the dairy farmer’s unique perspective, the smallpox vaccination was born.

Now, I realize most of you probably don’t run your own sports network, or your own investment firm, or your own dairy farm. And I know that the conversation around race is a challenge we’ve been grappling with or ignoring since America’s founding—a challenge that calls for new policies and initiatives and change on an institutional level. But each of us has chances to show color bravery in our own lives every day, and even seemingly small acts of courage can add up to something big.

If you ever have the opportunity to be involved in a hiring process or an admissions process, you can be color brave.

If you have the responsibility to organize a brainstorming session at work or at school, you can be color brave.

If you’re trying to solve a problem and you look around the table and only see the same kind of people with the same kind of background, you can speak up and be color brave.

My challenge to you is simply this: observe your environment. At work. At home. At school. And if you don’t see any diversity, work to change it. Invite people into your life who don’t look like you or think like you or come from where you do—people who will challenge your assumptions and help you grow as an individual. You might gain powerful new insights about the world. Or, like my husband (George Lucas), who is white, you might just learn that all black people—men, women and children—use lotion every day.

And by the way, this challenge cuts both ways and applies to people of color as well—because I have plenty of friends who only hang out with black people. We people of color have a responsibility to stand up for diversity too. The more progress we make, the more hopeful the message it sends to the next generation for whom we have an obligation to be role models.

I owe everything I am to the fact that I had one of these role models as a child. I told you my mother was ruthlessly realistic, and she was. I remember one Christmas when I was 4 or 5 years old and I wondered out loud what presents Santa would bring me. I’ll never forget her response:

“Mommy is Santa.”

It might be helpful to know how she came to be this way. My mother raised six children on her own in Chicago, and worked incredibly hard in the real estate business. Despite her herculean efforts, she could not always make ends meet. As a result, there were times when our lights would be turned off or our phone disconnected and we were frequently evicted.

When things got really tough, we would live in partially completed apartments, cramped into one or two rooms, sometimes heating water for baths on hot plates. And yet, she never gave up hope, and she made sure that we didn’t either.

Even as she instilled in us that brutal pragmatism about the world, she also offered unconditional love and encouragement.

I began by telling you about the most realistic piece of advice my mother ever gave me, but what mattered most were the words she spoke almost every day: “Mellody, you can do or be anything.”

It was because of those words that I would wake up at the crack of dawn and love school more than anything. It was because of those words that every day, I would look out the window of the bus and dream the biggest dreams.

And it’s because of those words that I’m here today, full of passion, asking you to be brave for all the children who have those same dreams today.

When they see a business executive or CEO in the paper or on TV, I want them to say “I can be like her” or “He looks just like me.”

And when a child in L.A. or Houston or Harlem or the South Side of Chicago takes their bus to school, I want her to look out the window and believe that she can be anything; that she can reach any height; that she can be welcome in any boardroom or lead any company.

This is not just about what we can contribute to the lives of those children; it’s about what their diverse talents and experiences can contribute to our world.

The idea of being the “land of the free and the home of the brave” is woven into the fabric of America, because throughout history, as a people, we have never shrunk from the challenges we face. We show courage. We take action.

So let's be bold. Let’s make sure we’re audacious enough to not leave anything on the table. Let’s make sure we’re daring enough to not leave anyone out. And let’s make sure that we’re not being color blind; but being color brave enough to ensure every child believes their future matters and their dreams are possible.

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