Why Mellody Hobson stopped apologizing for being a black woman

December 3, 2014, 7:14 AM UTC

Mellody Hobson got candid about race and gender at the Fortune Most Powerful Women Next Gen conference on Tuesday night. The president of Ariel Investments explained that it was only about a decade ago that she stopped tiptoeing around who she really is.

Her epiphany came when she attended the funeral of John Johnson, who started Ebony and Jet magazines. One of the eulogists got up and said, “He was unapologetically black.” It stopped Hobson in her tracks. “It me so hard,” she said. She realized that she had “been apologizing for who I am, about being a woman, and about being black—and it stops today.”

Hobson said that a lot of people think that because we have a black president, we live in a post-racial America. “This is laughable,” she added. “If you are a person of color it’s hard to explain what we deal with on day-to-day basis.”

She echoed some of the comments she made in her chapter in Lean In for Graduates, in which she says that black women have it easier than white women because they know how to identify discrimination immediately. Hobson told a story of how a woman stopped her on the street and told her she heard her give a talk and it changed her life. “You said, ‘I feel sorry for white women,’” the woman recounted.

She said that as a black woman, she grew up with her mom explaining how hard her life would be. “White women aren’t told that,” she added, “and then they get into the working world, and they’re like, ‘Oh my God, it’s not a fair fight.’”

Hobson also talked about how her upbringing, the youngest of six and raised by a single mom, anchored who she is today. She and her mom regularly got evicted, had the phone disconnected, the lights turned off, and car repossessed. Her mom would have to borrow gas money to take her to school. “That made me interested in understanding money,” she says. “It’s not an accident I work in the investment business.”

She recounted how when she first starting working at Ariel, if her phone bill was $100, she would send in $500 so she knew she would have her phone for five months. “I couldn’t get out of mentality that it could all go away,” she said. “Those things stay with you.”

She noted how in raising her daughter with her husband George Lucas under very different circumstances, she wants to make sure she understands the opportunities and responsibilities that come with it. And yet her work has taken on new meaning after having a child. “I want my daughter to be proud of me,” she said, “and because of that I work really hard for her.”

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