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Mellody Hobson on boardroom diversity: “I go there. I don’t fear the conversation.”

February 2, 2015, 3:19 PM UTC

Mellody Hobson has a lot of identities, all impressive in their own right. She’s the president of Ariel Investments, a Chicago-based asset management company. She’s an active director at Starbucks (SBUX) and Estée Lauder—and chairman of DreamWorks Animation’s (DWA) board. She’s a new mom to Everest, 17 months, with her husband, George Lucas (yes, that George Lucas).

Hobson’s also known for her dedication to getting both women and minorities into the boardroom. In a recent conversation with Fortune, Hobson actually had a few positive things to say on that front.

Fortune: There’s so much frustration out there about the slow progress made by women and minorities and business. What are you seeing?

Mellody Hobson: I am detecting more conversations about diversity. That’s an outgrowth of Ferguson and New York. Whereas normally, I have found myself in the role of [initiating the conversation], now in a couple of situations I have been surprised by the energy that has come from others. Big companies are saying that employees are asking questions about these issues, and they want to respond with some context.

What needs to be done to increase diversity in business?

In the context of corporate boardrooms the action is simple: it’s diversifying the board. The conversation in and of itself is a real move forward. The conversation will lead to action.

It feels as if there’s been a huge amount of attention given to the women issue of late—but less to the question of race. Does progress in one hurt the other? Is it appropriate to talk about women and minority advancement in the same conversation?

I think the discussion goes to women first, as is often the case in those situations. The women’s suffrage movement came before people of color had the right to vote, so that’s not that surprising. But I think there is now a bigger context as well. The women story is getting the press, for example with the Land of Lakes board [which has no women directors]. But there aren’t any people of color on that board either. Does one hurt the other? No. I’ve been saying over and over again that this is not a zero sum game. You need both.

You’ve been a strong presence in the boardroom for a long time now. Has your own approach changed?

If I’ve evolved in any way, it’s that I’ve become more certain that we need to move the needle on this issue. I am more convinced then ever that it’s in the interest of the company to do so, and I know that from my own personal experience. Personally, I go there. I don’t fear the conversation, and I don’t think I’m going to be typecast because I know I have a broad-based knowledge that I bring into the boardroom. It’s the same as being chairman of the audit committee at Starbucks. I speak up on [diversity] issues as much as I speak up on any other. I don’t fear any repercussions about what people will think of me, because I am asking as a fiduciary.

But despite the conversation, the numbers remain low. What do you say when people say that there just aren’t enough qualified candidates?

I reject that. The pipeline is there, it’s just a question of asking the right people. What to do is the real big question. [Mandates] are not going to happen in the U.S. But when people realize it’s in their own self-interest, things will change. If you want to attract the best and brightest you have to [model] diversity. People think, ‘is this a place where I can be successful’? If they don’t see anyone that looks like them they won’t want to work there.

To slightly change the topic, now you have your own daughter. And your husband has just come out with an adventure film—Strange Magic—targeted at young girls.

[Lucas] made Star Wars for 12-year-old boys, and he always wanted to make a movie for girls. So this is for 12-year-old girls. The girls are the main characters, and it’s about being independent and strong and not waiting for the hero to come and rescue you. It speaks to me, having a girl. I love this movie. You have to see it.