Mellody Hobson named next chair of Starbucks board

The Chicago native is expected to assume the role in March.

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Mellody Hobson, Co-CEO & President, Ariel Investments during the 2020 Embrace Ambition Summit by the Tory Burch Foundation

Mellody Hobson

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Chicago native Mellody Hobson is set to become the chair of Starbucks’ board of directors next year, the company announced Wednesday.

Hobson, who first joined the board 15 years ago as a director, takes over from Myron E. Ullman III, who’s retiring after serving three years as chair, Starbucks said.

Hobson will be the only Black female chair of a board of an S&P 500 company, Bloomberg reported. 

Hobson said in a statement that she’s “thrilled and honored” for the new opportunity at Starbucks. She’s expected to begin her new role in March during the company’s annual shareholders meeting. 

Hobson, a philanthropist and co-CEO of Ariel Investments, has been a well-connected power player for more than two decades. But she’s been destined for greatness since she was a teenager, Ariel founder and co-CEO John Rogers said. 

Rogers, a close friend and mentor of Hobson, said he knew she was capable of accomplishing big things since he first met her when she was 17 and a prospective Princeton student. Hobson’s fierce confidence and charisma is what made her stand out to other Princeton candidates, Rogers said. 

“I knew she was going to be a superstar but had no idea she was going to have this extraordinary career,” Rogers told the Sun-Times on Wednesday. 

A graduate of St. Ignatius High School, Hobson would go on to intern at Ariel in the summer of 1989. Rogers recalls her outworking everyone in the office, coming in early and staying late. She would even go in on Saturdays. 

“She would get it done fast and early,” Rogers said. “She always surpassed expectations of any project you gave her no matter how big or how small — she would just knock it out of the ballpark and come back for more.”

At Princeton, Hobson excelled academically as she continued to expand her network. Former Northwestern President Henry Bienen once told Rogers that Hobson was “the most heavily lobbied waitlist student I’ve ever had” when he was the head of the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs.

“She [has] this unique ability to build friendships and lifelong relationships,” said Rogers, who hired Hobson out of Princeton in 1991. “Just meeting somebody once, they would be in her corner.” 

Rogers said he joked at Hobson’s wedding to filmmaker George Lucas in 2013 that “the only downside of having Mellody as your business partner is that when you introduce her to your friends and business associates, they stop calling you, they stop coming to see you because they’re seeing Mellody.”

Hobson has been an invaluable asset to corporate boardrooms across the country. Along with serving on the board of Starbucks, she’s a director of JPMorgan Chase and previously served as chairman of the board of DreamWorks Animation. She also serves her community as the chairman of After School Matters, a local nonprofit that provides Chicago teens with high-quality after-school and summer programs. 

Hobson’s drive has inspired many over the years, including her friend, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, who once told Vanity Fair that serving on a board alongside Hobson inspired her to write her best-selling book, “Lean In.” 

“She said she wanted to be unapologetically Black and unapologetically a woman,” Sandberg told the magazine. “My life was altered by meeting her, and that’s not something I say lightly.”

Hobson’s promotion to chair of Starbucks spotlights a lack of diversity at the coffee giant and in board rooms across the nation. According to Catalyst, only 4.6% of board seats are held by women of color in Fortune 500 companies, though they represent 18% of the U.S. population.

Rogers said transparency is key in addressing the lack of minority representation in the boardroom.

“To make change, we have to get the data out there, we have to have all corporations be transparent about the lack of diversity if they have [it],” Rogers said. “Then, pressure builds internally and externally for people to do the right thing.”

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