Mellody Hobson, the 49-year-old president of Ariel Investments, which manages a $13 billion portfolio, is renowned for her business acumen — she sits on the boards of the Rockefeller Foundation Board of Trustees, Starbucks Corporation, and the Chicago Public Education Fund, among others — and is beloved by such notable figures as Jeffrey Katzenberg, Howard Schultz, Sheryl Sandberg, and Oprah Winfrey according to Vanity Fair. But way before she ascended the corporate ladder and garnered the praise of titans in the media and business worlds, Hobson grew up in Chicago, the youngest of six children in a single-parent household. On the Thrive Global Podcast, in partnership with iHeartRadio and Sleep Number, she tells Arianna Huffington about her challenging upbringing, and how her mom’s “brutal pragmatism” and “unconditional love” planted the seeds for her success.
Remembering her childhood, Hobson recalls, “On many occasions, we would get evicted, our phone disconnected, or our lights turned off… We would heat water for baths.” Her mother, who worked in real estate, sometimes struggled to make ends meet, and Hobson calls those days “incredibly challenging and uncertain… They created a great deal of anxiety… that still lives in me as an adult.” The financial uncertainty of those times, she admits to Huffington, led her to her career: ”I wouldn’t want to relive it, but I don’t regret it, because I think the reason I am in the financial services business is precisely because of my uncertainty about money as a child.”
Huffington recalls that Hobson, years ago, once expressed concern she’d end up in the streets, and as a preventative measure, she’d pay her mortgage and phone bills an entire year in advance. “I hope you no longer feel you’re going to end up as a bag lady,” Huffington says. Hobson poignantly replies that the impact of our formative years often lingers long after we’ve grown up: “Even though circumstances have changed… I still work today as if I need the meal at the end of the day.” Studies confirm that the poverty we endure in childhood can affect our well-being long into our adulthood. But Hobson sees a profound silver lining. “I think anxiety fueled me,” she says. And in fact, studies do demonstrate that moderate levels of anxiety can improve our motivation and performance.
Of course, there’s a limit to how much anxiety we should endure. “I want to be very clear. I don’t think living with anxiety is a good thing… that level of insecurity at this point doesn’t make sense,” Hobson says. That said, she confesses to Huffington that on a scale of one to 10 (with 10 being the highest degree of anxiety), she still hovers around a four. “[For me], that’s a pretty good accomplishment,” she says.
Today, Hobson notes that she’s able to scale back her angst by realizing that “if something did go wrong, I know how to survive. If tomorrow something happened, and I had to go sell shoes at Neiman Marcus, I’d be the number one salesperson in the country.” Her life has taught her that she can prevail no matter what, which in turn has increased her confidence and helped manage her anxiety.
Even now, in her life as a successful businesswoman, wife of filmmaker and entrepreneur George Lucas, and mother of 5-year-old daughter Everest, Hobson acknowledges that she still can feel fear. But she’s found that being overly prepared helps fend it off. “I think fear can be tamped down a lot by being educated and informed,” Hobson says.
Throughout the duo’s intimate exchange, Hobson lauds her mother for giving her the wherewithal to endure life’s harder realities: “She was pragmatic. There was no fairy tale or fantasy with my mother, so I still have that with me. I would say that it did give me a great sense of purpose and made me the person that I am,” she says.
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