Mellody Hobson Wants Less Talk and More Action When It Comes to Corporate Diversity

Mellody Hobson is tired of having the same conversations about the merits of diversity.

“There’s a lot of good intention, but nothing’s happening. There’s a lot of conversation, but the needle isn’t moving,” the president of Ariel Investments told Fortune’s Brainstorm Reinvent conference in Chicago on Tuesday.

“I’ve become this expert in diversity because I happen to be a woman and I happen to be black, but in my real life I run an investment firm,” she said. “When people call me and ask me to speak they don’t ask about the economy, they ask me to talk about diversity.”

Instead of more talk, Hobson had some suggestions inspired by her husband’s line of work.

“I married Yoda’s dad,” she says (Hobson and Star Wars creator George Lucas married in 2013), “and Yoda said ‘Do or do not, there is no try.’”

There are consequences when we don’t meet goals in business, she says. People lose their jobs over failing to hit earnings targets or missing production deadlines, but these sort of repercussions are absent when it comes to diversity initiatives.

And it shows: “In everything else we do in corporate America we are held accountable,” Hobson said. “The numbers just are not good.”

She points to the fact that this year there are 24 women CEOs of S&P 1000 companies—just 4.8% of those leaders—and that figure is down from 32 women last year. Even companies working diligently to diversify their organizations can often only improve representation for one minority group at a time.

“People anchor on one thing, at the exclusion of everything else,” she said. “You can’t just carry this one flag and say ‘I have diversity now.’”

For example, focus on gender diversity has been successful in some organizations, but it’s white women that reap most of the benefits. White women held about one-third of all management positions at S&P 1000 companies last year, while Latinas, black women, and Asian women each held less than 5% of management roles.

“We don’t want to just admire problems, we want to try to find solutions to them,” Hobson says of diversity initiatives. “You get what you incent.”

Companies who are serious about improving the diversity of their workforces need to introduce penalty or reward systems to incentivize employees, she says. Establish methods to hold managers accountable for the company’s diversity priorities, like hiring candidates from underrepresented backgrounds or creating an inclusive work environment.

“You have to truly believe that the world is changing and that you want to represent your customers within your organization,” she says.

Hobson acknowledges that all organizations and individuals have their own biases to identify and address.

Recently someone pointed out to her that all of the employees at Ariel Investments are attractive. She had to consider what sort of bias might be built into the firm’s hiring processes.

But that’s why its important to have people around who will question you, Hobson says, and who will continue to do the work beside you, not just try.

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