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Mellody Hobson: Diversity isn't about do-gooderism — it's about the bottom line

Nicole Sinclair
Markets Correspondent

Amid calls for companies to increase diversity among their workforce, an increasing body of research has shown that this effort will impact the bottom line.

Mellody Hobson, president of Ariel Investments—who has pounded the table on the importance of diversity at companies—says this is key.

“If you want to be world class, if you want to have a workforce that represents all the customers you’re going to have and all the ideas that are going to be important to them, I think you need to make sure that everyone’s in the room,” Hobson told Yahoo Finance at the Dreamforce conference in San Francisco. “This is not about do-gooderism. This is about bottom line.”

Hobson added that for companies to make progress in increasing diversity, they need to have a sense of urgency.

“Hold yourself to the exact same standards that you do everything else at your company… the exact same sense of urgency,” she said. “If you have a company that’s concerned about profitability, they’ll stay laser-focused on that. If they’re concerned about product quality and it’s going to make or break the company, they’re laser-focused on it. For whatever reason, when it comes to diversity and inclusion, we say ‘we’re working on it.’ When there’s not that same sense of urgency, there’s not those metrics theres not those same incentives.”

Hobson, who is on the boards of Starbucks (SBUX) and Estee Lauder (EL) and was chairman of the board of DreamWorks Animation before it was sold, added that people must be incentivized.

“Otherwise, you’ll be on the wrong side of history,” she said. “But more importantly, I don’t think you’ll be as successful as you can be.”

Mellody Hobson sits down with Yahoo Finance at Salesforce.com’s Dreamforce conference

While the merits of diversification seem to be widely accepted when it comes to investing, Hobson added it’s not as accepted when it comes to people.

“It’s interesting to me that I come from the investment business,” she said. “There’s so much conversation about diversification and yet in this area of diversification of employees, we don’t have that same hardwiring.”

“There’s a lot that’s being challenged. Unchecked, this will set us back pretty dramatically,” Hobson said. “Am I concerned about the rhetoric and how some people have been given license to say things that I think are very damaging? I’m concerned.”

Hobson, who has been vocal for many years that we are nowhere near a “post racial” world, said both sexism and racism are a problem.

“I’m not into comparative shopping. This is a situation where we’re talking about ‘-isms’ that are all bad. They’re equal opportunity bad. I’m not going to try to split hairs on what is more damaging than another because I just don’t see it that way,” she said.

“I’ve had an amazing opportunity but a lot of this has been a miracle, and we should not have to have a society where miracles are the reason you can be successful.”

Meanwhile, amid sexual harassment allegations pouring out across industries, Hobson said we’re in the midst of a sea change.

“We’re in an important time in so many ways. I’m glad to see that these voices are being heard,” she said. “I would say the number one piece of advice that I carry with me and I say everywhere I go is be brave. There is so much fear that keeps people from realizing their greatest dreams.”

“Courage is not an absence of fear,” she said. “It is overcoming the fear you have. We all have it. It’s a human characteristic. If you can get on the other side of that fear like the women that are speaking up, the voice in a board room that may be the dissenting opinion… conquering that fear is so important.”

Nicole Sinclair is markets correspondent at Yahoo Finance

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