John W. Rogers, Jr.
Chairman Ariel Investments Chicago
As John W. Rogers Jr. reflects on efforts to increase diversity throughout the financial services industry he remembers the “fits and starts,” and laments the long journey still ahead.
“When it comes to minority-owned firms, some have come and most have gone, and then we’ll see a new group of firms comes in and try,” he said. “The lack of progress has been pretty heartbreaking when it comes to the money management space.”
Mr. Rogers is a rare and glowing exception.
This year's InvestmentNews Diversity & Inclusion Lifetime Achievement Award winner is not only a diverse professional who's succeeding in the financial services industry, he's an individual who has made diversity and inclusion a focal point of his life.
Mr. Rogers is founder, chairman, chief investment officer and co-chief executive officer of Chicago-based Ariel Investments, the nation’s largest African American-owned asset management firm with $13 billion under management.
As a money manager, Mr. Rogers, 61, is in many ways extraordinary. His early interest in the financial markets was sparked by his father giving him shares of stock as birthday and Christmas gifts. He recalls being fascinated as a young boy traveling down to Chicago’s LaSalle Street to meet his father’s stockbroker and reading financial reports for fun.
“My parents were divorced and when I would visit my father on the weekends. He would have newsletters and annual reports for me to read, so that became a passion of mine,” said Mr. Rogers, who launched Ariel Investments at the ripe age of 24, after cutting his teeth in the equity markets at William Blair & Co.
Watch: John Rogers strengthened diversity and inclusion efforts well beyond asset management
As a student at Princeton University, where he also played basketball, Mr. Rogers said he would call his broker from pay phones during road games to trade his portfolio. And when he won $10,000 in the New Jersey lottery he showed incredible vision and restraint for a young college student by using the money to buy stocks.
But as Mr. Rogers was building his business, he was always conscious of the other theme of his life, which is a push for equality and helping others.
While the influence of his late father, John Rogers Sr., a World War II fighter pilot and Tuskegee Airman, drove his passion for investing, his mother, Jewel Lafontant, drove his pursuit of equality.
“I grew up with the idea that a woman of color can be just as successful as a white male,” he said.
As a role model, Ms. Lafontant, was the first African American woman to graduate from the University of Chicago Law School. She was the first female deputy solicitor general of the United States, and an official in the administration of President George H.W. Bush. She was considered by President Richard Nixon for nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court. She died in 1997.
Mr. Rogers recalls growing up in the Chicago suburb of Hyde Park, “where people didn’t care about titles or where you came from.”
He reflects on those early experiences as building blocks for the way he learned to value diversity.
“I can’t over-emphasize how much it meant to grow up in that community,” he said. “Diversity was just natural; if you were going to find the best talent possible that meant you were going to have women and people of color.”
In addition to donating more than $15 million to help fund scholarship programs at the University of Chicago and its affiliated Laboratory Schools, Mr. Rogers helped launch the Ariel Community Academy, which promotes a financial literacy curriculum.
The Ariel Academy, which opened 22 years ago, has grown to 500 students and teaches kindergarten through the eighth grade. Mr. Rogers proudly reports that Ariel Investments has hired two of the academy's graduates.
He has also hosted the Black Corporate Directors Conference for the last 17 years.
“John Rogers has been an extraordinary leader and partner for me in our multifaceted efforts to expand diversity and inclusion at the University of Chicago,” said Bob Zimmer, University of Chicago president.
“His leadership has been singularly impactful in helping us conceptualize and execute an important program for professional services diversity,” Mr. Zimmer said. “I have watched John lead many people in key roles to understand the depth of talent that can be realized if given opportunity. Through his work on diversity and inclusion, he has made the University of Chicago stronger.”
Obama’s inner circle
Mr. Rogers was considered part of the inner circle during Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign. In fact, immediately following his election, the President-elect and his team spent three days working out of the Ariel Investments offices planning the transition to the White House.
“We were highly honored to get that opportunity to have them in our offices,” said Mr. Rogers, who co-chaired President Obama’s inauguration committee.
More recently, he launched the John W. Rogers Jr. Internship Program in Finance through the University of Chicago to help place minority students at foundations and endowments.
It’s these kinds of paid internships where the real differences are being made, Mr. Rogers said.
Mr. Rogers also is known to apply the leverage of his reputation and his business to affect change.
“Asset management offers a stark reminder of the obstacles preventing people of color from fully participating in our capitalist democracy, even in 2019," he told a U.S. House financial services subcommittee on diversity and inclusion two months ago.
Mr. Rogers pressed lawmakers to require institutions under its purview to adopt practices similar to ones that have long been standard procedures at Ariel Investments.
“First, I support the proposed legislation adopting the Rooney Rule, requiring banks and other entities to consider diverse-owned firms when aiming to fill new investment mandates. Second, measure all spending by specific category including asset management and other professional services, and replace the term supplier diversity with business diversity,” he testified. “Third, CEOs and their management teams can be held accountable by this committee for providing meaningful transparency and making measurable progress.”
Checking the box?
Mr. Rogers takes particular issue with the “supplier diversity” phrase because he believes it is tantamount to “checking the box” at a lot of big companies.
“Supplier diversity is modern-day Jim Crow,” he said. “Almost every major Fortune 500 company has a supplier diversity program, but if you only work with minority firms in terms of supply chain, you’re not creating opportunities. People who are well meaning, who want to see people of color succeed, they think they’ve done the job by checking the box with supplier diversity.”
At Ariel, the firm asks all the companies that it has invested in about the diversity of their investment managers, their investing teams and their boards.
“We can point to 35 times where we were able to move the needle in terms of the diversity of their boards," Mr. Rogers said.
Ellen-Blair Chube, managing director and client service officer at William Blair, said she can’t think of anyone as determined as Mr. Rogers when it comes to diversity and inclusion in the financial services industry.
“You can name numerous success stories as a result of the work he has done for decades in developing future leaders and opening doors for minority firms,” she said. “John has truly moved the needle.”
In conjunction with the July promotion of Mellody Hobson to co-CEO of Ariel, Mr. Rogers reduced his ownership stake in the asset management firm to 34%, but he insists he has no immediate plans for retirement.
“I’d like to be here for the our 50th anniversary,” he said of the 36-year-old firm.
“We feel really good about the contributions we’ve made,” Mr. Rogers said. “But we have to create a more diverse financial services industry.”
— Jeff Benjamin