John W. Rogers Jr. discusses the importance of socially responsible business practices

‘If we don’t speak up and speak out, nothing changes,’ Ariel Investments founder says at UChicago event

To cap its celebration of Black History Month, the Harris School of Public Policy featured investor John W. Rogers Jr., LAB’76, in a fireside chat with Dean Katherine Baicker that revisited Chicago’s history as a “mecca for African American entrepreneurs” and framed ways to ensure success for the next generation of leaders. 

Rogers, founder and chairman of Ariel Investments and a University of Chicago trustee, drew a crowd that filled the Keller Center Forum on a sunny Friday afternoon. His and Baicker’s Feb. 24 discussion centered largely on socially responsible investing and its impact. But lighter moments included Rogers recalling his days as the captain of the Princeton University varsity basketball team, where he played alongside Craig Robinson, Michelle Obama’s brother.  

Michelle Obama, he said, “was always the little sister of this great player” and Barack Obama, was initially “just a boyfriend of that little sister.” Rogers became an early supporter of Barack Obama’s political aspirations and co-chaired the former president’s 2009 inauguration and now serves on the Barack Obama Foundation’s Board.  

Baicker pressed Rogers, a Chicago native, on how, at the age of 24, he had the courage to set off on his own, founding Ariel in 1983 with funds raised from family and friends. 

“I made the leap because I had an investment strategy and philosophy that I really believed in and that I thought would make money for my clients,” said Rogers. And he had a network in Chicago.  

That was in large part, he said, due to his barrier-breaking parents, John W. Rogers Sr., a member of the Tuskegee Airmen and a longtime Cook County Juvenile Court judge, and Jewel Stradford Lafontant, whose career included high-level posts in the Nixon and George H.W. Bush administrations. The couple met at the University of Chicago Law School, where, in 1946, Lafontant became its first African American woman graduate. The elder Rogers graduated in 1948. 

“They were just the kind of folks that knew lots of people,” Rogers said. “And at the time, Chicago was the mecca for African American entrepreneurs. 

“Some of the greatest African American entrepreneurs in history were on the South Side of Chicago,” he added.  

That included George Johnson who founded Johnson Products Co. with his wife, Joan, making hair-care products for African Americans including Afro Sheen and Ultra Sheen and making history as the first Black-owned business on the American Stock Exchange.  

John H. Johnson created Ebony and Jet magazines, becoming the then-most successful African American magazine publisher. His former publishing company was headquartered on South Michigan Avenue.   

“These were two iconic brands throughout the world, so they were role models for starting a company,” Rogers said, adding the model was: Find a niche, do something a little bit differently, start young and be the first African American to try to do it. 

To assure early investors that although he was young, he would not be “a gunslinger with their money,” Rogers said he chose a tortoise as the Ariel symbol, “because we all know from that famous Aesop’s fable that slow and steady wins the race; the tortoise beats the hare.” 

For Ariel, he said, that meant adopting a long-term perspective, taking the time to do homework, and practicing what the firm calls “active patience.” Chicago-based Ariel now manages $16.2 billion in assets.  

His role models, Rogers said, also helped to shape his view about giving back and living his values. 

George Johnson, for example, did “extraordinary things” in business and philanthropy, Rogers said.  

“When Dr. [Martin Luther] King came to Chicago desperate to raise money to meet payroll, George Johnson got all of his friends together to write crucial checks,” Rogers said.  

These business leaders “were just not about making money,” Rogers said. “They cared deeply about the community and wanted to make a difference; that was the legacy that they left. So that's the kind of legacy we've tried to build at Ariel, starting off as a socially responsible investment company and now one that's really heavily focused on ESG [environmental, social and governance] investment.”  

Rogers’ legacy-building includes pushing for inclusive economic prosperity in Chicago and for minority businesses nationally.  

He pointed to the University of Chicago’s Business Diversity Program, created by former university President Robert Zimmer to foster diversity in business relationships, as a model for moving beyond “supplier diversity.” That latter term, he said, often means hiring minority firms for construction projects or catering jobs but not in areas such as money management or legal counsel. 

Working with leaders in Washington, D.C., and locally Rogers said he and his Ariel team have been trying to get anchor institutions, like universities, to improve transparency about all the firms they hire. 

“We’re not asking for [minority-hiring] quotas. We know that's not going to get through in the legislative world that we live in today,” Rogers said. But the idea is to have institutions be transparent. 

Pressure for such transparency extends to corporations as well. 

“Big companies can sometimes spend hundreds of millions of dollars on legal fees where there's a transaction,” Rogers said. He described how Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., recently wrote to the CEOs of Albertsons and Kroger, who need congressional support for their planned merger. Booker noted the investment and law firms the two companies had hired to work on the merger, asking them to detail how many minority- or women-led or owned businesses had been considered for those roles. 

“After George Floyd's murder, people are starting to think that they have a moral responsibility to be more inclusive,” Rogers said. Often faced with the facts about disparities in spending, he added, institutions and companies and their leaders “start to feel some responsibility around this, or maybe their kids push them on these issues, asking ‘What are you doing around diversity and inclusion, and being fair?’ 

“And then when they see the data, and it shows that they haven't been fair,” he said, “I think more often than not, people who have the right values will do the right thing with the data.” 

That data, he added, also shows that minority entrepreneurs usually hire minority employees, and so contracting with them is a key step to building generational wealth. 

“If we care about the wealth gap,” he said, “We have to have a stronger minority business community.” 

The pressure is also on to ensure change lasts, with Rogers advocating for teaching children financial literacy skills early and calling for more diverse corporate boards.  

He recommends that diverse board directors follow the example of the late Congressman John Lewis, being willing to speak up “and make good trouble in the boardroom.”  

“If you're the first woman or first person of color in the boardroom, it’s not easy sometimes to address these tough issues and ask for transparency,” said Rogers, who serves on several boards, including Nike and McDonald’s. “But I always think ‘What would John Lewis do and what would Dr. King do?’” 

“It’s up to us,” he said, referring to anyone in a leadership role, “to force people to be transparent and do the right things and get them out of their comfort zone. If we don't speak up and speak out, nothing changes.” 

This story originally appeared on the Harris School of Public Policy website.