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.”