Karen Freeman-Wilson and John W. Rogers, Jr., LAB’76
Karen Freeman-Wilson and John W. Rogers, Jr., LAB’76, at the first Golub Capital Social Impact Lab Annual Lecture, “Elevating the Black Community in Chicago.” (Photography by Anne Ryan)
Building back

University trustee John W. Rogers, Jr., LAB’76, spoke about increasing economic opportunity for Chicago’s Black community.

When John W. Rogers, Jr., was 12, his father stopped giving him toys as gifts. “Every birthday, every Christmas, I got the envelope,” he recounted one evening this spring. Inside the envelopes were certificates—shares of General Motors, Dodge, or other blue-chip stocks. “You know, it wasn’t a lot of fun,” he confided, “at first.”

His audience roared, not for the last time that evening. Rogers, LAB’76, a University of Chicago trustee, went on to describe how, as a teen, he came to relish the $20 dividend checks that arrived in the mail. From his father’s friend Stacy Adams, one of the first Black stockbrokers in Chicago, he learned the ins and outs of investing while selling hot dogs and pizza at both of the city’s major league ballparks in the summers. Three years out of Princeton, he founded Ariel Investments, which today manages $15 billion in assets.

The occasion for these tales of Rogers’s early life was the first Golub Capital Social Impact Lab Annual Lecture, titled “Elevating the Black Community in Chicago.” Chicago-based Golub Capital, the sponsor and namesake of the lab and the lectures, has established social impact labs at Northwestern, Stanford, and the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.

“The goal of this inaugural lecture,” says Golub Capital’s president, David Golub, “was to bring together Chicago’s civic, academic, and business leaders to share insights and explore how we can work together for the good of our community”—much like the lab itself and its home within Booth, the Rustandy Center for Social Sector Innovation.

Among the lab’s signature offerings is IGNITE, a program for Chicago nonprofit leaders. In 2023–24, IGNITE’s first year, professionals from eight Chicago nonprofits took classes with Booth faculty, expanding their networks and learning from management and other experts to strengthen and scale their organizations’ impact. “Golub Capital is proud to support IGNITE and to celebrate the impact of the inspiring leaders who have taken part in the program,” Golub says. "We're grateful for our partners at the Rustandy Center, whose work brought this vision to life.”

At the lecture, IGNITE alumni, other nonprofit leaders, entrepreneurs, and community members in the lively audience snapped, clapped, and nodded throughout Rogers’s conversation with moderator Karen Freeman-Wilson, which sounded the urgency of reversing a widening wealth gap between Black and White Americans.

Freeman-Wilson, the president and CEO of the Chicago Urban League, began by asking Rogers about his parents’ influence. His mother, Jewel C. Stradford Lafontant, JD’46, and his father, John W. Rogers, JD’48, met at the University of Chicago Law School, from which Lafontant was the first Black woman to receive a degree—just one in a string of firsts that included her appointment by Richard Nixon as the first Black person and first woman to serve as deputy solicitor general. Rogers’s father, one of the original World War II Tuskegee Airmen, had a distinguished career as an attorney and a judge.

With his father’s gifts of stock shares and otherwise, the two prepared Rogers well to succeed in what he called “the mecca for Black entrepreneurship” in the 1960s and ’70s. It wasn’t only Chicago’s Black business giants, such as John H. Johnson (founder of the Johnson Publishing Company, which was behind iconic magazines like Ebony and Jet) and George Johnson (head of a cosmetics empire), who embodied that boom era.

Enterprises like theirs did ample business with Black law, accounting, and other firms, Rogers pointed out, “and that creates all kinds of opportunity for more entrepreneurs to be successful.” The resulting network, he said, was strong enough to be a key factor in Chicago mayor Harold Washington’s 1983 election. But in an “extraordinarily heartbreaking” turn of events over the past few decades, “we went from being a mecca to having all these businesses drift away.” Today, Rogers noted, no Black firms crack the Crain’s Chicago Business list of the top 150 privately held companies.

How, Freeman-Wilson asked, can the Black community get that back? Rogers’s ideas were many. He pointed to the University’s Office of Business Diversity as a model for equalizing economic opportunity. Unlike similar offices at other Chicago organizations, he said, UChicago seeks diversity in every kind of business it does—not only in catering and construction, which are the norm elsewhere, but also in hiring law firms, consultants, accountants, money managers, architects, and more. If the community—including the people in the room that evening—came together to “inspire other anchor institutions to follow the UChicago model,” it would make a real difference.

Rogers acknowledged that it can be uncomfortable for “all of us who are progressive leaders that are here in this room, who are sitting on the boards of universities, hospitals, and museums,” to ask “the tough questions” about which businesses are getting work from these organizations and why—but they must speak up, he said. “What we have to do is to make ‘good trouble,’” as John Lewis called it, “in the boardroom. … It is up to us.”

To build community among Black professionals and galvanize them for that work, Rogers cofounded the Black Corporate Directors Conference in 2002. The Golub Capital Lab’s IGNITE similarly seeds the networks that will increase opportunity for all, Freeman-Wilson observed. “I just can’t overemphasize how important it is to build that nexus,” Rogers affirmed, as is “this idea that we’re always going to be looking out for each other.”

A third strategy to build back the prosperity Rogers remembers is one that his company has been acting on for more than 25 years: teaching financial literacy at a young age. In this post-pension era of defined contributions for retirement saving, he noted, “you have to be your own money manager, … so being financially literate is more important in this country than ever before.”

At Ariel Community Academy on 46th Street, a pre-K through eighth grade school sponsored by Ariel Investments, the firm has long donated a $20,000 investment portfolio grant to each first-grade class (the amount was recently increased to $40,000 in honor of the firm’s 40th anniversary). Until fifth grade, Ariel staff make the investment decisions while the students learn “the concepts and lingo” they need to understand the stock market.

By grade six, a junior board of students takes responsibility for investing, and by graduation the $20,000 has usually grown to $50,000 or $60,000. “So the kids get to see the magic of compound interest and how money grows over time,” Rogers explained. Of that sum, $20,000 goes to the incoming first-grade class, “to make it a self-perpetuating program” and keep the original investment growing. The eighth graders donate half of the remainder as a class gift to the school, using their boon to help others. The rest is divided among them to use as they wish—with one advisement. If they invest it in an Ariel 529 college savings plan, the company adds $500, to demonstrate the power of matching.

“That’s something we’re really proud of” at Ariel, Rogers concluded. It was hard not to think of the young man he was, opening an envelope to start a virtuous circle of learning, building, and giving back.