CHICAGO — In 1991, an understated young law school graduate asked John Rogers ’80 for help. He said his name was Barack Obama and he wanted to register African-Americans to vote in Chicago. The Project Vote assignment seemed an unlikely one, neither high-profile nor high-paying, certainly not the gilt-edged job that Obama, president of the Harvard Law Review, could command in the big city. But the mission rang true with Rogers, who became the financial co-chairman of Obama’s effort.

Obama would raise enough money to go far beyond a typical storefront operation. He hired 10 staffers, recruited more than 700 volunteers, and put 150,000 voters on Chicago’s rolls in time to help make Carol Moseley Braun, D-Ill., the second black U.S. senator since Reconstruction. A dozen years later, Obama would become the third. Even more improbably, in his presidential bid, he would raise more money faster than any candidate in history.

John Rogers was there early, and he is still there now, a friend and fundraiser who believes so strongly in Obama’s candidacy that he is raising money all over the country, not least within a network of Princeton friends he has built while leading Ariel Capital Management, the nation’s largest minority-run mutual fund family. Praising “the competence, the possibility, the strength of the message,” Rogers says this is the most enthusiastic he has been about a presidential candidate since Bill Bradley ’65 ran in 2000. He loves Bradley, but Obama is still more special to him: The candidate is a peer, he is rooted in Chicago, and he is black.

For Rogers and a coterie of accomplished black alumni in Chicago that includes Michelle (Robinson) Obama ’85, the prospective first lady, the Obama candidacy has become a dynamic extension of their commitment to civic affairs and their desire to push the national conversation about race to a new level.

“It’s electrifying,” says Kevann Cooke ’82, who recently left a senior job at Aon Corporation to advance Chicago’s bid for the 2016 Olympics. “I’m old enough that in my lifetime, segregation in America was legal. To see someone who looks like me, has similar values and experience, and can put together a credible run for the presidency is nothing short of awesome.”

The Princeton graduates interviewed for this story travel in overlapping circles in a city where they belong to a potent African-American elite that is carving a growing role in civic and cultural affairs. They belong to theater and museum boards, support charter schools in struggling black neighborhoods, and serve as mentors to young and not-so-young people.

President-elect Barack Obama s’85, daughters Malia and Sasha, and first-lady-to-be Michelle Obama ’85 wave to the crowd at an election night rally Nov. 4 in Chicago. A group of black Chicago-area alumni, friends of the Obamas and campaign fund-raisers
President-elect Barack Obama s’85, daughters Malia and Sasha, and first-lady-to-be Michelle Obama ’85 wave to the crowd at an election night rally Nov. 4 in Chicago. A group of black Chicago-area alumni, friends of the Obamas and campaign fund-raisers, play active civic roles in the city.
AP Images

Melissa Harris-Lacewell, a Princeton professor of politics and African-American studies who moved last year from the University of Chicago, says the Princetonians “play a role that is probably largely invisible to ordinary African-Americans. None of them, apart from maybe Michelle Obama since the campaign, could call for a rally or a march or a boycott and have clear recognition in poor neighborhoods. They’re wielding power in ways that are more common to their white counterparts. It’s related to their connection to powerful institutions that set the agenda. That’s what we call in political science the second face of power, the agenda-setting power.”

Throughout its history, Chicago’s moneyed elite has been overwhelmingly white, and so have the political power-brokers in a city that has elected only one black mayor, Harold Washington, in 1983. While some African-American politicians have broken through, as part of the old Democratic machine or independently, the Princeton alumni are part of a slowly shifting portrait.

Beyond Rogers, Cooke, and Michelle Obama, there is Sharon Fairley ’82, Rogers’ wife, who gave up a senior advertising and marketing job at Pharmacia after Sept. 11 to study law and prosecute federal crimes, saying she “wanted to go out and be part of the solution.” There is Mellody Hobson ’91, who started as a college intern at Ariel and rose to become its president, a regular contributor to ABC’s Good Morning America, and an advocate for black financial literacy in Chicago and beyond. A key link was Craig Robinson ’83, Rogers’ star basketball teammate and Michelle Obama’s brother, who spent 13 years in finance in Chicago before quitting to coach college basketball, his first love. He is now head coach at Brown University.

“Just in the circles I move in — downtown and even in the academic scene and certainly in the cultural scene — every year there seem to be more and more faces popping up,” says Dwight McBride ’90, a dean at the University of Illinois–Chicago who also lectures on black culture. “That’s very encouraging to me. It says not only that black people are staying in their own community, but that black people are becoming much more important players in the city more broadly.” A board member of About Face Theater Co., which produces works about gay and lesbian communities, McBride sees Rogers and Hobson as “an important philanthropic voice for literacy and the arts.”

The ascending star undeniably is Michelle Obama, a polished and passionate speaker who is stepping up her campaign schedule in advance of the early Democratic primaries. The focus of more news items and feature stories than she can count, she is talking far and wide about public service, inclusiveness, and community. She calls herself a “South Side girl” as she tells stories of her life in Chicago, including ways that she and her husband struggled with their choices.

“When you know you’ve been blessed and know you have a set of gifts, how do you maximize those gifts so you’re impacting the greatest number of people?” Obama asks in a telephone interview. “And what do you do? Is it community organizing? Is it politics? Is it as a parent? Our answer at some level is it can be all of that. John and Mellody make way more money than me, but what is consistent among us, even my brother, is there’s a sense of entrepreneurialism. ... ‘I’m not going to do what feels safe, what everybody in our class is doing. I’m going to break off.’ ”

Rogers went big, and then he went small and became big.

After Princeton, where he captained the 1979–80 basketball team, Rogers returned to Chicago and a financial job at a large firm. But less than three years into it, he decided to set off on his own. He created Ariel from a two-page prospectus that forecast first-year expenses of $90,000. Twenty-five years later, Ariel manages nearly $16 billion in assets. The firm’s mascot is a tortoise; its motto is “slow and steady wins the race.”

Rogers set out to build a life that went deeper than his profession. He joined the board of the Chicago Urban League at 24 and later became chairman. He is a director or trustee of more than a dozen organizations, including the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow PUSH Coalition, the Oprah Winfrey Foundation, the University of Chicago, and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. He backed Ariel Community Academy, a public charter school, where financial literacy is a central component of the curriculum.

Growing up in Hyde Park, the diverse community that surrounds the University of Chicago, Rogers tagged along to Republican gatherings with his mother, a GOP loyalist appointed deputy solicitor general in the Nixon administration, and slipped fliers under apartment doors for his father, a Democratic precinct captain and Cook County judge.

In Ariel’s stylish 29th-floor offices overlooking Millennium Park and Lake Michigan, there are two conference rooms. One is named for legendary investor Warren Buffett (“I buy stocks when the lemmings are headed the other way”); the other, inevitably, for Pete Carril, Princeton’s hall of fame former basketball coach (“How hard do you work and how much do you contribute to what your group is doing?”).

Carril “had this ability to teach things in a way that not only did you learn what was the right thing to do, but you learned why it made sense,” Rogers says in an office suite crowded with Princeton photographs and memorabilia. “The sense of really giving back, and figuring out how to think about your teammates first, whatever you’re involved in — clearly he pounded that in and changed my life. So when I came home to Chicago, I said I want to be part of the Chicago team, and I want to become part of the African-American team.”

Northwestern University sociologist Mary Pattillo wrote about Rogers and the creation of the Ariel academy in a recent study of race and class on Chicago’s South Side. She called Rogers an example of African-American professionals who are “becoming as entrenched as the dynasties of white ethnic power brokers before them.”

“Their names invoke lineages of engagement and activism that comprise an inner circle of black Chicagoans past and present who have been deal makers across the racial divide,” Pattillo wrote in Black on the Block: The Politics of Race and Class in the City. “These are brokers who do not need to make requests of a (white) superior in order to deliver. The decision rests with them.”

Stirring many pots at once, Rogers joined corporate boards and backed political projects and candidates he believed in, often spotting talent early, a skill that helped Ariel prosper. He helped underwrite Barack Obama’s voter drive five years before Obama ran for Illinois state senator. He supported a young politician with a famous name, Richard M. Daley, seven years before Daley won the first of six terms as mayor. He was Braun’s finance chairman and an important Obama backer during his race for the U.S. Senate in 2004. And he supported Bill Bradley’s ill-fated 2000 presidential campaign after finding much to like about the future politician the first day he met him — back when Bradley, still playing for the Knicks, gave the honor-code talk to the Class of 1980, then headed to play some pickup ball at Jadwin with Carril’s young players.

The Bradley campaign was Hobson’s first deep political involvement, but it was not the first time she had met the senator. Her introduction came one remarkable morning when, as a high school senior choosing between Princeton and Harvard, she was invited to breakfast with Bradley and eight businessmen, including Rogers, by Chicago venture capitalist Richard Missner ’65.

“I walked in,” Hobson recalls, still astonished. “I was practically in a school uniform. These are the captains of industry in Chicago and I’m 17 years old, a black kid. I’m not easily overwhelmed, but I’m, like, oh my God, these people are really important. So we sit down and Bill Bradley looks at me and he says, ‘So, listen, I can see these guys anytime. What’s it like to be a high school student in America?’ And the whole conversation shifted to high school. ... I walked out of there sold.”

Hobson says Bradley became a father figure who delivers “total, unconditional love.” When he sought the presidency and asked her to work for him, she agreed to work two jobs — Ariel from about 6 a.m. until late afternoon, then the campaign until late into the night. She learned respect for public service and, traveling with Bradley, awe for politicians able to cope with the rigors of campaigning. For his part, Bradley says of Hobson and Rogers — like him, former Princeton trustees — that “people don’t get any better than the two of them.” He credits them with smarts, optimism, and “absolute integrity. They have an absolute, controlling set of values about what is right and what is wrong.”

Hosting a ceremony this year to award a Princeton Prize in Race Relations, Hobson told of times well into her career when executives handed her their coats, assuming that was her job, and of moments when an important white business-person did not look her in the eye, but looked into the eyes of white colleagues. She keeps a copy of the Rev. Martin Luther King’s 1963 “Letter from Birmingham Jail” on her desk.

At Ariel, Hobson travels widely, leading the effort to build the company’s brand, with Chicago and the African-American community as particular targets. She is on three corporate boards: Starbucks, Estee Lauder, and DreamWorks Animation SKG. She offers financial advice on Good Morning America and helps direct a survey of black investors, the first research of its kind.

In Chicago, she is on the board of the Chicago Public Library and the Field Museum, and she works closely with the students at the Ariel school. She and Rogers, whom she calls her best friend, helped create and host an annual Black Corporate Directors Conference.

“No one had ever brought together this unique group of people who certainly have fiduciary responsibility for Fortune 500 companies, but have unique tugs that make their job slightly different than [the job of] the white

person sitting next to them,” Hobson explains. “It’s about what is your voice, what do you owe your community, what unique constituency do you have to deal with and worry about?”

Hobson and Rogers return repeatedly to themes of diversity, in companies they target for investment, in companies they represent, in matters of financial literacy, and in Chicago itself. They press the argument that diversity — of race, gender, ethnicity, and experience — is good for business and essential for the body politic. As Rogers puts it, “When I see pictures of these corporations where there’s like 12 white guys running it, it’s incomprehensible to me. How does this happen?”

Ariel is successful by any conventional measure, but Hobson, who sees her very public work as a chance “to move the needle in terms of economic parity in this country,” says she is far from satisfied. “There are 9,000 mutual funds, about 500 in the newspaper every day. We’re still the only minority firm in the newspaper. Some people would think we’d be beating our chests over that, but it disappoints us. It just shows us how far we have to go in this society.”

Hobson says she works six or seven days a week, but to her co-workers, she emphasizes that a complete life involves more than buying sleeker suits or a vacation house, a theme that connects with her community and political efforts. “We are perfectionists. We want to do well and we like to win,” Hobson says with a fervor that makes clear she means it. “But we also have this mission that can take us to this next level, which makes it not just about us. I always tell people here that it’s nice to make a good living, but one day you wake up and it’s kind of not enough.”

Kevann Cooke recognizes that point. After Stanford Law School, she spent a half-dozen years at a pair of Chicago law firms, where one assignment took her to Washington to work for the House Ethics Committee during its investigation of Speaker Jim Wright. She followed her boss, Richard J. Phelan, into Cook County government, where she helped lead a badly needed overhaul of Chicago’s juvenile justice system, which disproportionately affects black youth.

Later, at Aon Corporation, a large Chicago insurer, she served as chief compliance officer, but she recently left to help the city lobby for the 2016 Olympics, which she believes would be a boon for her hometown. Cooke serves on the board of a charter school on the city’s impoverished West Side, where students “have shown us if they have the right resources, good teachers, a good curriculum, and a good program, they can do as well as anyone else.”

Fairley, who arrived in Chicago just four years ago, talks passionately about her new career in the U.S. attorney’s office headed by Patrick Fitzgerald, best known as the special counsel in the CIA leak case. Her work and her colleagues make her “really proud of the federal system,” she says. Outside work, the onetime Triangle, McCarter, and Theatre Intime actor joined the board of Steppenwolf Theater and the women’s board of the Chicago Art Institute.

When Michelle Obama asked herself what would be satisfying enough, she was working long hours as a young associate at a Chicago law firm. She had jumped to Harvard Law School from Princeton, where she had set up an after-school program at the Third World Center — now the Carl A. Fields Center — after seeing a single mother struggle to find good care for her son. Then came a prestigious but uninspiring job at Sidley Austin’s law office downtown, which helped repay her student loans but spoke little to her soul.

The year was 1990, and much was on her mind. Her father had died and so had one of her Princeton roommates, Suzanne Alele ’85, who was just 25 when she lost a fight with cancer. Michelle Robinson also had become serious about one Barack Obama, who introduced her to community organizing among Chicago’s urban poor.

“I was confronted for the first time in my life with the fact that nothing was really guaranteed,” Michelle Obama recalls. “One of the things I remembered about Suzanne is she always made decisions that would make her happy and create a level of fulfillment. I needed to figure out what I really loved.”

Obama soon quit Sidley to work in the Daley administration, then moved into nonprofit work as executive director of the new Chicago office of Public Allies, a leadership development program that trains young people through internships at nonprofit organizations. She volunteered to lead the citizens advisory committee of the Chicago Transit Authority. Since 1996 she has worked at the University of Chicago — during the campaign, she has cut back her hours as a university hospitals vice president, a position in which she was making about $275,000 a year. She sits on the boards of the Muntu Dance Theater and the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, which Rogers and Cooke attended.

Princeton often figures into the stump speech Michelle Obama gives to boisterous crowds around the country. It is typically an impassioned rendition, alternately humorous and lofty, of her life story and the qualities of the man she married. She often starts with her time in Chicago’s public schools as the daughter of a blue-collar city worker.

At Princeton, where she followed her brother by two years, she wrote her senior sociology thesis on race, titling it “Princeton-Educated Blacks and the Black Community.”

“One of the points I was making, which is a reality for black folks in majority-white environments, is it is a very isolating experience. Period. The question is how do people deal with that isolation,” she says now. “Does it make you cling more to your own community or does it make you try to assimilate more?”

As an adult, working in public, private, and political worlds, Obama emphasizes the nuts and bolts of her undergraduate thinking, while also talking of grander goals that infuse Team Obama’s quest. She issues a challenge, equally to Chicago, to elite universities, and the nation: “It is incumbent on us, whether we are in city government or sitting around the corporate boardroom or in policy or education, to have critical masses of diverse voices at the table.

“At many of the top universities, we still struggle with that. ... The question for Princeton is what does the ratio of underrepresented minority students look like today? What about faculty? What about top administrators? Those are the questions we have to continue to ask as a country.”

These days, the alumni are trying to make sure those questions get asked in the White House. Cooke is calling friends; McBride is breaking with his own history and writing checks, saying, “It’s been a while since I’ve actually given money to a political campaign. This one, I couldn’t help myself, and I’ll probably be giving again.”

Leading the way, Rogers and Hobson are working their sprawling, interconnected networks, urging hundreds of friends, acquaintances and colleagues to contribute. In addition to promoting a string of Chicago fundraisers, they cajoled backers to Princeton Sept. 5 for a fundraiser hosted by, among others, Princeton professor Cornel West *80, who introduced Michelle Obama to the audience.

“There is no one we won’t call,” says Hobson, who held her first fundraiser for Obama more than 10 years ago in an apartment so small that she had to move the furniture into the hall. “This is important to us. It’s important to me. It’s important to our country. It’s our time, and I don’t think you have a lot of those in your lifetime.”

Peter Slevin ’78 is the Chicago bureau chief of The Washington Post.