There is no modern-day precedent for how to manage through a global pandemic. Famed economist Nassim Taleb would call this a true "black swan" event—named for the bird that is rare but real. Today, we sit in the rarest and realest of moments, searching for a collective way forward.
In order to look forward, we find ourselves looking backward for insight, inspiration and instruction. In 1904, retail great Marshall Field said, "Chicago commerce will be fundamental to every other good thing that Chicago will ever enjoy. We may talk of civic good, we may talk of our hospitals, of our museums, of our art galleries, our schools, our philanthropic institutions—all of these things are good, but not one would live if we did not find the wherewithal to support them in the fruits of commerce itself."
We believe Marshall Field was right then, and he is right now. Business will be essential to the economic recovery of our city. While government must lead us through the pandemic response, business will need to lead us out. The good news is that Chicago's business community is like no other. Civic mindedness is in the DNA of our commercial collective. This orientation dates back generations. Our involvement is both sought and expected.
Our modern-day Fields include Chicagoans like Lester Crown, George Johnson, Andy McKenna, Cindy Pritzker, Pat Ryan, Ned Janotta and Jim O'Connor, as well as the late John Bryan and John Johnson, whom we miss. These titans leveraged their success for the benefit of our city. Millennium Park—the largest open-lands project in a major city in a generation—exists because John Bryan tapped into a lifetime of relationships to raise nearly half-a-billion dollars in a public/private partnership.
Now, as key drivers of our economic engine, we must lean into a formidable and new challenge. In order to be effective, we believe a business task force should be created to work hand-in-hand with our city and state governments to develop a thoughtful, feasible and effective recovery plan. Moreover, as business leaders, we should have a uniquely focused mindset on local spending when seeking goods or services. In so doing, our own dollars will be able to recirculate in our own region. Lastly, with over 70 percent of our population represented by people of color, we must be deliberate in our outreach and consideration of the minority-owned businesses that are being decimated in real time. Our city cannot survive, let alone thrive, without strong communities of color.
Everyone and every institution has a role—from large corporations, to smaller entrepreneurial efforts like our own, to the anchor institutions represented by our universities, foundations and cultural organizations that are businesses in their own right.
While this health and financial crisis has been a harrowing time, we are optimistic because we believe the people of Chicago have what we need to recover—a shared love of our city and a will to get things done. We are all in this together.
Written by John W. Rogers Jr. and Mellody Hobson. John W. Rogers Jr is chairman, chief investment officer and co-CEO and Mellody Hobson is president and co-CEO of Ariel Investments in Chicago. Originally published in Crain’s Chicago Business on May 8, 2020.