From basketball to business: Alumnus reflects on time at Lab after successes


Midway Staff

John Rogers, the founder, chairman and co-CEO of the nation’s largest minority-run mutual aid fund, reflects on his experience at U-High. After graduating in 1976, Mr. Rogers played college basketball for Princeton University.

“Don’t be mad at me; I’m just too good for you,” Michael Jordan joked after defeating multiple businessmen at the Senior Flight School in 2003. “What, y’all think I had this camp just so y’all could beat me?”

Michael Jordan, the living basketball giant, was still speaking when John W. Rogers Jr. started his attack. Two hard dribbles and a slight fake-out later, the basketball hit the backboard and slipped into the net. The crowd burst into cheers and applause. After two tiebreakers, Mr. Rogers won that one-on-one game 3-2.

When Mr. Rogers faced Michael Jordan that day, he was confident and persistent. During the 2008 financial crisis, he didn’t back down either, continuing to buy stocks and shares to prepare for the market’s recovery, while other companies bailed and sold.

Before he became the founder, chairman and co-CEO of Ariel Investments, the nation’s largest minority-run mutual fund firm, Mr. Rogers was a mentor and basketball player, who graduated from U-High in 1976 and credits his U-High education with cultivating his values and thinking.

“I learned to think independently,” Mr. Rogers said. “I learned how important it is to think critically about the things that you’re studying. It’s so important to believe what the University [of Chicago] stands for; it’s a place that believes in rigorous inquiry, and rigorous debate, independent thinking.”

He also believes that Lab helped foster his appreciation for diversity.

“We respect people who have different points of view,” he said. “You have a very diverse student body, and people bring different perspectives and different points of view, and I learned to respect people who had all different types of ideas.”

Throughout high school and college, Mr. Rogers played basketball, and after graduating from Princeton University in 1980, he worked for William Blair & Company, an investment bank and financial services company. In 1983, at age 25, Mr. Rogers opened his own firm with financial support from friends and family.

Amy Ren

Mr. Rogers and Ariel Capital Management, now Ariel Investments, faced some difficulties at its inception.

“One was I didn’t have a track record,” Mr. Rogers said. “It took a while to develop that track record so that people would be confident and comfortable giving you money to manage for them.”

Additionally, Mr. Rogers said that being the first African American money manager and mutual fund manager in American history was also difficult.

“Often decision-makers weren’t comfortable, weren’t used to working with a Black money manager,” Mr. Rogers said, “so that was challenging.”

Despite how far he’s come, Mr. Rogers remains conscious of his roots as a former Lab student. Though he transferred to Lab as a ninth grader, he recognizes how much his U-High education has impacted him.

“I would have never been able to go to Princeton, I wouldn’t have been able to be prepared to start Ariel, if it wasn’t for my Lab School education,” Mr. Rogers said. “It changed my life.”

Along with preparing him to succeed academically, Mr. Rogers said his U-High education established lifelong friendships.

One of these friends is Arne Duncan, a 1982 U-High alumnus, a managing partner at Emerson Collective and U.S. Secretary of Education from 2009-2016. Throughout their 45 years of friendship, Mr. Duncan has admired Mr. Rogers for his kindness and generosity, and although they were six years apart in age, Lab’s interconnectedness allowed their friendship to grow.

“He was the star of the high school basketball team, and I was still in middle school,” Mr. Duncan said, “so he was like my Michael Jordan before there was a Michael Jordan. He was my big hero and I followed him around, like a puppy dog; I sort of forced him to take me under his wing.”

After Mr. Duncan graduated from Harvard College, he played professional basketball for four years in Australia. However, he returned to America because Mr. Rogers, who stayed a close friend, offered him a job opportunity: to run the Ariel Education Initiative. Mr. Duncan managed the “I Have a Dream Foundation,” a program that supported middle school students and paid for their college education if they graduated high school.

“There are so many kids we’ve grown up with, who have done well and never had the chance to go to college,” Mr. Duncan said, “so John’s money and resources enabled us to make that commitment, which was game-changing.”

Mr. Rogers and Mr. Duncan also started their own small public school in partnership with Ariel Investments, the Ariel Community Academy, which has a financial literacy focus.

“It’s so important for kids and families to understand that, which was John’s brilliant idea: Let’s just create a great public school that builds upon all the work that Ariel is committed to, which is really financial empowerment,” Mr. Duncan said, “and helping people become financially independent and be able to retire and enjoy their retirement years and not that poverty on their lives.”

Despite his success and reach, Mr. Rogers stays down-to-earth.

“John treats everybody the same, and he’s low-key. He’s really humble. He’s obviously incredibly smart and incredibly driven,” Mr. Duncan said. “But the same way he would have talked to the students here at Lab, I guarantee you that’s how he talks to extraordinarily successful CEOs and how he talks to people who you might run into on the street, at McDonald’s, who are down on their luck. Everyone sees the same John. You don’t see different Johns in different settings, and that’s a rare attribute.”

Still, decades after graduating, Mr. Rogers emphasizes how transformative his U-High education was.

“I truly believe Lab is an extraordinarily special place. There’s no other school like it in the world, and I so appreciate my education,” Mr. Rogers said. “I so appreciate the great teachers that I had and great friends that I developed. It’s really a magical place.”

Although Mr. Rogers’s name was painted on the basketball court in Upper Kovler in 2012, some students may not fully recognize his legacy.

“I think it’s so important for kids to not just think that’s some name on a wood floor,” Mr. Duncan said, “but to really understand who the person is and not just understand how successful he’s been, but the why, and what he stands for and what his values are. I think he’s a living giant.”