He seems to own any room he enters. With his boisterous and booming voice, “Cheshire cat” smile, and colorful suits, without knowing Farad Ali, you might assume that he was born into a privileged life. But you’d be wrong.
“I didn’t know I was poor, but I was poor,” Ali said. “I was born into an eclectic family, taught to understand the grit and grind of life; I saw things that little kids don’t usually see growing up – tragedy, drugs, AIDS, murder, prostitution, effects of the penal system.”
A Native New Yorker, Ali was born in Brooklyn in the 1960’s to a mother from a small South Carolina town where his grandmother was a domestic worker who picked cotton and grandfather was an uneducated farmer, and a father who grew up in the inner city and was no stranger to a “rough environment.” He fondly remembers that through their life struggles, there was a place for good jazz, lots of family, and love in his upbringing, and that his parents always put others first.
“Mom and Dad really taught me how to do for others before you do for yourself,” he said. “The lesson of family, of being supportive of one another was so evident to me at a young age because of their example. We are all just passing through this station, and they instilled in me the importance of selflessness.”
Ali’s life changed when IBM opened in their community, providing opportunity for his grandmother, aunt, and other family members to gain sustainable employment and better their lives. “This company coming into the hood and being responsible for community economic development. It changed my life, my family, and how I think about ensuring people can thrive,” he said. “It offered a sense of pride, a chance to do and see and be more than we were before – to be in a world we never thought possible.”
The change sparked more opportunity, and Ali’s mother became a cosmetologist and opened a salon.They were able to purchase a house, and the trickle effect spread through the family. “A job leads to housing, leads to building real wealth, and then the next generation goes to college and things start to happen for the entire family – it opens a door that where I’m from isn’t ever open,” he said.
When Ali was in middle school, his family moved to Durham, close to Hope Valley. He recalls being naturally athletic, making diverse friends, and credits a lot of his success in life to Durham Public Schools.
“I made relationships, and had mentors, through the public school system I never would have had if we didn’t relocate,” he said. “I got a chance to see for myself the next level of upward mobility, going to school with affluent students who had college ambitions, went on summer vacations, and be coached by inspirational teachers, all while still being the kid who could co-relate on the edge of the community.”
Now an experienced finance and business professional, Ali looks back on yet another opportunity he was provided access to as the reason for his success. “I was recruited by INROADS (a nonprofit that helps businesses gain greater access to diverse talent through continuous leadership development of outstanding ethnically diverse students) in high school, and it was critical for me, opening doors that would never have been otherwise,” he said. “I was able to interview for a position that highlighted my math skills in banking and got a job at BB&T, working every summer there.”
It’s no surprise once you hear his story why Ali has dedicated his life to making a difference through economic development, as the opportunities that business leaders have given him have literally changed his life.
“I am the product of good policy, investment in education, and those in power recognizing where to help,” he said. Because Ali sees the connectivity at play when people are given the opportunity to be their best, he thinks it’s important to maximize that to help others, and that work fuels his passion.
Ali thinks it’s critically important that we understand the people we are working with to be able to invest in them, and he is committed to this mindset.
“It saddens me to see policy and structure and people who don’t always act in the best interest of everyone – poverty isn’t a character issue. It’s a cash issue. I want to help people see that,” he said. “We want the best encounters in everything in our lives, why don’t we have the same passion for people? We are humans, let’s be humans for each other.”
Ali has served on the Foundation’s Board since 2015 and will take the helm as Board Chair on July 1.