Abdur-Rahim’s story is one of convergence, of different directions coming together, aligning and moving her — the professional and the woman from East Point — further ahead to fulfill a purpose-driven life. Occasionally, it might have seemed that she was in the right place at the right time, but it’s not at all a matter of luck. Rather, it’s required difficult decisions, hard work and resolve.
But throughout there’s been a thread of serendipity woven by a higher purpose that’s supplanted her success and her desire to live a meaningful existence. And for Abdur-Rahim, success is an evolving state of being, defined and measured not in traditional terms, but through the success of those around her. By any definition, it's easy to see Abdur-Rahim as a tremendous success — Goizueta graduate, community leader and CEO of a thriving nonprofit to list a few reasons. What’s not apparent are the challenges she’s had along the way and the lessons that have accompanied them.
Years ago, in preparation for classes at UC Berkeley, she took a pre-college course and recalls stumbling over some pre-algebra problems, which for other incoming freshmen might have been considered basic math. Someone, upon noticing her struggle, asked, “How did you even get here?” It really hit her hard. Beyond the emotional sting, it hurt because she felt so unprepared academically for the educational journey she was about to embark on. But she persisted and earned her degree. More enduring than that piece of paper was the realization of how inadequately her school experience had prepared her for higher learning.
After returning to Georgia, she was hired as a program manager for the Future Foundation, an organization providing quality education, health and life skills programs to Metro Atlanta youth. Abdur-Rahim’s role was to build the after-school program for fourth and fifth graders on a budget of $230,000. Her brother, who founded the Future Foundation and remains integral as its visionary, asked, “What's going to happen to the kids after they finish the program?” And so prompted, they decided to expand. Almost in parallel with that expansive goal, Abdur-Rahim found herself in a position to lead that expansion when the CEO of the Future Foundation departed a mere year after Abdur-Rahim’s arrival. Again faced with a daunting road ahead — perhaps somewhat darkened with a familiar shadow of self-doubt — she took on the title of CEO. Yet, she took heart in the departing CEO’s encouragement: “You can do this.” With the new role and a new goal, Abdur-Rahim came to understand that what the Future Foundation offered youth had to be more comprehensive than simply education. Expanding their programs would require more financial resources. So by 2007, they quadrupled the amount of money received by bringing in $1.7 million in grant dollars, which enabled her to hire 25 staffers and open a teen center. As the Foundation grew, so did the challenges of operating a nonprofit business.
Like the trials earlier, however, these pushed Abdur-Rahim, expanded her and helped her grow into the leader she was meant to become. In parallel, she was selected for LEAD Atlanta, where she met Melissa Minihan, who suggested Abdur-Rahim apply to Goizueta. It was the right suggestion at the right time. Adding to that serendipity was the fact that during LEAD Atlanta she was assigned a mentor that was the president of a Fortune 500 subsidiary who helped her navigate a foreign and competitive executive business setting at Goizueta. The rigorous academic experience enabled Abdur-Rahim to better lead the Future Foundation, while also giving herself options as a professional. In her own words, “my MBA provided strategy for the Future Foundation and diversified career options for myself.”
"The academics helped me with the business side of the nonprofit,” Abdur-Rahim reflected, “while the adversities helped me grow as a leader.” Seen broadly, the story of her leadership of the Future Foundation is concurrently a story of self-discovery. Abdur-Rahim has come to understand her purpose: applying a synthesis of business acumen and community involvement to eliminate the social blight of generational poverty through education and empowerment strategies. She’s also come to accept her journey and find solace in the truth that “my business mind and social heart is divinely developed to transform communities.” Hearing the conviction in her voice and the passion behind her words, you can tell it’s not simply a statement; it’s a heartfelt belief.
“If my ego took control and guided my actions and decisions,” she said, “I might very well be chasing a meaningless job with specific salary requirements.” But instead, she’s a social strategist guiding a growing grassroots organization that’s providing for thousands of kids and supporting “transformational work in my old community. …When you accept the higher purpose in things, it all manifests.”
The Future Foundation’s approach to ameliorating poverty is more akin to Amazon, AirBnB and other disruptive business than you’d think. Rather than creating its own loosely formulated (albeit altruistic) goals and working to attain them — perhaps par for the course for some nonprofits — the Future Foundation disrupts by seeking “the beauty of collaboration.” How can strategies align among schools, nonprofits, government and business? How can carefully constructed ecosystems make the most of existing resources in communities of need? How can the nonprofit industry use big data to end poverty? These are the questions that Abdur-Rahim is asking and seeking to answer through the Future Foundation’s business-minded, data-driven, grassroots approach to eliminating poverty through education and involvement.
The graduation rate of one high school serviced by the Future Foundation had hovered around 50 percent for 20 years. After five years of some coordinated resources and other community involvement, however, 78 percent of high schoolers now graduate. Abdur-Rahim led a collaborative process to develop a strategy that aims to provide academic support and life skills guidance to middle and high school students in Georgia’s lowest-performing school clusters. Eventually, it can be replicated to support underserved students across the country. The aim of this effort was to empower them to graduate high school, succeed in college and create a bright future for themselves. More than simply help individuals beat the odds, this approach breaks the cycle of poverty in communities where the population has been in poverty for 20 plus consecutive years. “That’s where the focus needs to be,” she said, “along with strategically coordinated resources that can support the thousands of students in those school clusters. And when the focus is there, fantastic things happen — measurably fantastic things.” For example, the graduation rate of one high school serviced by the Future Foundation had hovered around 50 percent for 20 years. After five years of some coordinated resources and other community involvement, however, 78 percent of high schoolers now graduate. But it comes back to collaboration and the Future Foundation serves as its epicenter. Aligning schools, nonprofits, government and businesses, Abdur-Rahim believed, “creates an ecosystem that can fundamentally change impoverished communities.” The greater beauty of it is that these ecosystems are replicable, exponentially increasing the good done by Abdur-Rahim and the Future Foundation. “This,” Abdur-Rahim said, “is the change that I want to see in the world.” And you can bet she’s going to be a part of it.