Qaadirah Abdur-Rahim: Change Agent
By Katrice L. Mines
Qaadirah Abdur-Rahim considers herself a status-quo disruptor. Add to that: visionary, strategist, coach, collaborative leader and mentor, and you have a precise character sketch of the Future Foundation’s CEO. If anyone needs facts and figures, she’s got them. Over the past 12 years as CEO, Abdur-Rahim has grown a team of two to a staff of 40, recruited more than 30 board members, and raised $25 million-plus in revenue to service four locations and 11,000 students.
It all began with two simple goals of learning as much as she could and working hard every day. “Those two idealistic goals evolved into more formal goals like increase revenue, increase the number of children served and go to business school,” she says. All in all, her strategizing has produced.
Abdur-Rahim grew up in Atlanta’s South Side, East Point, and College Park — one of five siblings attending low-performing public schools. Seizing what she describes as the opportunity of a lifetime, she attended the University of California, Berkeley, on an athletic scholarship. But while she ran track, Abdur-Rahim struggled academically, insufficiently prepared for higher education by sub-par local schools. The struggle, however, fueled her to dig in even deeper.
The former U.S. Air Force Reservist earned a bachelor’s degree in social work before going on to the University of California San Francisco where she earned a master’s degree. She then returned to her hometown of Atlanta to make an impact on kids like her. Joining the Future Foundation as a program director, Abdur-Rahim grew the organization founded by Shareef Abdur-Rahim, an East Point youth who went on to stardom in the NBA — from a small afterschool program into a phenomenon that brings together the nonprofit, business, and government sectors to empower resilient youth.
“I have always imagined myself using my career to help people. I am happy about where I am professionally and completely excited about the position I am in to do more,” Abdur-Rahim says. “I continue to have the most enriching development experience leading and significantly growing a start-up nonprofit. People mention all the time [that] I can go and do anything and make significantly more money working in different sectors. However, over the last six months it’s become so clear I am being led by a higher power and purpose to work in the non-profit sector.”
A Georgia Education Policy Fellow, Abdur-Rahim has been named one of America’s Leaders of Change by the Urban Fellows Program and earned an MBA at Emory University’s Goizueta Business School. Moreover, she has developed a “Theory of Change” to address how poverty can be disrupted and alleviated anywhere by giving children access to family, education, health, relationship and life skill support, creating what she calls a “second family environment.”
Future Foundation participants have a 100 percent high school graduation rate, compared to 70 percent of their peers.
So, what’s next for the Future Foundation? Of course … increase.
Abdur-Rahim recently led its board of directors through a strategy development process that fundamentally shifts the vision of Future Foundation to explicitly move from individual-level impact to more system-level impact. The shift to a system-level focus is to disrupt poverty by coordinating multi-sector resources to improve the high school graduation rates of historically low performing feeder patterns across the state of Georgia. “Understanding the world is rapidly changing and success is occurring across broader business ecosystems, I pushed our board to reexamine our strategy. Our new strategy allows us to scale our work and provide thought leadership in the area of creating social by working across sectors. Disrupting business as usual is always a risk and continues to challenge me in ways I never imagined. However, the outcome of stronger communities is worth the challenge and I am up for it.”
The organization launched a new strategic plan in January 2017 that drastically changes its work and requires the organization to grow. On a daily basis, Abdur-Rahim coaches the nonprofit’s senior team around how to continuously communicate the vision across the organization and execute revamped operations to support the strategy.
The update was not without hiccups: In implementing the new strategy, Abdur-Rahim said she set a pace that was too fast for the organization’s partners and internal team. They collaboratively developed the work, but were not communicating enough about the vision, details and expectations. The potential setback was ultimately a valuable lesson. “I learned that it’s not enough to collaboratively lead a process to get buy-in; you need to find creative ways to constantly communicate the shared vision and reinforce the details. We are overcoming the challenge by having a series of ‘heartfelt conversations’ to improve culture internally and build stronger partner relationships.”
Abdur-Rahim continues, “My purpose is centered on being the change I want to see in the world. There are children and adults sitting in poverty stricken communities with the intellect to cure diseases and end global issues like poverty. Yet, they lack the opportunity, access, and exposure to understand their capabilities. As a first generation college graduate and person who grew up in a similar environment, I know firsthand the importance of seeing someone who shares my experience become successful and use their grace and good fortune to empower others. Working in the non-profit sector for me is about surrendering to an inner voice that guides me to live in my purpose.” AT