Separating the good from the great
It’s not difficult to find an impressive young African-American executive in Atlanta. This is, after all, the well-established Mecca of black excellence. And so there is always a rising crop of leaders giving momentum to social change, economic growth, community activism and political progress. Sometimes you see them, as success is ushering them into the forefront of their industries and casting a light on their efforts. But, more often than not, they are working in the background … still establishing, still gleaning while making the change you see — and separating the good from the great.
Qaadirah Abdur-Rahim | Change Agent
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. Over the last 12 years as CEO, Abdur-Rahim has grown a team of two to a staff of 40, 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. All in all, her strategizing has produced.
Abdur-Rahim grew up in Atlanta’s South Side — attending low-performing public schools before matriculating at 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.
After earning a master’s degree, she 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 from a small afterschool program into a phenomenon that brings together the non-profit, business, and government sectors to empower resilient youth.
Abur-Rahim’s organizational “Theory of Change” addresses 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.”
“Understanding the world is rapidly changing and success is occurring across broader business ecosystems, I pushed our board to reexamine our strategy. 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.”
Jamel DaCosta | Purpose Driven
St. Francis of Assisi once asked to be “blessed with discomfort at easy answers, half-truths, and superficial relationships … anger at injustice, oppression, and exploitation, so that we may work for justice, freedom, and peace … and just enough foolishness to believe that we can make a difference in the world.” It is against this pillar of reference that Jamel M. DaCosta says he finds himself — navigating between the junctures of contentment and audacity in the midst of purpose. “I speak to my mentors, sometimes daily, to discuss my future plans, to share my goals and to get asked the difficult questions. Through those conversations I know if my desires are genuine or if they are for self. So, I know when my ambition isn’t a desire to be exalted but to be informed, to support a cause that I’m passionate about, and to offer any assistance that I can.”
Howard University-groomed and University of Georgia Terry College of Business-molded, DaCosta has spent the last decade working as a finance analyst with one of the nation’s largest energy companies, the fourth largest retailer, and currently MARTA, where he has been involved in the research and financial analysis of transit-oriented development projects as well as developing MARTA’s 10-year, $2 billion capital plan.
His position at the turnstile of Atlanta’s operational, development and infrastructure sectors has ushered him into civic conversations and roles that require his leadership and acumen: In 2011, Atlanta City Councilwomen Felicia Moore, tapped him to serve on the City of Atlanta’s Elected Officials Compensation Committee as co-chair, and he currently serves on the executive board of the Atlanta Chapter of the National Black MBA Association as director of Community Affairs.
Service to the community is the cornerstone of generational connection, he asserts. “Whether we are spending time with elders with Meals on Wheels Atlanta, building a home with Habitat for Humanity, or handing out toiletries with the DeKalb Kids Project, when you are in the community there is a transfer of knowledge that takes place and you are able to have a better perspective of older/younger generations alike. When we continue to commit to our communities, our perspective of humanity evolves and our appreciation for one another deepens.”
Meredith Lilly | Taking a Gamble
Meredith Lilly has several choice words for the woman she is becoming: “Think big, work smarter and take measured, calculated risks.”
Risk and eventual reward have become the operating motifs for the attorney-turned community organizer and political director. She gets it from her grandfather.
“During one of my last conversations with my grandfather, who was 100 years old, he talked to me about how much he enjoyed his life and did everything he ever wanted to do. I think that conversation validated my sense of intentional living and, in a sense, gave me permission to bet on me. I strongly believe in taking short-term loss for long-term gain. Almost everything that I’ve done in life that has paid off successfully, has cost me something.”
Her cost-benefit analysis, she gets from her legal background and successfully running her own law firm after graduating from the Thurgood Marshall School of Law in Houston. And in 2007, being true to herself – she left it all behind to go work for the historic Obama for America Campaign, where the Alabama native started out her campaign career handing out fliers, making campaign calls and putting up campaign signs in Portsmouth, N.H. She then served as a regional political director, managing multiple campaign offices in several states across the nation. And in 2008, she received a presidential appointment as the senior advisor to the regional administrator of the United States General Services Administration in Atlanta – without question, it was the best risk she says she had ever taken.
Then, there’s the reward. She was selected as state director of Obama for America-Georgia in April 2012.
Since, she has been called upon to manage the campaigns of Mereda Johnson, Doreen Carter, and Mike Thurmond. Most recently, Lilly managed a successful congressional re-election campaign for Congressman Hank Johnson. Prior to this, she successfully led Kasim Reed’s 2013 re-election bid for Mayor of Atlanta as campaign manager.
In her current role, Lilly serves as DeKalb County’s external affairs manager in CEO Michael Thurmond’s administration where she focuses on constituent services and community-based engagement — all feeding into another motif she espouses: “See a need, meet a need.”
“The love for people and community motivates me. As I reflect on the things I hope to accomplish, I recognize that this is only the beginning. We are here for a purpose and until I’ve reached that point where my spirit directs me to do something else, I will pursue what needs to be done.”