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Darren Walker: A Serendipitous Climb to the Top

Darren Walker

Darren Walker, ’86, attributes his journey into the world of philanthropy to serendipity, but with years of hard work and dedication — from Wall Street to Harlem to Midtown Manhattan — Walker has proven that drive, determination and passion for public service can, and will, carry you to a career at the top.

This summer, Walker was named the 10th president of the Ford Foundation, the second largest philanthropic organization in the United States with more than $11 billion in assets and $500 million in annual giving. And as he gave his first remarks as president, he said: “I must say, the first time I walked into our iconic headquarters as an employee of the Ford Foundation, I not only knew that my life had changed; I knew that I had found my way home.”

Looking back on your degree from UT, what are you most proud of?

One of the things you realize when you live in New York is how great it is to have a degree from a great public university.

In the northeast, private schools (and particular Ivy League schools) often produce the leaders of many institutions, and so I am often the only person in the room who is a graduate of a public institution, and that is because there is a greater reliance on those private schools for leaders. We don’t have that tradition in Texas, which I think is good.

People will often assume things about me. For example, I was speaking at a meeting and someone referred to me and my time at Yale. I said: “I didn’t attend Yale, I attended UT Austin,” and he was surprised. I think it is so interesting and it demonstrates the bias toward private institutions. This is something I think all of us in society should be mindful of and why excellent public universities and excellent public law schools are such hugely important assets in our society and our democracy and why I am so passionate about the idea of public education.

And it’s true: I have never attended a day of private school in my life.

Friends and colleagues say you “get things done.” What’s your approach to getting things done, and why is it something to be appreciated in your new role?

If I have a bias, it’s toward execution and getting things done. Sometimes we can be a little too passionate about ideas and not passionate enough about execution. I’m just as passionate about execution as I am about ideas.

And in philanthropy, we can sometimes spend too much time conceptualizing, framing issues and debating ideas and interventions. I often have to remind my colleagues that at the end of the day, we have to execute; we have to make things happen on the ground in the communities where the Ford Foundation works and around the world.

How do you approach challenges in your career?

You have to think about a consistent message you want to project about yourself — professionally and career wise. And of all the challenges I have faced, if I have overcome them, it is because I remind myself of that.

It’s really important to always do your best work, and it’s really important to have people think well of you along the way. What’s happened in my life repeatedly, is that people I have known long ago have come to my aide or advocated for me at critical points, and I think it’s because I demonstrated a work ethic and commitment they appreciated.

I also don’t really think about things as barriers; I think about them as opportunities. There certainly have been some challenges along the way, but I have been on this magical journey that has been transformative for me personally, and it has given me life experiences and exposed me to remarkable, amazing people on every continent.

If you could give a piece of advice to young attorneys, what would it be?

My career advice may sound trite, but it’s true — work in a place or a field in which you have great passion and it will be transformative. To actually get up and come to work and be excited about what you’re doing is what we all strive for in our careers. I am very fortunate to have that. Follow your passion and let passion and commitment to social justice and social change guide your career decisions and your life choices and you will be happy.

For me, I didn’t. When I left law school, I was on the corporate side. I always had an interest in social justice issues, but I knew I had to make money after graduation; it was that simple. I came from a family that was low income and I knew I had obligations and that was my priority. But the idea of piling up money was never something I was interested in doing, and so I think I was able to find a way to have my avocation become my vocation, and for that I am immensely fortunate.

What other wisdom would you share with young alumni?

Don’t worry about being a lawyer. Go to law school, but don’t think of yourself in a narrow box of being a lawyer. When I was in law school, there were one or two pathways that one thought about after graduation — work in the private sector at the big law firms, or public sector in government. But now, you don’t even have to work as a lawyer; it’s quite nice.

If you think you have other interests you want to pursue, pursue them as soon as you can because the longer you are in a specialized field, the harder it is to transition out of it mid-career.

I hear from a lot of friends and former colleagues 20 years after they made partner who are thinking about doing something non-legal, and making that transition is much harder than when you’re three or four years out of
law school.

How do you stay humble and true to your upbringing?

For me, I am immensely blessed. I have a life I could never imagined having when I was a young boy in Ames, Texas.

I am close enough to my family and to the work I do that it keeps me humble, especially when visiting slums like Dharavi in Mumbai and Kibera in Nairobi. Seeing the resilience in people who face barriers to realizing their potential — which in many ways takes away their dignity — yet they still persevere with courage and determination; I am humbled by that. When I see that, it reminds me of my own privilege and it reminds me of the abundance that I have relative to most people in the world and it grounds me.

— Marjorie Smith

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