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Ford Foundation's Darren Walker was born in poverty, and now leads an organization worth billions

Darren Walker, head of the Ford Foundation.
CNBC
Darren Walker, head of the Ford Foundation.


The key to understanding this moment in American history—in black history—is empathy.

That's what Darren Walker is saying. One could argue that if anyone is positioned to understand this dizzying landscape, he is.

Walker grew up poor in rural Texas, became one of the first kids in the Head Start program, and made it big on Wall Street in the 1980s. Yet his true calling was even bigger: He's now president at the Ford Foundation, an $11.2 billion philanthropic giant that's aiming to address social justice and inequality around the globe.

In the first episode of February, Black History Month, Fortt Knox invites you to listen in on a conversation with a unique American leader who happens to be black. Walker recently made Fast Company's list of the Most Creative People in Business, and there are no shortage of reasons why.

To start, his background as an African American and a businessman gives him a unique perspective on mending the rifts in our culture and economy. He speaks with equal passion about his gratitude for the opportunities he's had as an American in this era, and the dangerous threat that income inequality poses to continued progress.

He declares that black lives matter, while shining a light on the concerns of Rust Belt whites.
"People like you and me, who are black, sometimes need to put ourselves in the shoes of white people, to understand what may be happening to them," he told Fortt Knox.

"I think that's part of the political phenomenon that we're seeing now. Because I think that there are many white Americans—upstanding, outstanding citizens—who are hurting, and they don't feel that the system is working for them," Walker said.

Here are some of the incisive thoughts Walker shared about having an impact for good in tense times.

Stay Grounded

"The experience of my family today keeps me grounded. When I have seven of my male cousins who have served time in state penitentiaries, one of whom killed himself in a county jail, I stay grounded because I'm connected to them," Walker said.

That carries over into how he plans his itinerary as president of the Ford Foundation. When he visits a city like Lagos in Nigeria, he visits both the ambassador and the Makoko slum.

The poverty provides a reality check, but so does the resilience of its people. The takeaway: If you want to help people, you have to have perspective to see beyond their strife and into their strength.

Even Mandela was once a risky bet

Long before Darren Walker dreamt of making a difference, the Ford Foundation was making bold bets on ideas that were controversial. In the mid-1960s, a group of Mexican Americans asked the foundation to help them form an organization to help their community find a voice.

Those efforts became the National Council of La Raza.

Even bolder: the foundation poured money into understanding Apartheid in South Africa when it first emerged in the late 1950s, paying for black students there to leave and explain their plight around the world.

At the time, "Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo were enemies of the state," Walker reminded Fortt Knox.

The Ford Foundation's guiding rule is to put money behind institutions, ideas and individuals. If the ideas are valuable, the institutions are promising and the individuals are trustworthy, there's an opportunity to make a difference.

Technology and youth are game changers

As has been seen in recent weeks, it's far easier than it's ever been to organize a massive crowd.

"You can in one day mobilize 100,000 people. I would have taken months to mobilize 100,000 people. It took Dr. [Martin Luther] King years to get to the point of being able to have that march," Walker said.

Also: Young people aren't so attached to the idea of hierarchical leadership.

Perhaps the two phenomena are related. When you can start a movement over a couple of weekends in a Facebook group, does it really matter if there's a president and a corresponding secretary?

So where does all that leave the public during this fractured moment on the global stage?

"I think we are absolutely in a rough spot," Walker told Fortt Knox. "But I am more hopeful today than I have ever been."

Fortt Knox is a weekly podcast from CNBC anchor Jon Fortt. Previous episodes of the program can be found here.