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Harnessing Education and Entrepreneurship to Give Back to the Community

Ali Imad Fadlallah’s passion for education is not surprising, considering he’s learned firsthand — in both good ways and bad — the power of a quality education.

The son of Lebanese immigrants, Fadlallah was born and raised in Dearborn, Mich., where he witnessed the struggles of his largely immigrant, low-income community in a failing school district.

“I grew up in a very interesting place in that the majority of people I went to school with, who owned small businesses, who were around me, were immigrants, mostly fresh from their homelands — Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Palestine, Yemen — and we were first generation, so navigating that was interesting,” says Fadlallah.

Having earned good grades all the way through elementary, middle and high school, Fadlallah faced a harsh reality upon entering college. “I thought that I was learning and doing well, and then I got to college and realized that I needed remedial support and that I really couldn’t read and write like my peers,” he says. “That lit a fire in me because I was very behind as a student.”

Always with a passion for music, specifically hip-hop, Fadlallah was able to further cultivate this interest as an undergraduate at the University of Minnesota. “They were at the forefront of teaching courses on hip-hop and blending it into the academy,” he says.

After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in English — “At the time, I just knew I loved writing, and that was enough for me,” Fadlallah says of the decision — he taught at a school in Mississippi through Teach for America. This experience prompted his desire to somehow combine education and music.

“By the time I got down South, I was using it in the classroom,” Fadlallah says. “I would bring artists in to lead workshops for my students, and I just grew passionate about this idea of merging the arts into the curriculum, making the classroom experience more hands-on and project-based.”

Feeling he lacked the business knowledge to launch such a venture, he applied to Goizueta Business School at Emory University through The Consortium and, in 2014, graduated from the school’s one-year MBA program. Through his record label RISE Entertainment, Fadlallah now strives to fulfill not only his goal of recording his own music but of giving back to his community.

In addition to his bachelor’s degree and an MBA, he’s earned a master’s in education from the University of Mississippi and a doctorate in education leadership from Harvard University. Currently, Fadlallah also works as a principal consultant for Developing Capacity Coaching, providing consulting and coaching services for organizational leaders.

Fadlallah recently spoke with us about his influences and goals as well as how he works to give back through his professional endeavors.

What effect did your parents have on you with regard to your education and career?

My father was the first Arab-American principal of a high school, and he got a tremendous amount of backlash just for trying to raise standards and expect more of teachers. Watching him fight injustice head-on was something that shaped me.

My mom too was a bold entrepreneur; she used pharmacy school to climb out of poverty and become one of the highest-paid pharmacists in the state of Michigan and then suddenly left [her job], risking it all to launch her own business, Motor City Pharmacy. At first, even my father [was skeptical] but, of course, became her right hand. This business ultimately carried their young family from poverty to prosperity, including subsidizing our education. Their example gave me courage and led me down this path of education and entrepreneurship — and really entertainment as well.

Education, both from a personal and professional perspective, seems to be a big focus of yours. Why is education important to you, and why did it interest you professionally?

I think, in many ways, education is freedom. I don’t like saying “knowledge is power,” because you have to put it into action, but it’s certainly empowering — a necessary first step. It positions us to enact the type of change we want to make — personal and professional.

Also, people say that experience is the best teacher; I do believe that, but I also think there needs to be the right balance between a core foundation of literacy and knowledge — education essentially — and putting that to work through experience. I had tried to start a business and lacked the basic skills and fundamentals to propel myself forward, so that’s where an MBA made a lot of sense for me.

It’s interesting because I have always been nontraditional in that I never really wanted to use my degrees as they were often intended to be used. So, when I got my MBA, for example, I wasn’t much in the game of recruiting with companies. I was mostly looking at two avenues: either entrepreneurship or the doctoral program in education leadership that I ended up doing. I applied to Harvard while I was at Emory. The fact that it was a three-year interdisciplinary, project-based, hands-on type of program made it really attractive to me. It was the right balance between education and experience, theory and practice.

So that’s what really drove your decision to get an MBA? What specifically attracted you to Goizueta Business School?

At the time, I had this vision that I wanted to build a record label but realized I knew nothing about business; I felt intimidated by the whole concept. Some people say to just dive right in. Well, I did that, and again, I would disagree. I think you need a baseline level of knowledge, of business acumen, before you can let experience become your teacher. So that advice isn’t right for everyone, and that’s when I decided I needed an MBA.

[Why I chose] Goizueta in particular was partly for that small student body feel. Business schools tend to fall on the spectrum of the Harvard MBA, which is like 2,000 students a year, to the Stanford MBA, which is like 200 students — far more intimate and places more emphasis on relationship building. Goizueta is definitely more like Stanford, a tight network with more emphasis on social impact. And as somebody interested in entertainment and the arts, Atlanta was attractive to me for that reason. Goizueta was just a great fit all around.

Considering your background and focus on education, is that why The Consortium’s mission really resonated with you?

Very much so. It felt like the business school version … of the type of missions that had attracted me to organizations like Teach for America and [those] that I had volunteered with in college. It was really awesome to know that something like The Consortium existed, an organization that realizes that the work doesn’t stop [with] youth. Minorities as adults continue to need the support, the access, the opportunity that organizations like The Consortium are committed to providing. It fills, what I see, as a tremendous void in the world and in the market.

I should mention that my sister is a current Consortium fellow at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business. The Consortium has been a family for both of us, especially as nontraditional b-school students.

What did you gain from your MBA experience that you use the most in your career today?

We had like a Consortium mixer where I met a graduating student when I was matriculating into Emory. We were talking, and I asked him “what do you feel is the biggest change for you from [when you] started?” and he so confidently answered “confidence.” He elaborated and talked about how, as an entrepreneur, he doesn’t feel like he has everything figured out or knows exactly what to do at all times, but he’s confident that he can get it done.

That planted a seed, and I remember saying to myself in that moment, I wonder if that’s how I’m going to feel when I’m on the other side of this — and it was, it really truly was. It certainly gave me some skills, some acumen, ways of thinking about the world that I didn’t have prior, but it also gave me a tremendous amount of confidence as a business person that, regardless of what industry I found myself in or whatever project I decided to embark on, I could figure it out. I know what questions to ask. I know who to reach out to. I know what to do to move myself to the next step, to put the next foot in front of the other.

With an interest in music from a young age, did you always want to pursue it professionally?

Well, immigrant parents, generally speaking, have a limited view of what is acceptable for you as a career path. They sacrifice so much for you to come to this country and put you in a position to have the opportunity that this country offers, so you owe it to them to try to find a middle ground between what their vision is for you and what your vision is for yourself. So a lot of my decision to go to graduate school, get an MBA, get a doctorate and work so hard for that — especially as somebody who would have been happy working a regular job and making music — it was for them really. But it ended up serving me in a lot of ways I couldn’t foresee.

After I got my doctorate, I was like “OK, that’s my security blanket. No matter what, I’m good. I can get a well-paying job at any point.” That’s when I decided there’s no time like now. I’m still young. I’m still single. I’m going to some music trade schools and going to make as much music as I can while hustling on the side. That’s been my life since 2017.

Now an entrepreneur, what about owning your own business appealed to you?

I think entrepreneurs are driven by different things. For me, it was creative freedom. It was the ability to pay bills without having to be tied to a 9-to-5 job. The fact that I would have to wear a suit and tie is a lot of what keeps me away from corporate. That, to me, is freedom as well. I don’t like a lot of the expectations and the culture around corporate life.

Tell me more about your record label, RISE Entertainment, and all that it does.

This has been the struggle for me, to be honest, because I use the name RISE Entertainment to do a collection of things that are not necessarily entertainment related. So when I contract myself for education consulting work or leadership coaching, I do it under RISE.

I didn’t really care to have a label in the traditional sense of signing a bunch of artists and things like that. I was just trying to support myself as an artist, and I realized at the time that an artist had to be an entrepreneur. So I think RISE is unique in the sense that it both serves as the arm that funds my creative work and the arm that is my creative work. I have my music on all the platforms now, but I’m not a revenue-generating artist. I’m not on tour; I’m not doing shows.

However, I did recently complete the Voqal Fellowship, which gave me $30,000 for six months to work on a music project that aims to bring social justice books like The New Jim Crow to life via songs and music videos. This is an idea that I actually came up with at Goizueta.

Otherwise, what actually brings in the money is the education consulting work and the leadership coaching, as well as my writing and editing business. I enjoy all of that work, but eventually I’m hoping I can largely focus on my artistic side.

Tell me about the work you do through Developing Capacity Coaching (DCC).

DCC was started by my friend and colleague who I met at Harvard, Dr. Annice Fisher. Upon graduation from Harvard, Annice and I decided to jump into the fire as entrepreneurs, and we found ourselves partnering a lot. It was a bit awkward for me to ask state agencies, districts and large nonprofits to write out checks to RISE (called Rima Records at the time), so I was relieved when Annice asked me to partner under DCC. That’s where we now offer a lot of our services.

DCC primarily offers mindset or leadership coaching using a method we were both trained in at Harvard called “immunity to change.” It deals with the resistance we have to change and helps people get unstuck in their pursuit of their leadership goals. A lot of us will have a goal in mind — it could be personal or professional — and will start working toward it but then we’ll self-sabotage, and there’s a way of getting underneath to find out what those psychological roadblocks are. It’s like therapy for leaders, and it’s especially good for people who may deal with stigma around seeing a therapist, which happens a lot of times with minority groups. So I like to say that our work, for some, is a safer and more practical alternative to seeing a therapist.

We offer one-on-one leadership coaching to the leader and anybody on their team, depending on their budget or what they’re looking for. We also do [teaming] work, so we’ll work with the executive leadership team on topics such as navigating the politics of change, race and equity.

Where do you hope your career takes you?

In my heart of hearts, my goal is to succeed as a recording artist. If I could liken my aspirations to anyone in the industry, it would be Common. He built a career on conscious music but is also meaningfully involved in other industries. He does some acting, he does some public speaking, he’s involved in the education sector and he’s a business person — but is always service oriented — so that’s my overarching goal.

Are you driven by a desire to give back in similar ways?

Absolutely. It’s the biggest part of who I am. I’m passionate about social justice and want to use my platform to help mobilize communities. I’m really invested in my Dearborn, Mich., community in particular. It’s a community that has often been invisible to the rest of the world, in the sense that the story of Muslims and Arab Americans is told by seemingly everyone except for those of us in those communities — which is why a lot of people have some bad stereotypes about who we are and what we believe. My goal has always been to bring all the wisdom and talent I’ve gained outside of Dearborn back into my community to be of service. So it’s great to be home.

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