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Stars That Make a Difference: Ahmen

Stars That Make a Difference: Ahmen

“I jumped from the corporate world to the nonprofit world, landing at Teach For America with a responsibility for recruiting thousands of up-and-coming leaders to become teachers. As I started to make waves in the social impact world — influencing education, building private-public partnerships, and driving innovations in disenfranchised communities — my hunger for activating positive change grew in intensity. Hip-hop was the only way I could satisfy that hunger. Music is a universal language, and no matter your background, the right lyrics, rhythms, and emotion can break through any barrier and turn your feelings into something real. So I went all in for hip-hop, and the “Batman of Social Impact” was born. Today, I’m the Executive Director of one of the nation’s largest veterans services organizations, and my music has reached people all across the world and served as a soundtrack for transformative change.”

I had the pleasure of interviewing Ahmen, also known as the Batman of Social Impact: a nonprofit leader by day and hip-hop artist by night. His innovative brand of #Troublemaker hip-hop catalyzes people to raise their voices and take action for positive change, and he’s been recognized as a 40 Under 40 Rising Star by New York Nonprofit Media and Next Generation Leader by the Human Services Council.

What is your “backstory”?

I always say that my story started before I stepped on this planet. My parents are immigrants from Sri Lanka, and they arrived in America with high hopes but limited financial means. They worked their tails off so they could “make it,” and provide opportunity to me and my sisters.

For a while, I was clearly making it. I graduated from Penn State and I was rising through the corporate ranks. But that path left my passions on the sidelines. I wanted to do something about inequity and social justice, but I was too stuck in the easy way out. And even though hip-hop profoundly influenced my life, it was simply a means to pass time.

Every time I stepped out of line, I was labeled as a Troublemaker. People didn’t like it when I suggested a life outside of the corporate lane, or when this skinny Sri Lankan kid exhibited a fire for hip-hop music. It was too unfamiliar with them, too disruptive to the status quo.

I realized that the old rules are designed to hold us back. And I was being complicit, every time I didn’t take a stand for maximizing my potential and fighting for a level playing field. So I decided to embrace the idea of being a Troublemaker, because that’s what it would take to truly fight back against a status quo that was holding me down, plus millions more.

I jumped from the corporate world to the nonprofit world, landing at Teach For America with a responsibility for recruiting thousands of up-and-coming leaders to become teachers. As I started to make waves in the social impact world — influencing education, building private-public partnerships, and driving innovations in disenfranchised communities — my hunger for activating positive change grew in intensity.

Hip-hop was the only way I could satisfy that hunger. Music is a universal language, and no matter your background, the right lyrics, rhythms, and emotion can break through any barrier and turn your feelings into something real. So I went all in for hip-hop, and the “Batman of Social Impact” was born. Today, I’m the Executive Director of one of the nation’s largest veterans services organizations, and my music has reached people all across the world and served as a soundtrack for transformative change.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career?

After Jay-Z’s 10th Anniversary show to commemorate Reasonable Doubt, I cut him off as he was heading to his Maybach. I tried to give him my demo CD, which he refused. Looking back, it was the right move! I wasn’t good enough yet.

But today? Jay-Z, I have some time for you in my calendar later this summer. Too busy changing the world before that.

What would you advise to someone who wants to emulate your career?

Anyone who tells you a set of rules for any path is lying to you. There is no set of rules. A few years ago, I never would’ve imagined that I’d have the opportunity to lead a veteran services organization, or perform for 1,000+ changemakers from across the globe in Amsterdam, or have my music featured on ESPN. These opportunities unlocked when I decided to be a Troublemaker and follow my own rules, and I’m fortunate that people have opened up new pathways for me because they feel my passion and vision.

Is there a person that made a profound impact on your life? Can you share a story?

They say that we’re the product of the people who surround us, and I couldn’t be more lucky to have an incredible group of family and friends in my closest circle. At the heart is my wife. She isn’t just supportive — she truly believes in the power of Troublemaker music, and holds me accountable to keep going. To create, to challenge myself, to hustle, to grow.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world? Are you working on any meaningful or exciting non profit projects?

I’m working on some incredible projects, from supporting refugees to catalyzing the service movement to youth development. Through it all, I hope to channel my leadership and music toward helping others to discover their voices and action. In the past year, I’ve spoke and performed for young activists, global nonprofit professionals, corporate leaders, and philanthropists.

Wow! Can you tell me a story about a person who was impacted by your cause?

These testimonials fuel me to keep Troublemaking!

“I’m from Venezuela and I’ve been hearing political speeches my entire life. When I saw Ahmen perform and speak, that’s the first time I saw someone and said, ‘That is a leader.’ That is someone who is using their fire to help others to find their fire.” -Attendee at the NYU Social Innovation Symposium 2017

“Ahmen is that champion music so sorely needs right now…a confident voice, powerful inspiration and serious light of hope in what threatens to be an ever-darkening planet. Our world needs heroes like this, more now than it ever has before…I’m definitely stoked to hear Ahmen embracing the power of his words and passing the energy right on to the people — he’s created an insightfully brilliant, highly-relevant and important record with Timeout that advocates strongly for change and demonstrates the unity and strengths that exist between us all at every possible moment.” -Jason Vare, Sleeping Bag Studios

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

1) Attack every opportunity. Especially when you’re young, you have to chase every chance to improve your craft.

2) Build networks. Not for the sake of being transactional, but to find kindred spirits. None of us can do it alone!

3) Share the story. People are on the sidelines, waiting for passionate people to spark them to do something, and possibly support you too. Don’t be scared of how they might respond!

4) Dominate every moment. Every job, every task, whether big or small, is a chance to demonstrate excellence. Fall in love with the process of becoming great.

5) Take care of wellbeing. Everyone wants you to hustle nonstop, but that isn’t sustainable. Take care of your health and the people around you.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

It’s already underway: the #Troublemaker movement! A movement that is catalyzing everyone to use their voices and action to shake the status quo. Troublemakers embrace their frustrations with the world, refuse to be complicit when confronted with tough choices, and ensure their passion spreads like an inferno so others can jump on board.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”?

They call me Troublemaker…they want me to be a robot…

I could be, but I know not!

Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this 🙂

LeBron James. Imagine what we could accomplish by fusing sports, music, social impact, politics, and culture?

If you would like to see the entire “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me” Series In Huffpost, ThriveGlobal, and Buzzfeed, click HERE.