Diahann Billings-Burford knows that her life could have taken a very different direction. The Brooklyn neighborhood where she grew up was rife with drugs. The rapper Notorious B.I.G., who was murdered at 24, was selling drugs just three blocks from her home. But Diahann’s parents refused to let her become a victim of her surroundings. They set a high bar for her behavior and her education. With their guidance, Diahann made it to Yale University and an internship at the White House where she would be introduced to an idea that would dictate her future—the idea of service to others.
“It’s been a real process to get where I am right now. Money’s important but making a difference is more important than money.”
After graduating from the country’s most elite schools, Diahann began working at one of the premier law firms in New York City, making a six-figure salary. But she felt something was missing.
“I felt in some ways I was moving by rote, not connected to my feelings and desires.”
The pull of service to others that had grabbed her in college was too strong to ignore. To the surprise of her family, she quit her lucrative job in law and set a new course for herself.
“I saw how powerful service can be in people’s lives; my role was to ensure that service became part of our culture.”
To that end, Diahann became the chief service officer of New York City with a mission to mobilize an army of volunteers to help tackle the biggest challenges facing the city and its residents.
“We had initiatives in six impact areas,” says Diahann. “Strengthening our communities, helping our neighbors in need, education, the environment, health, and emergency preparedness.”
But Diahann’s work was just beginning.
“We still have to make some significant changes both in this country and globally. The disparity between the haves and have-nots is stark, and social mobility is frighteningly limited.”
In her next position, Diahann continued to spread the idea of volunteerism and civic responsibility but in a new arena—the corporate world.
She was the prerfect fit for the newly-created role of Executive Director for Corporate Responsibility at Time Warner Inc. As a senior member of the team, she had primary responsibility for the company’s programs and resources designed to encourage and support employee community engagement, corporate investments in New York City, as well as implementing the company’s college internship program.
Five years later, when the RISE organization was searching nationwide for it’s next leader, Diahann’s name was on the short list.
RISE, founded by Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross, galvanizes the unifying power of athletes and other leaders in sports to promote understanding, respect and equality with the goal of improving race relations across America.
Last September, Diahann was named the new CEO of Rise.
“We evaluated dozens of highly talented candidates with experiences in civil rights advocacy, community building, education and sports,” Stephen Ross said. “We selected Diahann because she has the ability to lead and innovate in all of these spaces and because she knows that great organizations thrive on passion for the mission, hard work and teamwork.
In accepting this new challenge, Diahann said, “I’m excited to join RISE as we focus its mission and services on some of our nation’s critical challenges stemming from racial polarization.”
In many ways, Diahann’s journey captures the essence of what Hearts on Fire is about—following one’s inner voice and passion, identifying one’s personal gifts and using them to make life better for yourself and others.
“I want people to be able to say the world is a better place because I was part of it.”
Diahann earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Yale University and a law degree from Columbia University School of Law.