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 Yale and Columbia Law School, 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.”
Today, Diahann is still working to spread the idea of volunteerism and civic responsibility but in a new arena—the corporate world.
She has taken up the newly-created role of Executive Director for Corporate Responsibility at Time Warner Inc. As a senior member of the team, she has primary responsibility for the company’s programs and resources designed to encourage and and support employee community engagement, corporate investments in New York City, as well as implementing the company’s college internship program.
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.”