Growing up in the Sheldon Heights neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago, Ralph Leslie could not have dreamed that one day he would work with the nation’s first African American president as the chief financial officer for his foundation– and yet that’s exactly what happened.
Leslie recalled becoming a candidate for his current position “exciting” especially knowing that, in his own way, he would be contributing to the legacy of both Barack and Michelle Obama, an opportunity he could not miss.
“This job was really a dream come true because it matched my personal interests and my professional ambitions, and so the job itself was attractive from a challenging opportunity and perspective,” said Leslie. “There was a lot of humility because I’m sure that this was the job that many people would love to have.”
The Mendel Catholic High School alumnus credits his parents and grandparents’ high expectations for his life as part of the catalyst for his success. He said he was “blessed to grow up in an extremely supportive family.” He said the legendary Judge R. Eugene Pincham also played a role in his development over the course of his life.
Leslie is not a newcomer to Chicago’s financial landscape having come from a successful run as the chief financial officer at Navy Pier Inc., where he was responsible for the Purchasing, Human Resources, and Accounting and Finance departments among a laundry list of other responsibilities. He has more than 25 years of professional experience in accounting, finance and strategy with major corporate and non-profit organizations to draw upon which he said has prepared him to take advantage of this opportunity. Prior to working Navy Pier, he was the CFO of the Ounce of Prevention Fund, a national non-profit whose directive is to ensure all children, especially those born into poverty, have high quality childhood experiences in their first five years of life, according to the organization’s website.
“My expectations are that we manage this organization in a fiscally responsible and transparent way,” said Leslie. “That we take good care of the assets that we’ve been entrusted with and that we manage costs and that we are transparent about how we operate.”
On a day-to-day basis Leslie said he’s been kept busy building the foundation’s infrastructure further. He anticipates that over time his role will evolve into one that is a more strategic role within the Obama Foundation. Currently, he stated as CFO his role includes these responsibilities:
- Manage the business aspects of the Foundation
- Ensure that we are good stewards of the assets we’ve been entrusted with
- Ensure our financial reporting is accurate and timely, and we have systems and processes in place that support the needs of the organization
- Help ensure that we operate in an inclusive manner and that our staff, suppliers and business partners reflect the diversity of the community.
“This is a fast growing organization so we are building staff, our accounting and finance department, we’re looking at our systems and processes to make sure that we have the resources we need to support the organization; that our reporting and accounting is accurate and timely and that we’re positioned to be transparent in how we operate,” said Leslie.
Inclusivity within the organization is a priority to Leslie, too.
“We are hiring a diverse workforce, we are partnering with minority suppliers and vendors, women, veterans, disadvantaged businesses, that we are keeping our commitment to be inclusive,” said Leslie. “The development of the presidential center and all of the programming around it is a big endeavor and we are certainly focused on local inclusion.”
Despite his climb to great success, Leslie does not view himself as a role model, at least not in the classic sense. He said whether through his fraternity, Kappa Alpha Psi, Fraternity, Inc., (of which he’s a member of the Chicago Heights Alumni Chapter) and also as a board member of Easter Seals of Metropolitan Chicago, he’s managed to help and mentor African American children with the goal of inspiring them to develop their own definition of success.
“I certainly hope I set an example, I hope that I inspired others, my story is not how you start but how you finish,” said Leslie. “I’ve had my challenges and stumbles along the way and I was able to persevere through it. I’ve shared my story with others and I hope that they’ve benefited from it.”
Even with his new responsibilities, Leslie is still finding a happy work-life balance. He said spending time with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Taylor, 13, friends, cheering on the Chicago Bears, and playing a few rounds of golf is how he spends his time outside the office. He declared with a smile that he will be in attendance at the upcoming Chicago Football Classic. He singled out his fraternity’s tailgates as one of his personal favorite events at the Classic – he will be on the grill.
To learn more about the Obama Foundation, visit obama.org.