His business leadership credentials are impeccable. As CEO of Radian Group, S.A. Ibrahim, WG ’78, led his company out of the eye of the storm of the financial crisis and Great Recession, and did so through investment and growth. But what we recognize S.A. for is his commitment to interfaith dialogue. He has become the first Muslim to serve on any board of the Anti-Defamation League. The Obama administration called upon his assistance when crafting the president’s now-famous 2009 Cairo speech. And among his many other involvements, S.A. heads up the Nina and S.A. Ibrahim Foundation, which is devoted to increasing religious tolerance through student travel and exchanges.
WHARTON MAGAZINE: Where did your passion for interfaith begin?
S.A. IBRAHIM: Maybe we all remember the world from our childhood as much different than it really was, but I grew up in a family where many of our friends were so different from us, either because they belonged to a different ethnic group (India’s a multi-ethnic, multi-religious society) or they belonged to a different religious group. We were aware of all those differences, but those were very positive aspects to us rather than a negative aspect. And then that was what the U.S. was like in my early years. Nobody really cared about any of those differences in all my early years in the U.S., and then, unfortunately, 9/11 happened and things changed. All of a sudden, we started to look at people with suspicion, and people outside started looking at us with suspicion.
WM: What happened after 9/11?
IBRAHIM: For somebody who grew up fairly secular without much involvement with any kind of religion, including my own, I saw a need, and I was encouraged by my then-boss from my previous company (I ran a division for a public company, and [the] CEO lost his son on 9/11 in New York in one of the towers) to get more involved. Every faith [is] like a well. You can dip into the well and you can drink the same water and view it as positive or negative. Individuals can either draw negative or positive views from any faith. It depends entirely on your attitude towards it. So I decided to focus on that, and little by little, through baby steps I now find myself more and more into trying to bring people of different faiths together, largely because I think somebody needs to do that, not just me.
WM: Since then, you launched a foundation and advised the president for his famous Cairo speech. How did that happen?
IBRAHIM: My assistant got a phone call and somebody said they were calling from the White House. She thought it was a joke at first! It was both flattering to be asked to help, and at the same time a little bit scary. At first you’re amazed that they even know you exist, then how much they know about you. That evening when I got back to my office—I had a pretty busy day—I found this email that said “whitehouse.gov,” and I was about to delete it because I thought it was a prank email, but I opened and read it. I got invited to be on the first of many calls with the White House team to help with the president’s Cairo speech. A few months later, I got invited again, to be one of the two business keynote speakers for a Presidential Summit on Entrepreneurship. The president spoke and Hillary spoke and several others spoke, but I was one of two outside business leaders, Jerry Yang of Yahoo! being the other person, to speak to these 350 to 400 largely entrepreneurs from the Middle East, Indonesia, India, Pakistan, many different countries whom the president had invited to the U.S. It’s great to have the opportunity to help our country project an image that’s more positive and that’s more reflective of our reality than some of the negative stereotypical perceptions people in some parts of the world have about us.
WM: You’ve said you can’t control governments or politics, but given their state, what’s your level of optimism for peace?
IBRAHIM: I am very encouraged by the number of people I run into who are like-minded. I have a friend who’s a rabbi whose board I also serve on in New York, who is a great scholar, and he finds parallels between different faiths. And one of his favorite characters from the Bible is Job and the trials of Job. I had talked to him one week about the trials of Job, and another week, during the month of Ramadan, I happened to be in a mosque in California, and the imam was giving a sermon on Job. And I said, you know, how similar can this be? So there are a lot of people who are waking up to realize the interconnectedness of all these things. I’m very encouraged as we discover more in common and as we, at the same time, discredit the extremists.
WM: Where do you get your leadership abilities from?
IBRAHIM: I can’t honestly identify what really helped me develop that. All I can say is that I’m grateful that I had a very interesting family. My mother was very academically driven, and she pushed me and pushed me to go to the most demanding schools. My dad … I think he might have just completed high school, if not even completed high school. But he was a tremendous people person. He ran a small business which had grown to one of the most successful businesses in my city, and his biggest skill was dealing with people, whether they were his employees and whether they were his customers. And I kind of ricocheted between those two. To some extent, Wharton was an extension of my childhood of ricocheting between two parents between what extremely human aspects that Jerry Wind taught to the very technical aspects that Marshal Bloom taught. Two of my favorite professors at Wharton couldn’t be more different in some ways.
WM: Do these two sides overlap in your interfaith pursuits?
IBRAHIM: They do to the extent that they allow me to take on challenges that other people think are impossible. I’ve always told my people we want to have a team that can do what other people think is impossible or extraordinary, because there’s no such thing as extraordinary/impossible other than your making it appear so.
Read about the four other Whartonites “Putting Knowledge Into Action.”