Alumni Profiles

Making Futures Bright

Leslie Walker

Like a lot of young college graduates, Leslie Walker left school with a vague sense of professional identity and a strong urge to find a path that felt authentic. She tried her hand in a variety of fields, including a short stint in government, a corporate gig, and a job in sales. But none of that got her out of bed in the morning, Walker CCAS’86 says.

“This is not me,” she says she felt at the time. “But what is me?”

Through a process of trial and error, and a strong belief in mentorship, Walker eventually pivoted to a career in nonprofit leadership that’s taken her from the Please Touch Museum to the Free Library of Philadelphia and, most recently, the Sixers Youth Foundation, the nonprofit affiliate of the Philadelphia 76ers basketball team.

The Camden-based foundation, which named Walker as its new executive director in November, invests in sports-related and educational programming for young people, such as the 76ers Math Hoops program, which teaches foundational math using basketball stats, and Up2Us Sports, which trains coaches and groups how to best support urban youth.

The position is an opportunity, Walker says, that is uniquely aligned with her personal values and professional interests—directing funds to local groups that enrich the lives of young people. And it’s rooted in the lessons she learned as a Scarlet Raptor.

“I’m excited every single day about what’s coming next,” says Walker, who is happy to share her playbook for finding an authentic path.

A tale of two cities

When she was about 8 years old, Walker’s family settled in Willingboro, New Jersey, after her father retired from the military. At Rutgers University–Camden, she enrolled in urban studies and sociology courses and participated in student government and the Black Student Union. Walker fell in love with city life during her time in college, spending time in Camden and in Philadelphia, where one of her older sisters worked. “I realized I liked what cities could be, and what cities had been and the rich history behind them—and just the diversity of people,” Walker says.

After trying out a few different career paths, Walker started seeking out jobs in underresourced urban neighborhoods where she could work with children and families. She soon began teaching at a preschool in Center City Philadelphia, eventually becoming its program manager and developing an interest in bringing resources together to serve the school’s mission.

“[I found] there was so much more that I could do there,” she says. “And I realized it was working with a nonprofit, and one that had a strong mission, vision, and values, that best aligned my career with who I am.”

From there, Walker went on to earn a master’s degree in organizational development at St. Joseph’s University and took on a leadership role at the Please Touch Museum in Philadelphia.

From mentee to mentor

Walker says she’s been guided by mentors throughout her career, and she tries to pay that support forward to young people who are building their own nonprofit careers.

In 2017, at the urging of two of her mentors, Walker became chief of staff to the president and director of the Free Library of Philadelphia and the Free Library of Philadelphia Foundation. In the executive office, she had a chance work with the entire organization. In 2020, that career move paid off when Walker became the library’s interim director.

Today Walker lives in the Overbrook section of Philadelphia with her children Melissa, 23, and Eric, 20, and her dog, a “little old lady” named Inca. In her first few months at the Sixers Youth Foundation, she’s been meeting with current and potential grantees as the organization sorts through future funding opportunities. And she’s focusing on building relationships between grantees as well, as she hopes to create partnerships between organizations, beyond their work with the foundation.

Importantly, Walker has also found a way to be the “me” she always hoped to be. “People talk about your ‘authentic self,’” she says. “I knew that I wanted to be somewhere I could truly be myself and bring a strong work ethic that my parents instilled in all of us: strong family values, honesty.

“I’ve been so fortunate to be involved with some really world-class organizations,” Walker says. “And now for me to be a part of the 76ers family and running the Sixers Youth Foundation, it just means a lot. My children and my family and friends are just so proud of me. That goes a long way.”