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Laila Ali knows what it takes to be a champ—in life and in her career. Ali, closing general session keynote speaker at the SHRM 2017 Annual Conference & Exposition in New Orleans, shared stories about her journey to become a world champion athlete, entrepreneur, TV personality and author.
A self-described "feisty girl," Ali developed the values of hard work, determination and courage growing up as the youngest child of the legendary boxer and humanitarian Muhammad Ali. Her own record of 24 wins (21 of which were knockouts) and zero losses has made her the most successful contender in the history of women's boxing.
"I like to live my life with an 'All In' attitude," Ali said. "I'm always asking myself, 'What more can I do?' "
Not content to settle for being the daughter of a global icon, Ali resolved at an early age that she would make her own way. She got her first job working at her neighborhood McDonald's. After high school, she got a license to be a manicurist and at 18 she opened her own nail salon, an experience that gave her a first taste of the world of HR.
"I had to figure out how to build a business. I had to learn how to attract customers, how to set prices and how to hire staff. Needless to say, it wasn't easy."
She was at a friend's house one night when she turned on the TV and saw two women in the boxing ring for the first time.
"I was surprised and excited. I had no idea that women even fought, and here were these two women slugging it out. It was a bloody fight but I was like, 'I want to do that.' "
Ali didn't tell anyone—not even her famous father—about her decision to become a professional boxer and quietly began training within a year. When her father learned of her plans, he tried to talk her out of entering the ring.
"He didn't think boxing was something that women should do, and he was concerned because he didn't want me to get hurt. He brought up every negative thing that could possibly happen. My answer to him was basically, 'You got knocked down and you got back up. That's what I'm going to do.' "
In her first professional fight, she knocked out her opponent in 54 seconds.
"There was something in me that allowed me to be a fighter. Boxing was an outlet for me," Ali said.
Eventually, her father's views softened and he attended her matches to show his support. Winning him over was another victory for Ali.
"I was glad that over the course of my career I was able to change his mind. But I'm proud that he was able to say, 'I was wrong.' "
It was a lesson that stayed with Ali and one she takes to heart in her own career: "You can't be stuck in your way. You have to be willing to grow and change."
The discipline she gained from becoming an elite athlete has served Ali well throughout all of her many job changes. She told attendees that success, especially in business, has to be earned to be sustained.
"You can't underestimate the effort it takes to reach your goals. You have to be relentless and determined. You have to put actions behind your intentions."
Ali told attendees she has great respect for the work they do.
"You have an awesome responsibility," she told them. "You wear so many hats within your organizations."
She said that often people don't realize the pressures that HR professionals face in dealing with employee issues and corporate demands. "Having to make tough decisions on a regular basis is stressful. I want to encourage you to take care of yourself. You are your most important hire."
The health and fitness expert and mother of two urged the audience to "lead by example. Stay fit, stay healthy and stay connected to your own inner spirit. Use this conference as motivation to reach your highest heights. That's what 'All In' is all about."
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