It is both Samar Ali’s well-stamped passport and upbringing in small-town Tennessee that directed her interests and career in international affairs. A graduate of Vanderbilt University and Vanderbilt University Law School, Samar went on to serve as a judicial clerk; work as an associate at Hogan Lovells US; be named as a White House Fellow; be appointed as political advisor to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security; serve as Assistant Commissioner for International Affairs under Governor Bill Haslam; practice law with a focus on natural security and international law at Bone McAllester Norton PLLC; serve as a director with Lodestone Advisory Group; assist international businesses and individuals as an attorney at Bass, Berry & Sims; and teach conflicts resolution and negotiations at her alma mater. (Whew!) Through everything Samar does, she is working to strengthen systemic approaches that govern people’s daily lives. Her exposure to the world at large and curiosity with which she approaches life are what drive her. She is not afraid to diplomatically speak her mind. We are honored to have someone in our community who works so diligently to effect positive change in the world. And today, we are thrilled to introduce Samar as our FACE of Nashville.
Tell us about your background.
I proudly grew up in Waverly, TN. It is a small town in Middle Tennessee that is one of the best places in the world. I have a community of support there that very much shaped who I am today. Growing up in Waverly taught me how to connect with humanity, how to embrace life’s cycles, how to be forever curious and how to understand the responsibility of being a part of a lifelong community. In essence, it taught me the meaning of our country’s motto: E Pluribus Unum.
By way of my ethnic background, my mother is originally Syrian and my father is originally Palestinian. We are also Muslim.
For people interested in my identity/background, I often tell them that I can summarize it in five words: woman, American, rural, Arab, Muslim. People usually react to my response with concern thinking they are in conflict with each other. But for me, they blend well together and are not in contradiction with each other. My diverse identity grounds me and gives me a perspective that allows me to resist the instinct to stereotype people.
How did your upbringing affect your career path?
My career path is all about doing my part to make our country and world a better place. I agree that we should be helping our neighbors daily, and as a lawyer I believe in the power of making positive systemic changes to help make communities stronger at a very efficient pace.
I was raised in a family that values democracy, human rights, human dignity, justice and being a good citizen. Based on these values, I make sure that my work flows according to those principles.
As someone who works both locally and globally, I of course was shaped by my global travels as a child. At the age of 3, for example, I took my first overseas plane trip to visit my grandmother on her olive farm right outside of Jerusalem. That part of the world is a very special place.
You advised Governor Haslam as International Affairs Assistant Commissioner. Tell us about the five-year international strategy plan you put into place during your time with the governor.
It always impresses me how people are surprised to learn that almost half of our economy in Tennessee is tied to the global marketplace in one way or another — either through foreign direct investment (like Bridgestone, for example) or through companies in Tennessee selling products into the global marketplace.
The international strategy that we set in 2012 was all about harnessing that growth, understanding it, making sure it was consistent with our values and being deliberate about future international opportunities for economic growth. We learned from Senator Alexander’s vision with Japan in the early 1980s that international strategy works, and we need to continue to be deliberate about future international opportunities and how we nurture relationships abroad. With this in mind, we built a plan around that, which included integrating our international efforts across the Department of Economic and Community Development and also across the state.
Tell us about working in the White House.
I worked in the White House as a White House Fellow and I stayed on for a few months following that as an advisor to the Department of Homeland Security. My last days at the White House were unforgettable, both because of the issues I was working on and also personally because they were just a few days before my wedding!
Working in the White House was a privilege and one that challenged me because of the issues I worked on, the impact our decisions had, the pace of it all, the responsibility I felt as a public servant and the people I worked with. One thing that my work there reminded me of on a daily basis was that our government is complex, our country is incredibly diverse and we are currently the most powerful country in the world. Our decisions matter. They not only affect us here in the United States, but they have an impact on people’s lives thousands of miles away.
I knew it was time to leave because I wanted to be true to the reason I became a White House Fellow to begin with. I wanted to build on my experience and exposure in the White House to work as a private citizen on public agendas that impact the communities I belong to, like our community here in Tennessee. This is actually at the heart of the purpose of the White House Fellowship, which is a non-partisan fellowship formed to give us a first-hand, high-level experience with working at the Federal Government and to increase our participation in national affairs. As such, it was never my intention to become a career politician or to work in the government for my entire career. Many people too often make the mistake in thinking that having an impact on our country is reserved for people working at the highest levels of government, but the truth of the matter is that it is like one big symphony. Everyone plays an important role. We have to be public servants on a daily basis regardless of whether we are inside or outside of the government. In essence, I believe it is our duty to be responsible citizens.
Related: Syria: How to Help
Tell us about your work with Lodestone Advisory Group.
Lodestone’s platform focuses on growth, investing and connecting business opportunities locally, nationally and internationally. As such, we focus on attracting foreign direct investment through institutional investors; incubating and investing in a number of cutting-edge technologies in the areas of digital platforms, machine learning, cybersecurity and healthcare transformation; and advising on the set-up of international accelerators.
Personally or professionally, what has been your greatest achievement?
Personally, my greatest achievement is happiness. Eudaimonia. Professionally, it is not about me, so I don’t think about my career in terms of achievement, rather I measure my success in terms of how my work betters society. It is about me in my personal life, it is not about me in my professional life. As a martial artist, I’ve been taught to constantly work on my ego, and I’ve also been humbled over the past 10 years by the human suffering I have seen. But, if I had to reflect on your question in very specific terms, I guess I would say my being bipartisan in this very charged political environment is an achievement for me, and it is important to me.
When you aren’t working, where can we find you hanging around Nashville?
My soul is in Nashville and in this state. I’m most at peace when I am here. I’m an explorer who loves to learn, so I love exploring the new neighborhoods developing around our city. I find some of my inspiration in places like Germantown. And you can usually find me on the hiking trails of Percy Warner Park.
What is the best piece of advice you’ve received, and from whom?
The best piece of advice I received is from my family. Never be standing where you are today simply because that is where you were standing yesterday. Be standing there today because that is where you should and want to be standing TODAY. It’s that simple. And, from Keith Simmons at Bass Berry: “Don’t let your passion get ahead of your better judgement.”
What are your favorite places to eat in Nashville?
I love our restaurant scene. I like Little Octopus, Five Points Pizza, 404 Kitchen, Tànsuŏ, Henrietta Red for brunch on Sunday, Two Ten Jack, Brown’s Diner, The Picnic Cafe, Sitar and Ruth’s Chris (my family’s favorite place).
What are three things you cannot live without, excluding faith, family and friends?
My passport to explore the world with, clean water and tea.
Thank you to Samar Ali for answering all of our questions. A special thanks to Ashley Hylbert for today’s gorgeous photos of Samar!
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