Ali Velshi – The Seeds of Journalistic Success


This is part of Northern Notables, a collection of interviews with NSS Alumni who have made an impact in their personal and professional lives.

by Jason Hughes

MSNBC International Broadcaster and author Ali Velshi NSS '88 is an important journalistic voice. As the host of Velshi on MSNBC, airing Saturday mornings at 10am EST, he covers a wide range of domestic and international stories for American audiences, interviewing politicians at the highest levels and experts in many fields. Between all-consuming trips to Ukraine (to cover the Russian invasion), Ali found time for the NSS Foundation. We talked about running for NSS SAC President, changing careers, and following your heart.
The interview is below. But first, a bit of background:

Born in Kenya and raised in Canada, Velshi graduated from Northern Secondary School in Toronto (1988) and Queen’s University in Kingston with a degree in Religion (1993), and was awarded an honorary Doctorate of Laws from his Alma Mater (2016).

 Prior to joining MSNBC, Velshi hosted Real Money with Ali Velshi on Al Jazeera America. Before that he was the anchor of CNN International’s World Business Today. He was also the host of CNN’s weekly business roundtable Your Money, and co-hosted CNN’s morning show American Morning.
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web site for "Velshi" on MSNBC
Website for Velshi on MSNBC
Velshi has written two books on finance, and he teaches at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. Active in the community, Velshi serves on the Board of the Chicago History Museum, is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and he volunteers one morning per week with the homeless outreach program at New York’s Center for Urban Community Services. Velshi splits his time between New York City and Philadelphia.
Jason: Ali, thank you so much for making time for the NSS Foundation. We appreciate it. I'd like to take you right back to your time at Northern – in the 1980s. Tell us about one of your favourite moments while you were at Northern?
Ali: I had many but probably my most exciting was when I won the Presidency of the Student Council in grade 11, which was unusual. Given how big a role politics has played in my life, that moment marks the beginning of my immersion in it (although I had been elected Secretary/Treasurer the prior year).
Besides Students’ Council, were you involved in any other extra-curricular activities?
Several, including publishing a very rudimentary newspaper which I printed out on an old Gestetner Mimeograph machine in a purplish ink. That also marks the beginning of my journalism career. And I was on the varsity soccer team. Possibly, the worst player ever.
You were Student Council President while at Northern. Would you share some of the experiences of running your campaign? 
Well the campaign was pretty traditional back in the pre-digital days. I used a yellow or what they called “goldenrod” colored paper for photocopied signs, and the same colour of large Bristol Board, on which I used stenciled letters and black spray-paint (and got in a lot of trouble from the school for getting black spray-paint on the pavement). I’m not sure how I came to win – whether I had name recognition because I was already the Secretary/Treasurer, or because I ran a good campaign.
Your career in journalism is quite different from your undergraduate degree from Queens University in Religion (and subsequent honorary Doctorate of Laws in 2016). What is your advice for Northern graduates as they prepare to choose their post-secondary life?  How important is you major at university, as it relates to one’s future career?
Well I used to say: study whatever you want because the likelihood of you landing a job in your chosen career is low. I’m not sure I still hold that view. I think there are careers that represent a strong return on your investment and some that don’t, so I’d do more research into what you want to study than I did. That said, I couldn’t be happier with how my entirely unplanned career turned out, so maybe sometimes it’s good to just follow your heart.
Your father was the first Canadian of Indian origin elected to the Legislative Assembly of Ontario. In 2017, you were named an honorary "Canada 150" Ambassador to help promote the events marking the 150th anniversary of Canada's Confederation. What did that mean to you and your family, representing Canada in such an honorary role?
Yeah my dad was elected in 1987, while I was at Northern. Probably one of the most influential things I’ve ever experienced. It was a culmination of my family’s abiding interest in politics, which stemmed from being immigrants – from South Africa to Kenya (where I was born) and then to Canada (Ironically, I have now moved to a fourth country – the United States).

In fact, there was a lot of political activity in my family: both my mother and my sister were candidates for elected office in Toronto. Becoming a Canada 150 Ambassador was icing on the cake. But all of this was crucial to my idea of small-“c” citizenship; something that is central to everything I do today as a journalist, in a world in which we are constantly fighting for the preservation of democracy.

Interview continues below
Velshi on MSNBC
Velshi on MSNBC
Velshi on MSNBC
Velshi on MSNBC
Velshi on MSNBC
Recently, you posted on social media welcoming guidance, assistance, or just to talk to any former journalism colleagues or any colleagues presently in a career-transition. Some of our fellow Northern alumni may be finding themselves “mid-career” and/or transitioning to a new career. What advice would you offer?
Don’t worry, and enjoy the break between jobs. Whether you fret about it or you don’t, your transition will take the same amount of time and you should enjoy it. Back when I graduated, you expected to take a job at a company and work for that company for most of your career. That’s just not true anymore of a company, nor is it true of a career. It used to look dodgy when you changed jobs or careers. Now it’d edgy. Find what you love to do and pursue it with vigour.

I’d also say if you are looking to change careers, establish what I like to call a personal “board of directors”, or mentors and advisors to help you make the best decisions, introduce you to people from whom you can seek guidance, and support you.

How often do you get back to Toronto? Where are your favorite places to go?
Probably four times a year. Easy: the same places I went to growing up. Harvey’s, KFC, Swiss Chalet, Tim Horton’s, Mr. Greek and a great Punjabi restaurant on the Danforth called Moti Mahal. I’m a creature of habit and people are always asking me about the “great restaurant scene” in Toronto about which I know nothing and couldn't care less. As for non-food options, I literally just love driving around Toronto and seeing how much everything has changed.
When is the last time you walked the hallowed halls of Northern?
About five years ago. I’m due for a visit.
We know volunteer hours in high school are mandatory to graduate. You volunteer one morning per week with the homeless outreach program at New York’s Center for Urban Community Services. How does this experience affect your life as a citizen in your own community?
I haven’t done this for a few years [now], but it was a transformational experience for me. I would rise long before the sun, meet my team, and head into the far northern reaches of New York to identify and check into the status of long-term unhoused people, most of whom suffered from substance addiction and mental health issues. It made me aware of the problems faced by a community (to which I had never been exposed), and who were, essentially, voiceless in our society. It deeply influenced my reporting in that I came to understand that you can’t empathize with people if you know nothing about them.


Interviewer, Jason R. Hughes was SAC ‘92 president, founder of the Youth Environmental Organization, NSS Air radio host, Stage Manager for drama, track & field athlete, co-director of the annual NSS Fashion show and producer of the annual Battle-of-the-Bands. He is a proud Director of the NSS Foundation. He graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and lives in Fort Lauderdale Beach, Florida, running ArtServe, a large arts and cultural non-profit.