Born in a Louisiana charity hospital, Darren Walker grew up in a poor town in rural Texas with his single mother and three sisters. But even at a young age, he tells PEOPLE, “I had a thirst for what was beyond the horizon.”
His life changed in 1965, when his mother, Beulah Spencer, a nurse’s aide, enrolled the 5-year-old in a new educational program called Head Start, which gave him “a window into a world beyond my immediate circumstances,” he says.
Today, as president of the nonprofit Ford Foundation, Walker, 55 – who lives in Manhattan with his partner David Beitzel, 57, an art dealer, and their bulldog Mary Lou – directs annual charitable giving of some $500 million, which has included awards to Head Start and the Pell Grants that helped fund his own education at the University of Texas at Austin and its law school.
“My story is uniquely American,” he says. “My story is the story of many Americans who start out in circumstances that are less than ideal, but who are inspired to live a better life and to have their dreams realized.”
For more on Walker’s story, pick up this week’s issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands now