By K.C. Baker
Updated November 17, 2014 12:00 PM

DARREN WALKER / President, the Ford Foundation

As a child, Darren Walker was curious about everything: “I had a thirst,” he says, “for what was beyond the horizon.” But for a boy born into poverty in rural Louisiana and raised by a single mother in 1960s Texas, the odds of soaring beyond the horizon were slim. That all changed one afternoon in 1965 when a woman walked up the dirt road to his shotgun house and asked his mother, Beulah Spencer, a nurse’s aide, if she wanted to enroll him in a new educational program for underprivileged kids called Head Start. “I felt special,” says Walker of attending those classes, “like I was being given a window into a world beyond my immediate circumstances.”

Now that window is open wide. As president of the nonprofit Ford Foundation, Walker, 55, directs annual charitable giving of some $500 million, including 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. “Too often, hopes and dreams are squashed by poverty or violence,” he says. “But then you see these signals of hope, these indications of generosity.”

Looking back at the 5-year-old who devoured the books and magazines his grandmother “Big” brought home from her job as a housekeeper, Walker —who now lives in Manhattan with his partner David Beitzel, 57, an art dealer, and their bulldog Mary Lou—wants other kids to know the sky’s the limit: “I’m radically optimistic about our future—I feel an obligation to ensure that more people can dream.”