Robin Hood Foundation CEO Wes Moore: 'Have faith, not fear. I feel that has guided me'

This story is part of the Behind the Desk series where CNBC Make It gets personal with successful business executives to find out everything from how they got to where they are to what makes them get out of bed in the morning to their daily routines.

After Wes Moore's father died in front of him of a rare illness when Moore was 4, his mother moved Moore and his two siblings from Baltimore to the Bronx to live with their grandparents. His new New York City neighborhood was one of the first supported by the Robin Hood Foundation when it was started three decades ago.

Today, Moore, 43, is the CEO of the Robin Hood Foundation, one of the largest anti-poverty nonprofits in the nation.

"I actually didn't realize how deep the Robin Hood connection was to my own personal journey story until I got to Robin Hood," Moore tells CNBC Make It of the New York City-based organization.

"When we go out to visit community partners, community activists and community leaders, many of them are in neighborhoods that I knew when I was growing up. Many of them are people who were doing the work then and are still doing the work now, fighting and advocating for our society's most vulnerable. So, there's this constant reminder of not just the need, but also this constant reminder of the persistence of poverty."

Though Moore didn't grow up with a lot, his mother, Joy, worked several jobs to support her family and ensured that Moore stayed on the right path. She sent him to military school, and it changed the trajectory of his life, he says.

"In my story, the intervention was successful and exceptional," Moore told CNBC in 2018. "And it does not happen for everyone."

Indeed, Moore famously wrote "The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates," which was published in 2010 and detailed the very different paths taken by Moore and another man named Wes Moore who also grew up in a similar neighborhood under similar circumstances but had a much different outcome. The "other" Wes Moore was sentenced to life in prison for murder.

As a young man, the Robin Hood CEO served as a captain and paratrooper with the U.S. Army, was a White House Fellow to former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and went on to work in investment banking at Deutsche Bank and Citibank.

In 2014, Moore founded BridgeEdU, a tech company offering academic courses for first-generation and low-income college students, and remained chairman of the board after it was acquired by anti-poverty company Edquity.

In 2017, Moore became CEO of the Robin Hood Foundation, one of the largest anti-poverty nonprofits in the nation. During his four years at Robin Hood, he has helped raise $650 million, oversees its Covid-19 relief efforts and has launched initiatives such as the Power Fund, which elevates organizations led by people of color. He also recently wrote "Five Days: The Fiery Reckoning of an American City" about the life and death of Freddie Gray.

In February, Moore announced he will step down as CEO of Robin Hood in May.

But "I will always try to find ways to be helpful and productive and a fighter and an advocator in that space," he tells CNBC Make It. He hopes to "find ways to create progress and fight for opportunities for people," as his mother did for him, he says.

Here, Moore shares how his upbringing shaped his outlook, how his time in the Army affected his morning routine, his future goals and more.

On his mother: 'There are so many lessons that I've taken from Joy Moore'

There are so many lessons that I've taken from Joy Moore that I now try to basically just mimic and copy, but I think a big one is understanding history.

My mother was always insistent on the fact that the education that we were getting was incomplete in that there was not a clear understanding of history. We took time to learn about leaders, particularly African American leaders, like Paul Robeson, Shirley Chisholm and Barbara Jordan, people like that. She was always incredibly persistent on making sure that I had a full and textured context of the path that I was on.

That helped me to understand and gave me an idea of how we think about "charity work." I'm very clear that I don't run a "charity." I actually think a "charity" can oftentimes come up as paternalistic and inaccurate.

What I run is a change organization, and that's really how I think and how I hope that as a larger community, a larger society, we continue to think about this work. Because we're not doing this through a sense of sympathy. We're doing it from a sense of empathy, where we understand that other people's pain should be ours.

On Robin Hood: 'I was not sure it was the right move'

When I first had a conversation with the head of the search committee, I was like, "I'm not sure if this is the right thing. I don't have experience in philanthropy." I knew that I was a very nontraditional CEO in that way.

It's very natural for people to have those hesitant thoughts at first, because it is scary when you're walking into new situations, particularly ones that you weren't, per se, groomed for. The key thing is to stay focused on the mission and what you hope to get done. Surround yourself with really good and smart and competent people who also believe in you and want to see you be able to grow as a leader.

With the issues that you're working on, whether it be working on issues in community or whether it's providing shareholder value, make sure that you are spending as much time with your end customer as possible. I spend a tremendous amount of time with community members. It's not just because that's really where I get so much energy, but it's also because that's where I get the best ideas.

On stepping down to spend time with family: 'It was pretty unanimous'

Truthfully, this was a family conversation, and my kids are now old enough [ages 7 and 9] to be active participants in my decision-making process. I think that the thing that helped me to get to that point of real calm and certainty about the decision was the fact that it was pretty unanimous. Everybody thought this was the right thing and at the right time. And I'm thankful for that.

On his routine: 'How I start my day is very much taken from the Army'

I will generally get between four and five hours [sleep] a night, which is wholly insufficient. One of the things I actually do want to work on in this next chapter is to be intentional and deliberate about getting more sleep. I know people say they only get a certain amount of hours as if it's a badge of honor. It's actually dangerous, and it's not healthy.

How I start my day is very much taken from the Army. Every morning I will do PT, which in the military we call physical training — whether that's going for runs, doing weights, going for walks, doing stretches and yoga.

Another thing that I take from the military and my grandparents is a frame that I try to live by, which is: Have faith, not fear. When I went to Afghanistan, my grandparents gave me a Bible and wrote in the front: Have faith, not fear.

I used to recite that to myself before I went on missions in Afghanistan. And the irony is that I haven't stopped. I still will go into meetings, or when I go into situations where I'm unsure what the answer should be or whatever, and just simply say to myself, "Have faith, not fear."

I feel that has guided me. That is definitely something that has been a significant takeaway from my time in the military, which now just continues to guide me in my days going forward.

On being confused with brokerage app Robinhood: My emails got 'flooded'

I didn't know what was going on until I saw my emails getting flooded and my social media mentions getting flooded!

Very quickly, me personally and the organization that I represent, found ourselves having to explain to people that [the brokerage app Robinhood is] not us. We focus on economic mobility for people and lifting people out of poverty and had nothing to do with a private company of the same name.

But at the same time, I think it was a time for our organization to make sure that we stayed focused on the work and to be able to stand up proudly for the work that we do. We understood that there were a lot of angry people who are reaching out to us at that moment and asking us to address something that was a very human frustration and pain for them, one which we not only understand, but one of which we fight to address many of these issues all day long.

(Robinhood declined CNBC Make It's request for comment.)

On Freddie Gray: His life and death 'should keep us up at night'

The life of Freddie Gray should keep us up at night as much as the death of Freddie Gray does, because this is a 25-year-old young man who made eye contact with police, was arrested an hour later, was in a coma, and died in police custody.

But this is also a young man who was born underweight and premature and exposed to heroin before he was even born and was lead poisoned by the time he was 2 years old because of the house he was living in. The life of Freddie Gray in many ways should be just as damaging as his death.

It was pretty remarkable because I remember when "Five Days" was set to come out in mid-April of 2020, I had a conversation with the publisher to push the publish date due to Covid-19. Weeks later, we all learned the names of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd.

When people say things like, "Your book is so timely," it does actually beg and force me to say, "But name a time when this book wasn't timely." And that's the problem.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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