Laila Ali has spent a good chunk of her time in the spotlight trying to avoid being put in a box. She has worked hard not to just be seen as Muhammad Ali’s daughter, or a boxer, or whatever other labels people might try and put on her. Now she is teaming up with T.J. Maxx in an effort to help hundreds of other women duck the same types of limits.
The 39-year-old wife, mother of two and mind behind the Laila Ali Lifestyle podcast (PodcastOne and iTunes) is at the helm of The Maxx You Project. Ali, along with fellow influencer and entrepreneur Barbara Corcoran, will handpick 80 women to take part in a workshop to break “I can’t so I won’t behavior.” They will receive resources, customized sessions and life lessons to be able to achieve their goals. Three women will also be chosen to be receive funds and special mentoring by Corcoran and Ali. Submissions are still open and going until May 21.
We had the chance to talk to Ali not only about helping out with this initiative, but also about how she’s been able to ignore the expectations people have of her and exceed her own.
On Critics, Including Her Father, Telling Her Not to Do Boxing
People don’t always necessarily try to get you to second guess your opinion, they’re just telling you what they think. And sometimes they think they’re doing you a favor or that they’re trying to protect you. So it’s not always coming from a bad place, but at the end of the day, you always have to follow your heart regardless of what place it’s coming from. So for me, because women’s boxing was not really boxing and was so new, people were afraid. Then, of course, first thing is “Oh you’re too pretty. Why do you want to box in the first place?” Questioning that and what my intentions were. And then just the idea that, “Women don’t box, it’s going to be too hard.” Just putting up all these barriers up for me of why I shouldn’t, couldn’t. Obviously it was something I had to overcome, being the daughter of one of the most famous boxers in the world. My own father didn’t think I should box. He didn’t think women should box, so he was trying to discourage me in any way he possibly could. It was my mother who actually was my support system and made me feel like I could do anything that I wanted to do and she was going to support me. So even though I wasn’t asking her because I’m the type of person who’s going to do what I want to do, I still wanted that nod from my mom. She had my back and believed in me. And that’s what’s important. That somebody believes in you. That makes it much easier.
That’s why it was natural for me when I heard about this Maxx You Project that T.J. Maxx is doing, which is really just about inspiring women to break the stereotypes and not limit themselves according to the roles and expectations that society puts us in. All the labels that we have. So for me, for example, over the years I’ve evolved. First I was fighting to be a boxer and to be taken seriously. Then when I was done boxing and I wanted to do other things and it was like, “Okay, no, people only see me as a boxer. Now I gotta get out of that box.” So it’s been a process. It’s been very intentional what it takes as far as even your public image. People will put you into stereotypes. So for me to go from boxer to mom to entrepreneur to having my own lifestyle brand and hosting my own podcast, and people are like, “Why do you do that? Why do you want to do that?” Because I wanted to. So I just kind of do what I want to do. So I’m trying to get involved with T.J. Maxx and their Maxx You project and encourage other women to do the same.
On What Motivated Her to Box and Her Past Career As a Nail Tech and Salon Owner
I encourage women to follow their heart. For me, I saw women’s boxing on television for the first time and that’s what made me want to be a boxer. People assumed that because my father was Muhammad Ali it was like, “Oh, I want to be like my dad.” But I never fathomed the thought of becoming a boxer until I saw women’s boxing because I didn’t know it was available to me. But as soon as I saw it I wanted to do it. I saw women doing it and something in me was like, “Wow. I want to do that.” And it ignited this flame and it just never went out. It took about a year of contemplation to actually say, “I can do it” because I was on this path. I had a business at the time. I had a nail salon. I started early. I went to school for manicuring. I remember when I did that. I was like, “Mom, I want to move out the house when I’m 18. I want to go to school full time. I want to be independent.” So I was like, “How can I pay my bills, make my own schedule and go to school full time?” Very ambitious. But I got on the bus after school and went to school to get a license. And so yeah, I had my own nail salon, a successful one I sublet from somebody and built up a clientele. From a very young age I’ve been able to see that with hard work I can do whatever I want.
How She Balances Career, Family and Being a Wife
I don’t. I feel overwhelmed. I feel guilt at times. Work guilt can mean so many things relative to different people. But for me, it’s a balancing act always. It’s not easy. All women go through it. I don’t care how cool we look on the outside, it’s just in us to be that way. It’s really hard. So if I’m not feeling mommy guilt and everything’s going smooth with business then trust me, there’s something going on with my husband where he’s like, “You’re not spending enough time with me.” There’s always a lot going on. So what I can say to that is we can make choices of how we want to spend our time or limit our time in certain areas. A lot of women I notice take on a lot of projects and we don’t know how to say “no” to people. That’s something that the sooner you can learn to say no and not feel guilty about that, the better. Because it’s already a challenge to do all of the things and wear all of the hats that we wear. We’re thinking about us, we’re thinking about our children, we’re thinking about our husbands, and then you’re dealing with your sister and your cousin and your this or that and your best friend. It’s like we have to be grown, we have to put on our big girl drawls and do our thing. At a certain point you have to learn how to say no and learn how to put you first before everybody else. I’m talking about the outside stressors. That’s one thing, thank God, that I’ve learned — to say no. But even I sometimes find myself saying, “I should have just said no to that” because it causes more trouble than it’s worth sometimes. And more stress in your life. So it’s a balancing act. Learn how to prioritize and don’t feel guilty about not being able to extend yourself. Because what’s going to end up happening is if you break down, the whole ship breaks down. we’re carrying all of the weight, so you have to take care of you first.
How She Manages to Continue to Make Fitness a Priority
I don’t box anymore and boxing was my livelihood so obviously being in shape just came along with it. I didn’t have to think about it. But I’m getting older, retiring, having children. Your body changes and my life has changed. I don’t have time anymore like when I was boxing to say, “I’m just going to work out for three hours out of the day because that’s all I have to do for my job.” I have less and less time, but I still want to be fit. I still want to be in shape. So for me, fitness is a priority and it’s something I do early in the morning. I have to get it out of the way. Once the day starts, I’m not going back. I’m the type of person that once I get dressed, I’m not going to work out. So soon as I get my kids off to school, my husband takes them to school, I go into my home gym and get my workout in. I don’t do my hair, I don’t do anything. Some days I don’t even brush my teeth. I’m just down there like, “I’m getting this workout in!” [laughs] That’s my time to myself. But yeah, it has to be a priority because I hear a lot of people say they don’t have time. We have time for what we make time for. Some people truly don’t have a lot of time. Those are the people that I encourage to say, even if you get in 10 minutes of walking or yoga or parking your car far, be more strategic about the way you get your fitness in. It has to be a priority first.
How She’s Feeling Approaching the Anniversary of Her Father’s Death
My father struggled with Parkinson’s for 35 years. Towards the end of his life, I saw him really have to deal with a lot of challenges as far as his health was concerned. So I think it was easier than someone who had a sudden death as far as the preparation for it. We knew it was coming. It gives me comfort knowing he’s in a better place now and is no longer struggling. I cherish the fact that I have all of these videos, documentaries and all of the memories I have, something my children will be able to see. It would be nice if everyone could have their life documented that way but they don’t. But my father wasn’t himself for so many years. Wherever he is now, I’m like, I know he’s back to talking and doing his thing. You know, the way he used to talk. and his same energetic self. I’m happy for him in that sense.
Image via Getty