An Unlikely Journey from the Orphanage to the Boardroom

At the age of 3, Ed Hajim was kidnapped by his father, driven cross-country, and told his mother was dead. He pressed his face against the car window and watched the miles pass. He had no way of knowing where life would take him.

road less traveled

In a memoir filled with human drama, wisdom, and timeless life lessons, ON THE ROAD LESS TRAVELED: An Unlikely Journey from the Orphanage to the Boardroom, we learn Ed’s improbable story of how he bounced from foster homes to orphanages, living a daily struggle to survive, to realizing the American dream. 

Hajim served as a senior executive at such firms as E.F. Hutton, Lehman Brothers, Furman Selz, and other financial institutions, regularly transforming fledgling operations into profitable growth machines. His life accomplishments were rightfully acknowledged in 2015 with the Horatio Alger Award, given to Americans who exemplify the values of initiative, leadership, and commitment to excellence and who have succeeded despite personal adversity.

Ed would argue that his early traumatic experiences and rough upbringing informed his choices, and even set him apart in business. The Q & A with Ed (below), covers his memories of school, how it put him ahead, his passion for mentoring youth, and instilling the importance of education.

When he had the means, Hajim, a Wall Street executive and model family man–he didn’t think twice about giving back to a world that seemed intent on rejecting him.

Q & A with Ed Hajim

Author, On The Road Less Traveled

How is your last name pronounced?


When did you realize that education was your way out of the situation that you grew up in?

The second orphanage I was in was just four blocks from Roosevelt High School in Yonkers, NY, where I attended as a student. 80% of the kids at the school went onto a private college. I was in at least the top quarter of the class and was very good at math and science. I realized, if they could do it, I could attend a private college too.  Most of the kids in the orphanage either didn’t go to college or went to a public university. A private college appeared to be my ticket out of my situation. I put my head down and went to work.

One of the teachers told me of two scholarships I might get: The New York State Scholarship which I should receive and the NROTC which was less likely. While I did not get the former, I DID receive the NROTC scholarship.

Also, I wanted to leave the stigma of being an orphan and a foster child behind me. I figured I had a better chance of doing that at a private college, where I could change my persona and not be an orphan/foster child,  I told people when I arrived at the University of Rochester that my father was a merchant marine. Our home address was a post office box in San Francisco. My mother died when I was three. End of story. I did not want to talk about my past, and I didn’t. I was a little ashamed of my background, and I didn’t want sympathy.

Did you fit in?

When I got to college, my hair was too long. I wore a black leather jacket. Every fraternity rejected me in my freshman year. By the end of that year, I had a crew cut, had saved up for a tweed jacket and black shoes– the whole works, and I adapted. By sophomore year I was recruited by almost every fraternity on campus, and things really turned around.

Why is it so important to you to mentor young people? 

It’s important to mentor. I have a story to tell which is very simple. Anything is possible and education is the solution to everything. My education made me strong and it put me where I am today. If I can be an example for young people, then this is my way of giving back for all I have been given.

When I was growing up I was very, very independent – I had become self-reliant and didn’t want any mentors. As I said in my book, my pride was a bad thing. I should have accepted the help from the people who wanted to mentor me. I didn’t look for help until my father passed away in 1971. Today things are different, people seek help and it is not looked down upon as it was in my day.  I do believe in mentoring people.

Do you think you were affected by your mentors even if you didn’t depend on them?

Absolutely. The head of that second orphanage was sincerely interested in me. When he talked to you, he knew you, and you knew he was trying to help. Even though I didn’t acknowledge the fact that I needed his support, I still absorbed the importance of going to a private college and being devoted to my studies and sports because of him. Oscar Minor, A professor at the University of Rochester, had a very personal interest in me. He mentored me all through my four years there even though at the time I did not realize it.

What are you doing now to mentor kids?

Most young people, especially children like me, foster kids – they need mentors – they need someone to talk to for support and guidance. An example now, there is a group in Boston called Wily Network; I’m now involved and honorary member of the board – they now have more than 70 students – who cannot rely on family at home – they go to the top schools – but a counselor is assigned to each student and the students are required to talk to that counselor once a week. Otherwise, kids quickly get behind- they need someone to talk to who has a vested interest in you to push you ahead. That counselor  – shows interest in you and you feel someone believes in you  – it goes a long way.

I went on to marry my wife, Barbara, my life’s partner – we have three grown children and eight grandchildren. Even in our household, there are at times, mentoring moments there too – sometimes that happens at the dinner table – within a family, there is a constant discussion.

Parenting mentoring and career mentoring are both great – but take different energy – At work, as a leader, I made major business decisions at the office for our business growth and employees – but at home, take for instance, my young daughter may have had an issue at school that day- and to her – that is her world. I cannot come at that with the same mentoring mentality as leading in business, but I can still support her and give suggestions without saying, here are suggestions.

One of our little tricks while on vacation was to rent a boat. The difference between a boat and a ski vacation is that they’re stuck with you at night. Once they were old enough, I would have them read a book like Who Moved My Cheese? We’d all discuss it. When they were a little older than that, we’d take them on trips to places like Africa or the southern tip of Chile  There was nothing better than talking  to one of my kids after a full day in a strange place

Do you remember how you felt on each of your graduation days?

I had nobody at any of those graduations. No one came to my grammar school, high school, University of Rochester undergraduate graduations or even my graduation from Harvard Business School – although for the latter, I had a job lined-up and decided not to walk. 

It was not easy not having anyone show up for you- but at the same time, I was very happy to have finished each of those steps, to earn a degree – but it’s multi-emotional as no one is there just for you to appreciate what you’ve done and that was very tough – you had this exhilaration – yet there was nobody there for you. It’s a downer – I felt bad.

For example, at the University of Rochester: My girlfriend and one of my fraternity brothers put my epaulets on when I was commissioned as a naval officer. 

As we move into a post-Covid world, what would you recommend to graduates (or anyone) who isn’t clear about what’s next or what they want to do with their life?

Even if you’re not sure, just start writing. Write down where you want to go, where you think you want to go, and how you think you might get there. You’d be surprised about the answers that come to you. The only definite form of communication is writing. You can always change your mind. Don’t allow the circumstances of your life, including the pandemic, allow you to be a victim. Write your thoughts and plans down on paper and always ask yourself, what’s next?

What advice would you give graduates? 

I tell college students that they should reach, stretch, test, and fail because you only have two kinds of results in college, success or a learning experience. When you learn how to fall and get back up again, you develop skills that will sustain you.

Early failure is a gift. 

How did you approach parenting without having any role models? 

I have this concept about life decisions and directions. It has four parts: self, family, work, community, or giving back. I try to communicate that life is a balancing act between these four elements.  And recognize The fact is that you’re always somewhat out of balance.  The tip is to recognize and move toward balance.

Did your childhood hardships inform you as a parent in some ways?

Yes. I got to live the American Dream. I went from poverty and traveling between foster care and orphanages and went on to a highly successful Wall Street Career. It allowed me to give my family many advantages. My children cannot live the same American Dream – but work ethic and giving back are still so important. I made sure my children took jobs and were put in experiences to build their own self-reliance and learn to independently overcome challenges. My daughter spent six weeks in the Baja with eight other girls in a kayak on an Outward Bound trip. My grandson on a NOLS experience has been 60 days to Alaska with thirty of those days in the rain. Try to put your children and grandchildren in situations where they must depend only on themselves. In some sense make them uncomfortable so they are just accustomed to overcoming challenges in their own right

Our friends would tell me “I can’t put my kids in an orphanage to teach them resilience (like you)” so I’d tell them to send them to NOLS (National Outdoors Leadership School) or Outward Bound. Make sure they work every summer. Send them on adventures. Hardships give you opportunities to find out who you are. You only do that when you’re by yourself.

Do you think your childhood hardships prepared you better than most for adulthood?

Absolutely.  Disadvantages can become advantages. I had lived in over fifteen places before I turned eighteen.  I learned how to adapt and was not afraid of change.  I went from one schoolyard to the next and I’d go through a rite of passage each time. I learned to handle and actually to seek change and I used to tell my business team every year, we’ve got to keep changing or we’re not going to make it.

I became self-reliant. I’d give myself an “Atta boy!” “You did it!” My inner voice is very strong. I’m a big proponent of having a conversation with your inner voice. It’s the only constant in your life.   If you blow something or fail it’ll say “So what. You’ve fallen before and you’ll get up again”

I say this quietly but the pandemic has been very healthy for a lot of people because it’s shown them that life’s not simple. It’s not simple.

Connect with My Four and More on Social Media!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *