Laila Ali: 'I proved to Muhammad Ali that women can fight'

A recent survey done by T.J. Maxx found that 80 percent of women feel they are stereotyped by society into specific roles and expectations -- and we can all agree that's an unsettling percentage. That's why the retailer launched the Maxx You Project, in which 80 women will be handpicked for a signature workshop to break the "I can't, so I won't" behavior. And who better to choose and mentor those women than former professional boxer, Laila Ali?

AOL Lifestyle had the pleasure of sitting down with Laila Ali at the Paramount Hotel in NYC Tuesday, the morning of the Maxx You Project kick-off concert*, to discuss how she broke a massive stereotype by pursuing professional boxing -- and how her father, Muhammad Ali, actually advised against it.

Check out our conversation below:

Tell me why you were excited to get involved with the Maxx You Project.

I am all about empowering women and encouraging them to break stereotypes and go after their dreams, and that's what this Maxx You Project is all about. T.J. Maxx interviewed hundreds of women last year, and that's when they found out that 80 percent of women feel stereotyped and feel like society kind of puts them in a box, labels [them], and has certain expectations -- and I know that's something we've all felt at one time or the other. So I wasn't surprised about the 80.

This is something I've experienced myself. I remember when I first started boxing, and I was told, "You can't, you shouldn't, you won't be able to." And if I would've listened to all of that, I would never have been able to achieve everything that I've been able to achieve over the years. So when I was approached about this project, I thought it was amazing, of course, and very natural for me to get involved. I'm excited about it.

In the years since you made the realization that you were being stereotyped at the start of your boxing career, do you feel as though society has made strides in that respect?

Society is going to be society. What we have to do is change who we are as individuals. You gotta learn how to block it out, you gotta learn how to have courage, be confident, not let your dreams die because of what other people tell you. Someone is always going to be a naysayer because of an experience they've had or a certain idea that they have about what you should and shouldn't be doing, so that we can't worry about. What we want to do is encourage women to push past that, see past that, and go for it.

Was there a specific moment in your career where you realized you really had to fight those barriers?

From the very beginning, I knew going in -- because I'm a realistic person, and I strategize and I think about everything -- and I was like, "Okay, people are going to compare me to my father" and do all of that. But I was more surprised by -- and even now -- how many comments I get about "You're too pretty to box." And I'm like, "If I were less attractive, would you feel more comfortable with it? I don't understand that." But you know, people really have this idea that if you're an attractive woman, maybe you should be a model, or maybe you should do something that has to do with your looks -- and I'm doing the exact opposite. So I don't think there isn't a bigger stereotype that I could've broken. It was like in your face. So I'm encouraging other women to do the same. Not necessarily become a fighter, obviously, but just do whatever it is that you want to do.

Even if you're a mom, and you've been a stay-at-home mom, and you have this wonderful business idea -- and people are telling you, "Oh no, you can't do it. It's too hard out there" -- and you have something inside that you want to do that makes you unique and makes you different, it's just about coming together and encouraging one another to go for it.

We're sharing our stories, and that's what the project is all about. We're going to choose 80 women from the submissions. They're going to come to a workshop [this summer], and [we're going to] arm them with information and knowledge that they need to go for it.

Tell me about the process of choosing those women. What are you looking for?

It's going to come down to compelling stories. You know, there's no right or wrong; it's just about the stories and obstacles that you've overcome. Out of the 80, three will be picked to go on and actually have one-on-one contact with me and ["Shark Tank" investor] Barbara Corcoran and be mentored.

You mentioned your father earlier. Did he have any words of wisdom for you when you were breaking into the boxing world?

My own father told me I probably shouldn't box. It was my mother [who] encouraged me. And understandably so -- he didn't want me to get hurt. He didn't believe women should fight. He didn't want his youngest daughter fighting. You know, none of his kids followed [in] his footsteps, and here was his youngest, saying, "Guess what, dad?" So he tried to talk me out of it indirectly, and if I would've listened to my own father, I wouldn't have become a boxer.

PHOTOS: Laila Ali through the years

Laila Ali through the years
See Gallery
Laila Ali through the years
(Original Caption) Miami Beach, Florida: Heavyweight champ Muhammad Ali became a father for the sixth time with the birth of his fifth daughter, Laila. Ali's wife, Veronica, gave birth to the 7-pound-10-ounce baby at 10:12 am at Mount Sinai Hospital.
Laila Ali, the 21-year-old daughter of Muhammad Ali, represents her father at a news conference highlighting Amnesty International's campaign to outlaw the so-called 'stun belt' -- a 50,000-volt shocking device increasingly being used by law enforcement to control prisoners June 8, 1999 in Washington, DC. Laila who announced her plan to follow her father into the boxing ring a few months ago has yet to chose the date for her first bout. (photo by Alex Wong)
09/28/99. Beverly Hills, CA. Laila Ali announces her entrance into the Boxing ring at the Planet Hollywood Restaurant in Beverly Hills. Picture by DAN CALLISTER Online USA Inc
BEVERLY HILLS, UNITED STATES: Laila Ali, youngest daughter of legendary boxing champion Muhammad Ali, strikes a pose 28 September 1999 after announcing her professional boxing debut at Planet Hollywood in Beverly Hills, Ca. Ali will fight April Fowler in a bout on 08 October 1999 in New York. AFP PHOTO/VINCE BUCCI (Photo credit should read Vince Bucci/AFP/Getty Images)
8 Oct 1999: Laila Ali celebrates after the fight against April Fowler at Turning Stone Casino in Verona, New York. Ali defeated Fowler by a KO in the first round. Mandatory Credit: Al Bello /Allsport
DETROIT, UNITED STATES: Laila Ali raises her arms after defeating Nicolyn Armstrong during the second round of their fight at Cobo Hall in Detroit on 10 December 1999. Ali won the fight in the second round by a TKO. Ali the daughter of boxing great Muhammad Ali is 3-0 as a professional boxer. AFP Photo/Jeff KOWALSKY (Photo credit should read JEFF KOWALSKY/AFP/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - CIRCA 2000: Laila Ali, daughter of Muhammad Ali, is on hand at Planet Hollywood to promote her bout against Jacqui Frazier-Lyde, daughter of Joe Frazier, in June.Their famous fathers faced off in three bouts, including the unforgettable 'Thrilla in Manila.' (Photo by Andrew Savulich/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)
UNIVERSAL CITY, CA - JULY 24: Athlete Laila Ali attends the 'Nutty Professor II: The Klumps' Universal City Premiere on July 24, 2000 at the Universal Amphitheatre in Universal City, California. (Photo by Ron Galella, Ltd./WireImage)
LOS ANGELES - 2001: Actress and boxer Laila Ali poses for a portrait in 2001 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Harry Langdon/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES - 2001: Actress and boxer Laila Ali poses for a portrait in 2001 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Harry Langdon/Getty Images)
Laila Ali during The 8th Annual Soul Train 'Lady Of Soul' Awards - Arrivals at Pasadena Civic Auditorium in Pasadena, California, United States. (Photo by Gregg DeGuire/WireImage)
LOS ANGELES, UNITED STATES - JUNE 21: Los Angeles; Laila ALI (USA) - Valerie MAHFOOD (USA); Laila ALI/USA (Photo by Alexander Hassenstein/Bongarts/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES - JULY 17: Boxer Laila Ali speaks at a press conference to announce 'Ali vs Martin: Who's The Greatest', a boxing match between Laila Ali and Christy Martin, on July 17, 2003 in Los Angeles, California. The Pay-Per-View match will be held Saturday, August 23 in Biloxi, Mississippi. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
Laila Ali during BET 25th Anniversary Show - Arrivals at Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles, California, United States. (Photo by Jason Merritt/FilmMagic)
Laila Ali during Opening of the World's Largest Adidas Sport Performance Store in the World at Adidas Soho Store in New York City, New York, United States. (Photo by Djamilla Rosa Cochran/WireImage)
Laila Ali during 'Magic' Evolution - An Evening Honoring Earvin 'Magic' Johnson - Arrivals at Beverly Hilton in Beverly Hills, California, United States. (Photo by Jason Merritt/FilmMagic)
NEW YORK - NOVEMBER 07: Laila Ali works out during a training session on November 7, 2006 at Grand Central Station in New York City. Laila Ali will fight Shelly Burton for the WBC & WIBA Super Middleweight Championship. (Photo by Nick Laham/Bongarts/Getty Images)
Laila Ali during Laila Ali Press Conference - June 23, 2006 at Museum of Television and Radio in Beverly Hills, California, United States. (Photo by Ron Wolfson/WireImage)
NEW YORK - NOVEMBER 08: Laila Ali speaks to the media during a press conference on November 8, 2006 at Madison Square Garden in New York City. Ali will fight Shelly Burton for the WBC & WIBA Super Middleweight Championship on November 11. (Photo by Chris McGrath/Bongarts/Getty Images)
HOLLYWOOD - JUNE 22: Professional boxer Laila Ali attends the 'Ratatouille' film premiere at the Kodak Theatre on June 22, 2007 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)
WESTWOOD, CA - DECEMBER 16: TV personality Laila Ali arrives at the premiere of Columbia Pictures' 'Seven Pounds' held at Mann's Village Theatre on December16, 2008 in Westwood, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
Boxer Laila Ali attends the 2009 CNN Heroes Awards held at The Kodak Theatre on November 21, 2009 in Hollywood, California. 19284_003_JS_0495.jpg
BEVERLY HILLS, CA - OCTOBER 18: Laila Ali attends THE NOBLE AWARDS at The Beverly Hills Hilton on October 18, 2009 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by ANDREAS BRANCH/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - JUNE 12: Laila Ali arrives at the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation's 22nd Annual 'A Time For Heroes' celebrity carnival held at Wadsworth Theater on June 12, 2011 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Michael Tran/FilmMagic)
Boxer Laila Ali attends the Red Dress Collection 2011 Fashion Show with Swarovski at The Theatre at Lincoln Center on February 9, 2011 in New York City.
BEVERLY HILLS, CA - JULY 24: TV personality Laila Ali attends NBC Universal's 2012 Summer TCA Tour at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on July 24, 2012 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - MARCH 28: TV personality Laila Ali attends the Zaeem Jamal boutique launch on March 28, 2012 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Chelsea Lauren/WireImage)
BEVERLY HILLS, CA - FEBRUARY 21: Laila Ali arrives at the 6th Annual ESSENCE Black Women In Hollywood Luncheon at Beverly Hills Hotel on February 21, 2013 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Steve Granitz/WireImage)
LOS ANGELES, CA - JUNE 30: Laila Ali arrives at the 2013 BET Awards Make A Wish Arrivals at Nokia Plaza L.A. LIVE on June 30, 2013 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Leon Bennett/WireImage)
LOS ANGELES, CA - JULY 17: Boxer Laila Ali arrives at the 2013 ESPY Awards at Nokia Theatre L.A. Live on July 17, 2013 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Gregg DeGuire/WireImage)
WESTWOOD, CA - APRIL 07: Laila Ali arrives at the 'Draft Day' - Los Angeles Premiere at Regency Village Theatre on April 7, 2014 in Westwood, California. (Photo by Steve Granitz/WireImage)
RESTON, VA - MARCH 21: Laila Ali poses for a photo at the 6th annual Get RADICAL Women's Conference at the Hyatt Regency on March 21, 2014 in Reston, Virginia. (Photo by Kris Connor/Getty Images)
BEVERLY HILLS, CA - OCTOBER 26: Boxer Laila Ali attends the CP3 Foundation celebrity server dinner at Mastro's Steakhouse on October 26, 2014 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Tommaso Boddi/WireImage)
LAS VEGAS, NV - NOVEMBER 07: Boxer Laila Ali attends the 2014 Soul Train Music Awards at the Orleans Arena on November 7, 2014 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Earl Gibson/BET/Getty Images for BET)
LOS ANGELES, CA - JULY 14: Professional boxer Laila Ali attends the 2015 Sports Humanitarian of the Year Awards at the Conga Room at L.A. Live on July 14, 2015 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by David Livingston/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - JULY 14: Laila Ali attends the Variety's Sports Entertainment Breakfast presented by Mercedes-Benz at Vibiana on July 14, 2015 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Michael Buckner/Getty Images for Variety)
LOS ANGELES, CA - MARCH 02: professional Boxer Laila Ali attends the red carpet event for NBC's 'Celebrity Apprentice' at Westin Bonaventure Hotel on March 2, 2016 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Paul Archuleta/FilmMagic)
WESTWOOD, CA - NOVEMBER 19: Laila Ali attends the premiere of 'Creed' at Regency Village Theatre on November 19, 2015 in Westwood, California. (Photo by Jason LaVeris/FilmMagic)

Did he change his mind at any point?

He did change his mind! I won that fight. I said, "You know what, I'm going to do it anyway. You just watch me." And then he came back and said, "Wow, you can fight. Women can fight." And that was a big win for me. I proved to Muhammad Ali that women can fight. Because he didn't think that we could.

Amazing. Rachel Platten is performing "Fight Song" tonight at the Maxx You Project kick-off event. Do you have a favorite pump-up song that motivates you?

I have so many, but let's see. I would say Beyoncé's "Run the World." I love that song, whether I'm working out, whether I'm getting ready to go into some sort of an entrepreneurial challenge. Anything. It's like, "Yes, let's do this. Let's make it happen."

See photos from the kick-off event below:

Maxx You Project Kick-Off Concert
See Gallery
Maxx You Project Kick-Off Concert

This interview has been edited and condensed.

*100% of ticket proceeds will be given to Girls Inc. of New York City to help in their mission to inspire all girls to be strong, smart, and bold.

Read Full Story