Born in Nairobi, Kenya and raised in Toronto, Ontario, he is the son of Murad Velshi, the first Canadian of Indian origin elected to the Legislative Assembly of Ontario and his wife Mila, who grew up in South Africa. He is an Ismaili Muslim of Gujarati Indian descent and earned a degree in religious studies from Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario in 1994. During his time at Queen's he made news by organizing protests against Preston Manning and Canada's Reform Party. In 2010, Velshi was awarded the Queen's University Alumni Achievement Award. In 2016, Velshi was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Laws by his Alma Mater. He previously attended Toronto's Northern Secondary School during which time he was elected school president.
Velshi was married briefly in his 20s. In 2009 he married his second wife, New York-born hedge-fund manager, Lori Wachs, the president of Philadelphia-based Cross Ledge Investments, whom he met when she was a guest on his show.
In 1996, Velshi was awarded a fellowship to the United States Congress from the American Political Science Association. In this capacity he worked with Lee H. Hamilton, then a Democratic Representative from Indiana.
In Toronto, Velshi began his professional reporting career as a General Assignment reporter for CFTO. He later became a business reporter and anchor for CablePulse 24 and its then sister station CityTV. In 1999, he joined Report on Business Television, (now BNN - Business News Network) Canada's first all-business news specialty channel. Velshi hosted The Business News, Canada's first prime time business news hour.
Velshi moved to the U.S. in September 2001, joining business news channel CNNfn in New York City. He anchored several shows including Insights, Business Unusual, Street Sweep, Your Money, and co-hosted The Money Gang with Pat Kiernan before the network closed down in December 2004.
Reassigned to the main CNN network, he remained a business anchor and reporter posted, initially, to CNN's early morning program, Daybreak. In 2005, Velshi hosted 13 hour-long episodes of The Turnaround, a reality television show, during which he traveled across America, introducing small business owners who were facing challenges or seeking to grow their businesses, to high-profile mentors who helped the small business owners develop a plan for success.
After The Turnaround, Velshi was assigned to the newly launched The Situation Room from 2005 to 2006. Velshi joined American Morning as business correspondent in late 2006 and then again as co-anchor in 2011.
In 2008, Velshi undertook a cross-country road-trip aboard the CNN Election Express, during which he travelled from Myrtle Beach, South Carolina to Los Angeles, California, stopping along the way to discuss money issues with Americans. Velshi also spent 10 days riding the CNN Election Express through rural Texas before that state's March 4, 2008 primaries.
Velshi regularly was a substitute anchor for CNN/U.S. programs such as American Morning. On Saturday and Sunday he co-hosted a business program called Your Money.
Velshi also hosted CNN's Energy Hunt which took him to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and to the Oil Sands of Canada in 2008.
Tragic events during 2008 made Velshi a household name. He began the year reporting from the now-destroyed Marriott Hotel in Islamabad, Pakistan, after the killing of Benazir Bhutto. During coverage of Hurricanes Gustav and Ike, Velshi appeared on air day and night on location from hurricane-stricken areas, as the storms hit. Velshi's hurricane reporting started in 2005 during Katrina, where he reported live during the evacuation of an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico, and then from damaged oil facilities in Eastern Texas and Southern Louisiana
During the financial crisis of 2008, Velshi again appeared on television frequently throughout the day on shows like American Morning and Anderson Cooper 360°, and took viewers' live calls during special editions of Your Money, and during his weekly call-in radio show.
Being Muslim, Velshi regularly acknowledges his Islamic background and perspective when discussions involve Islam. Velshi has strongly defended the Muslim community's right to build a mosque and Islamic center (Park51) near Ground Zero in New York City. Velshi has also been critical of Peter King's hearings on Islamic radicalization in the United States as a form of Islamophobia and branding King as "naive". Velshi supports the separation of mosque and state and rejects "Political Islam" which requires the implementation of Sharia law. He has been in turn accused of downplaying the role that mainstream Islamic jurisprudence, scholarship, and interpretation play in the development and application of radical Islam and branding negative statements about Islam as biased.
On October 27, 2012, during the CNN Newsroom campaign coverage, Velshi reported on Republican Presidential Candidate Mitt Romney's economic plan, which touted creating 12 million jobs over the next four years. Velshi noted that that sounded ridiculous to him and that if Romney pulled it off, he would wear a dress for a week.
On October 29, 2012, Velshi stood in the middle of a flooded street in Atlantic City during Hurricane Sandy right in the path of fierce winds, despite telling viewers not to go outside under any considerations for their safety.
Up until leaving CNN, Velshi co-hosted the market opening edition of World Business Today on CNN International.
On April 4, 2013, it was announced that Velshi will be leaving CNN to join Al Jazeera America to host a weekly 30 minute magazine-style prime-time program called Real Money with Ali Velshi. He was the first on-air personality to be hired for the new channel. The channel stated that it hoped that Velshi's show would initially start off as a weekly show and become a daily show by the end of the year. Real Money with Ali Velshi launched on August 20th, 2013 as a daily weekday show. On May 12th, 2015 the show re-launched as Ali Velshi on Target.
Following the shutdown of Al Jazeera America in April, Velshi joined MSNBC in October 2016. Velshi served as Chief Business Correspondent for the channel's parent news division, NBC News, and he anchors a network daytime news program on MSNBC Live. Velshi also co-hosts a weekly program with Stephanie Ruhle on Saturdays at 9:30 am Pacific Time, called Velshi-Ruhle
Velshi is represented by the New York talent agency N.S. Beinstock, and by speaking agency Greater Talent Network. His first book, Gimme My Money Back: Your Guide to Beating the Financial Crisis, was published on January 2, 2009. His second book, How to Speak Money: The Language & Knowledge You Need Now, co-authored by long-time friend and co-anchor Christine Romans, was released by John Wiley & Sons in November 2011. Velshi has written monthly columns for both Money Magazine and Delta Sky magazine.
In 2010, Velshi was awarded the Queen's University Alumni Achievement Award; the highest award given to Queen's University Alumni. Also in 2010, Velshi's in-depth reporting for CNN's "How the Wheels Came Off" about the near collapse of the U.S. Auto Industry was honored with a National Headliner Award for Business & Consumer Reporting. Velshi anchored CNN's global breaking news coverage of an attempted terror attack on a Delta flight into Detroit on Christmas Day 2009, for which CNN was nominated for a 2010 Emmy award. Velshi was nominated for two additional News & Documentary Emmy awards in 2015 for his contributions at Al Jazeera including coverage of low wages paid to disabled American workers, and a scandal involving red light cameras in Chicago.
Referencing Velshi's signature bald pate, the comedian Jon Stewart has referred to Velshi as the "Hairless Prophet of Doom" on The Daily Show,—the "H-POD" moniker is now frequently repeated by others.
Stephen Colbert referred to Velshi as "CNN's business reporter from our hairless, raceless future", on an episode of The Colbert Report wherein he discussed the recent financial crisis.
In addition to appearing on The Daily Show Velshi appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show on October 3, 2008, during the global financial crisis, and on The View on February 4, 2009 after the launch of his first book on the crisis.
Velshi acted as himself in the 2010 Oliver Stone film "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps".
Velshi is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, the Economic Club of New York, the New York Financial Writers Association, The Paley Center for Media, a member of the Board of Trustees of the Chicago History Museum, a member of the Board of Trustees of Seeds of Peace, and a member of the Grand Challenges Advisory Committee of the National Academy of Engineering. He is also on the Board of Trustees of the X Prize Foundation which is a non-profit organization that designs and manages public competitions intended to encourage technological development that could benefit mankind.