“A Renaissance Woman”
That’s how Amanda Facelle (MBA ’14) described Oprah Winfrey at an April 28th interview at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. Oprah quickly took to the moniker. Why shouldn’t she? Over the past 30 years, “The queen of all media” has donned many hats: reporter, talk show host, author, publisher, educator, actress, philanthropist, political advocate, and spiritual guide.
Carrying a net worth of nearly $3 billion, Oprah’s popularity stems from her comforting, down-to-earth demeanor. For women, she is a best friend, who listens and validates, salving their fears and reminding them that life eventually works itself out. For men, she is the older sister who won’t snitch to mom (playfully poking them nonetheless). That’s why she’s among the most popular and influential leaders of our times. She lifts people up, allowing them to tell their stories as she empathizes with their pains and aspirations.
Oprah’s gifts were evident at a young age. At 16, she was already holding down radio gigs. In college, she co-anchored the 10 o’clock news (though she abided by her father’s 11 o’clock curfew). She even turned down a $28,000 raise – and a chance to move to Atlanta – in school, recognizing that she “didn’t know what she didn’t know.”
After college, she moved to Baltimore to work as a reporter. However, she struggled with keeping an objective eye and emotional distance from her subjects. For her, reporting was “an unnatural act.” Like many young professionals finding their way, Oprah struggled to discover her true calling. “I was torn between what the world was saying to me and what I felt to be the truth for myself,” she told Stanford students.
Alas, necessity is the mother of re-invention. After being demoted to hosting a local talk show, Oprah found her home. Despite her success, she knew something bigger awaited her. While everyone – except her best friend – warned her that she’d fail in Chicago, Oprah took a leap of faith. Three years later, she was syndicated nationally.
Despite her skyrocketing popularity, Oprah still had doubts. After producing some contentious “gotcha” shows with frothing klansmen and unfaithful spouses, Oprah came to an epiphany – and chose the path not taken. “I’m not going to be used by television,” she told Stanford students on why she tinkered with her successful formula. “I’m going to use television…as a force…as a platform to speak to the world.” As a result, she had her producers ask themselves two questions before green-lighting any segment: “How do we want to see the world change?” and “How do we want to [have an] impact on the world?” “We let all of our shows really be focused and centered on that,” she says.
These days, Oprah is busier than ever, serving as chairman and CEO of Harpo Productions (which includes her publishing, radio, and television arms). And she applies the same skills from her Oprah Show days to her business. “I come from [a place of] compassion,” she told Stanford students, “a willingness to understand and be understood, and I come from wanting to connect… what is realized through the whole process is that I’m grounded in my own self.”
Even more, she works at “staying awake.” After toiling for nearly 15 years in the trenches before landing her big break, Oprah is always reflecting, envisioning, and reaching out. “My definition of luck is preparation meeting the moment of opportunity,” she cracks.
Looking for some inspiration, guidance…or simply some reassurance as you figure out your future? Check out Oprah’s advice to Stanford students on finding your identity, overcoming mistakes, and bringing out the best in others:
Listen to Your Instincts
“The truth is, I have from the very beginning listened to my instincts. All of my best decisions in life have come because I was attuned to what really felt like the next right move for me…If I fail, then I will find out what’s the next true thing for me…I knew the time would come when what I need would show up for me. When that showed up, I was ready.”
Deciding What You Want to Do
“Knowing what you don’t want to do is the best possible place to be…because knowing what you don’t want to do leads you to figure out what it is you really want.”
What Other People Really Want
“The reason why the show worked is because I understood that… there really was no difference between me and the audience. At the core of what really matters, we are the same. Do you know how I know this? Because all of us are seeking the same thing…Everyone wants to fulfill the highest, truest expression of themselves as human beings.
At the end of every interview, from a murderer to Beyoncé, the question everyone asks is, “Was that OK? How was that?”…What I started to feel is that there is a common thread that runs through every interview…all of your arguments are really about the same thing: Its about: ‘Did you hear me?’ ‘Do you see me?’ ‘Did what I say mean anything to you?’…They are looking to know ‘are you fully here with me’ or ‘are you distracted?’…That’s what your children want to know, the people you work for want to know, that’s what you want to know: ‘Did you hear me?’ Every argument isn’t about whatever you think you’re arguing about. It’s really about ‘Can you hear me?’”