Before graduating from high school, Oprah did something that forever changed her life. She won a speech contest that offered, as its prize, a full scholarship to Tennessee State University. She studied communications there and was able to put her past behind her.
As a 19-year-old college sophomore, she became Nashville’s first African-American female co-anchor of the evening news on CBS affiliate, WTVF-TV.
After graduating from Tennessee State, she joined WJZ-TV in Baltimore to host a show called “Baltimore is Talking.” She hosted that show for seven years before making the biggest move of her career.
There was a talk show in Chicago, at the time, that was last in the television ratings for the region, and there also was a giant in the industry at the peak of his game. Phil Donohue hosted a talk show by his same name, and he was number one in the country. Oprah accepted the challenge and moved to the Windy City to anchor “A.M. Chicago.”
Six months later, the station renamed the show, “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” and the rest is history. She went on a 25-year run, from 1986-2011 as the number one talk show host on the planet. It remained the highest rated television program of its kind.
By 2003, she became the first African-American female billionaire, and also was named the greatest black philanthropist in American history.
She went on to start her own company, to star in movies, to direct, produce and act in movies, television shows and Broadway productions. She’s co-authored five books, and her company produces ‘O, The Oprah Winfrey Magazine.’
But Oprah has not earned her wealth to enrich herself. She’s never forgotten her humble beginnings, and the struggles she had as a teenager. By 2012, she’d donated more than $400 million to education causes. She used her fame to form Oprah’s Angel Network (in 1998) that operated until her show closed in 2011. During that time, the Angel Network raised more than $80 million that was donated as grants to various non-profit organizations around the world.
When Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans and the Southeast, Oprah extended her reach and created Oprah’s Angel Network-Katrina. That effort raised more than $11 million, and Oprah donated $10 million herself to the relief effort that caused more than 1,800 deaths and more than $125 billion in damage.
Perhaps her most favorite philanthropic effort came in 2007. After a trip to South Africa, where she learned how the AIDS epidemic was impacting young children, Oprah got to work. She funded and oversaw construction of the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa. The school began with 150 students and has grown to 450. The school features state-of-the-art classrooms, computer and science laboratories, a library, a theater and a beauty salon.
Many people will only focus on Oprah’s wealth and fame, but I believe it’s important to recognize the other part of her life. Oprah began her life as a child with no shoes on her feet and potato sacks for dresses for school. She put her best efforts into school and school-related activities, which made a significant difference in her life. And then, when she achieved fame and wealth, she utilized that platform to help countless others who were less fortunate.
Don’t Say, “I Can’t.”