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Soledad O’Brien

Talks Family, Race and Career

What gets you up each day to drive your level of high impact?
When you start out a career you think, “If I keep doing this I can get to this or get paid X number of dollars”. Yesterday was my fifty-third birthday {September 19th} and I have to say that for the past twenty years I really ha-ven’t thought like that. You’re in a place in your career where you’re really happy. At some point, if you’re lucky, you can transition out of being motivated just by money or a job title or even the next exciting thing and you can start thinking; what is the purpose of doing this? I mean it sounds so cheesy but at some point it has to be a little bit bigger than yourself to move you. So for me, I love what I do. I love journalism and I’ve been really successful. A lot of what I focus on are people who often don’t tell their stories. I think it’s important to tell them and I feel like when I’m fighting, I”m fighting for them as much as I’m fighting for me.

What was the inspiration behind your non-profit PowHERful Foundation and how can we support?
PowHERful’s mission is to get young women to and through college through financial assistance, mentorship and support. It is very small, so we would love financial donations. Certainly, that’s a nice way to support us, but a bigger way to support is to find young women in your own community and support them. We need them to have someone in their community who’s taking them out to coffee and sharing with them. Mentorship is so important. I have yet to meet a successful woman who’d say, “I did it myself.” People are willing to help, but you have to be willing to articulate the help you need. For young women in PowHERful, what we try to teach them is, here’s how you articulate the help you need; here’s how you think about the next job; here’s how you prepare yourself to be in a position to get the next opportunity and then run with that ball. (powerherful.org)

Does mentorship, in your eyes, shape measurable impact for women in the workforce?
Yes! I wish that I had more mentors twenty years ago. I remember getting invited to conferences as a profession-al woman versus when I needed it as a college young woman. It’s one of the reasons we started the PowHerful Foundation so that young women can see that conferences can be valuable for someone at age twenty when they learn to interface with people. We need to do it on the front end to help them get from high school to and through college or helping them in the early stages of their career. When I started my production company about 6 years ago, a number of people sat down and literally took out a napkin and walk me through how to structure a company. As someone who had never run a company, I was trying to figure it out. It was so helpful.

What practical life lessons do you share with youth that we can all glean from?
One thing we do not put a lot of weight on today is doing the work. Instagram is the opposite – it’s “how does it look?” versus doing the work. I tell young people when I talk at colleges, you actually get a lot of credit for do-ing a first draft and a third and a fifth draft and making it good, really figuring out the problem. Do the freakin’ work! Learn and understand something. It’s not sexy, you can’t Instagram it, but it’s important to really do the work. In my career, I’ve done the work. It took a long time. There are things I did well. There are things I sucked at and got better at. There were things I stopped doing because I wasn’t good at them. It really is as sim-ple and as difficult as doing the work.

As CEO of Soledad O’Brien Productions, you’ve centered on telling authentic stories, however complex they may be. What does controlling the narrative empower you to do?
Before I started the production company, the narrative was already controlled by somebody else, so I had to fight for the opportunity to say, “Here’s another story that I think is really interesting.” I have done stories about women firefighters who were first responders in 9/11 and African Americans, gay Americans, Muslim Americans or Latino Americans and their back stories in America. These stories have value, too. Then when they win, when they do well, ratings wise, you prove a point, which is – everyone just likes a well-told story. People just want to be in-formed and entertained and understand the issues that matter. So for me, when you get a chance to not really control the narrative, but instead, show that there’s another opportunity in the narrative, you’ve accomplished something important. It doesn’t have to be the same old story over and over again. There are different ways to ap-proach things. That’s very powerful. (soledadobrienproductions.com)

The media industry has shifted over the years, especially in our current digital revolution. Did any of those changes affect your path and how did you leverage those changes into opportunities?
The way it affected me was suddenly, TV was competing with digital. And when TV competes with digital, TV feels it needs to be more dramatic, over the top, more sensationalized. So, on one hand people started seeing headlines that were sometimes made up because they were trying to grab on to the sensationalism, as opposed to the actual point of a story. Now for us, digital is a big source effecting how we think about our business. Every story is a digital story now. We create content that has to live across every single platform. Some people will see it in print, TV, on their phones, or hear it on the radio. We have to be prepared on every level of storytelling.

Memorandum

On social media, you boldly call out journalism ethics, racism, lack of diversity and more. What would you say to this generation about speaking out responsibly?
I think if you’re young at your job, you keep your mouth shut and do your job. Figure out who is an advocate and how to navigate the space that you’re in. I don’t think it’s smart for everybody at all times to say, ‘Here’s my feedback.’ When I was younger, I did not like hearing from people who hadn’t done the work. I tell young people, your job is to learn how to be a reporter. Go do that and if you have issues or things you want to talk about, sometimes it’s better to have conversations with people and partner with people. Not everyone should stand up in a meeting and kill their career. When you get to my stage, where you’ve been around for a minute and you have a lot of credibility and don’t have a lot to lose, then you get to stand up. There are lots of young people who will reach out and talk to me and I say to them, make sure your work is right and you’re doing the right thing. You don’t always have to be the one who sticks the neck out. Sometimes that needs to be me and I can help do that for you. At some point your time comes to do the brave thing. I wish there were more people who were in positions where they had nothing to lose and could do the brave thing. I loved that Greta Thunberg went to Congress about global warming and said, “You don’t need to listen to me. I’m just telling you there’s a whole bunch of scientists who have something to say.” It wasn’t, “Here’s what I have to say.” It was, “listen to the scientists.” That’s a very good message.

In a recent CNN interview, you shared, “I never want to be defined by the color of my skin, but I’m happy to let it determine how I stand in the world”. As a woman of mixed heritage, how can we do a better job at valuing our differences?
I think valuing differences starts with making sure we’re hearing diverse stories. Part of the way you don’t value people is you don’t let them share their story.You don’t hear from them. So, I think a lot of ways of showing that you value people is letting them take the mic. I don’t think there’s anyone who only wants to be defined by one thing – their gender, race, age, etc., but I think people certainly come from a point of view that has value and interest. When I would win an award for women of color, I appreciated it and I also appreciated the awards for journalists, women and Long Islanders because I’m all of those. They’re all the pieces that make up who we are but I also don’t go out of my way to downplay any of my point of view or things that I think add value to my perspective.

Your parents, Edward and Estela O’Brien, rest in peace, were sojourners in their own right as an interracial couple. Tell us about the newspaper letter you recently found from your mother. What did that discovery reveal to you?
It was a posting in the newspaper that was like an ad that read like a letter. My mom was a fighter and it really reminded me that she just did not tolerate bullshit at any turn and that made her a very embarrassing mom (Laughs). As a teenager, oh my gosh – horrifying, but it’s what I learned and respected about her as I got older and understood. You have to understand the reality. You’re a black woman trying to become the CEO of a company, but you have to have that reality in your back pocket and not let it suffocate you. You have to understand the reality but not let it suck you under. I think my mom did that really well. The reality was that housing was unfair in this community, but today we live in a house. We take advantage of the things we have. We fight for things, but we’re not going to be suffocated by injustice. You can’t live that way. You have to be realistic about it. You have to understand it and you have to make sure you’re pushing past it and I think my parents did that well.

You juggle four teenage children, a foundation, business and more. Did entrepreneurship make work-life balance easier or more challenging for you? We all want to know the secret. How do you do it?
I do it sometimes very badly, but I think both. When you run your own thing, you work 24/7 but you can also do it from the soccer field. You can go out to dinner with your kids if you want to. You can take a week off. You can go horseback riding every morning if that’s what you’d like to do, because you’re the boss but you’re also responsible for everything. I really enjoy it. I think when you run your own business, as much as it’s stressful, it’s much easier to have a say in what your day’s going to look like. Now of course, if something goes horribly awry, you’re suddenly crazed, but I have definitely found that my work-life balance got better when I became a CEO, yet I work much more. It sounds completely contradictory. Sometimes my day doesn’t end until I throw myself in the bed. I get up in the morning, I work out everyday and I start running again, but at the same time I definitely make much more time for myself. I feel like I have much more of a balanced life than I used to.

What advice would you give journalists, writers and storytellers on the key elements that drive a compelling story?
A compelling story has to be a story. It has to have a beginning, middle and an end. It has to be somebody else’s narrative. It has to be fact checked, but also from someone’s perspective. When you find yourself telling somebody else’s stories, it’s probably not a very good story. Documentaries are so good because you hand the mic and say, “You tell your story” with all the messiness, complications, and humanity that’s in a good story. Most stories don’t have pat answers. They’re messy. We make stupid decisions. We make mistakes. We fuck things up royally. That’s what makes us human so how do you figure that out? A good story is a bit of a messy story.

When it comes to lifestyle, culture and global experiences, give us a peek into your ultimate travel taste and how you enjoy it?
I love to travel; even not particularly interesting travel, like schlepping from New York to Washington, D.C. to do my show. I love Amtrak. I love going overseas. We tend to spend our holidays overseas, which means that I get to experience how Christmas is celebrated around the globe. I really love Portugal. I love Morocco. I liked to travel when I was at CNN covering breaking news. I really enjoy seeing how other people do it, how other people live, what’s happening in other places and trying to understand other cultures. So I’m just a big fan of getting on a plane and getting out of Dodge.

What can you share about your upcoming projects?
We have a doc that was that was just premiered at DOC NYC – a documentary film festival and that doc is about students who can’t afford to eat on campus. It’s a really good doc so we’re excited to see it screen where peo-ple can see it.