Oprah Winfrey was so young when she started working as the late-night anchor on WLAC-TV in Nashville, Tenn., she still had an 11 p.m. curfew at home. Yet she was so successful at reciting the news on camera at age 19 that she quickly received an offer from a television station in Atlanta that would have quadrupled her salary, bumping it to $40,000.
Her manager in Nashville tried to keep her: "You don't know what you don't know," he told her. "You need to stay here until you can write better, until you can perfect your craft as a journalist."
Winfrey stayed — not because she was afraid to take on a new challenge, she says, but because "I could feel inside myself … that he was absolutely right." And, at that moment, like many of those that led her to become one of the wealthiest women on earth and one of its most generous philanthropists, Winfrey "started listening to what felt like the truth to me."
That included figuring out that she was better at chatting up ice cream vendors than covering murder and mayhem, knowing that she would not win a discrimination suit she considered filing early in her career to fend off a boss who was "drunk with power," and realizing that, after 25 years, it was time to end her wildly popular daytime talk show and start her own network.
"If I were to put it in business terms or to leave you with a message," she told a crowd of Stanford GSB students, some of whom waited in line 90 minutes to secure a seat close to the stage, "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."
Following her instincts led her to pay attention to her seemingly natural ability to make personal connections with strangers. "I met Oprah for the first time today, but, like many of you, I am sure, I feel like I've known her for years," Stanford GSB Dean Garth Saloner said, introducing Winfrey before her April 16 talk. "I don't know how many times over the years my late wife would say at the dinner table, 'Today, Oprah said …' as though she were talking about an old friend who she had been chatting with in the living room." And, he added, "Which, of course, in some way she had been."
The woman known around the world simply as Oprah was born in Mississippi to a single mother just four months before the U.S. Supreme Court struck down school segregation.
Before Winfrey's compassionate personality brought her fame, it would often emerge at the most inconvenient of times. As a reporter, she brought blankets to the fire victims she covered on the nightly news, only to be admonished by her supervisors for doing so. She knew then, that being a hard-nosed reporter was not her calling, but she did not know what was. "Knowing what you don't want to do is the best possible place to be if you don't know what to do, because knowing what you don't want to do leads you to figure out what it is you really want," the 60-year-old Winfrey says.
Sometimes the seminal moments along the journey to the right career look much like failure. Winfrey's path to talk-show diva came only after she was "demoted" from a television news anchor in Baltimore to work on a talk show at the TV station. "They wanted to fire me," she says. A contract saved her job but not her prestigious anchor slot. "The moment I sat on the talk show interviewing the Carvel Ice Cream man and his multiple flavors, I knew that I had found a home for myself."
Still, no one could have imagined anyone touching the success of Phil Donahue, the pioneer of the tabloid talk-show genre. Everyone but her best friend, Gayle King, told Winfrey she would fail when she went on to Chicago.
Winfrey succeeded by putting her own spin on the genre: confessional TV with a big dose of self-help. In later years, having a book selected by Oprah's Book Club would become synonymous with overnight success for authors.
"I always understood there really was no difference between me and the audience," she says. "At times, I have had better shoes. But at the core — at the core of what really matters — we were the same. I mean, the secret of that show for 25 years is that people could see themselves in me."
People want the same thing, she says. She has talked with nearly 30,000 guests on her show through the years. "At the end of every interview from the murderer to Beyoncé, the question everybody asks is, 'Was that OK?' 'How was that?'"
As an African-American businesswoman, Winfrey finds that even now most of her contemporaries are white men. "It never really concerned me … I didn't get to be where I am and who I am by looking at the color of people's skin. I really, literally, took Martin Luther King at his word. "
She draws on her spirituality, too. "I come as one, I stand as 10,000," she says, paraphrasing "Our Grandmothers" by poet Maya Angelou. "When I walk into a room … I will literally sit and call on that 10,000."
Winfrey says she was naive when she first started giving away some of her wealth, because she invested in well-intentioned but ineffective programs. Before you can help people, you have to help them change the way they see themselves. "If you can't connect to that, then you lose and they lose."
Knowing Nelson Mandela can also help. Winfrey spent 10 days as a guest in the home of South Africa's first black president, and they often talked about how important education was to empowering people and raising them out of poverty. One day, as they sat reading the newspaper, Winfrey mentioned that she would like to build a school someday. Mandela stood up and phoned the education minister. "Get over here; Oprah wants to build a school."
The seed was sown for the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls, which Winfrey opened in 2007 in South Africa. At Stanford, Winfrey introduced one of its graduates to the audience and then shared the advice that she gives to "my girls," as she calls the students.
"Your real work is to figure out where your power base is and to work on that alignment of your personality, your gifts you have to give, with the real reason why you are here," she said. "Align your personality with your purpose, and no one can touch you."