Women in Business: Soledad O'Brien

Women in Business: Soledad O'Brien

Soledad O'Brien is an award winning journalist, author, documentarian, news anchor, and producer. She has been at the forefront of the biggest news stories of the past several decades as an anchor and reporter for NBC, CNN, HBO Real Sports, Al Jazeera, National Geographic and others. She is one of the most sought-after journalists of current day, particularly on issues of race, gender and ethnicity, politics and culture. O'Brien created the highly successful documentary series In America, for CNN, which included "Black in America" and "Latino in America." That series continues under the direction of her new production company, Starfish Media Group (SMG), which she launched in June 2013 as a multi- platform media production and distribution company. SMG is dedicated to uncovering and producing empowering stories that take a challenging look at the often divisive issues of race, class, wealth, poverty and opportunity, through personal stories.

Earlier in her career, O'Brien co-anchored for "Weekend Today" and contributed to segments on The "Today" show and "NBC Nightly News". In 2003, O'Brien transitioned to CNN where she was the face of CNN's morning news shows for many years, and in 2011 won an Emmy for "Crisis in Haiti Report" on Haitian orphanages, following the massive earthquake. In 2013 she won 2 Emmy awards for reporting on "Kids and Race" and for the networks reporting of the 2012 presidential election. Her coverage of Hurricane Katrina earned her and CNN a George Foster Peabody Award. She also received another Peabody Award for her coverage of the BP Gulf Coast oil spill. Her reporting on the Southeast Asia tsunami garnered CNN an Alfred I DuPont Award. O'Brien's critically acclaimed documentary series, "Black in America" and its follow-up "Latino in America," are among CNN's most successful domestic and international franchises. In 2013, "Latino in America 2," the story of a Latina boxer who dreams of Olympic glory, won the celebrated Cine Award for documentaries. Her documentary "Gay in America: Gary and Tony have a baby", and "Unwelcome, the Muslims Next Door" also won numerous journalism awards.

She is the author of two critically acclaimed books, both published by the Celebra division of Penguin Books: Latino in America, and her memoir, The Next Big Story. In 2013, O'Brien joined Harvard University as a Distinguished Fellow and was appointed to the Board of Directors of the foundation for The National Archives.

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, O'Brien and her husband, Brad, created the Soledad O'Brien & Brad Raymond Starfish Foundation to help disadvantaged young women get to and through college. They provide funding, resources and mentoring to 25 deserving young women.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?

I think, as a rule, we are as human beings the sum total of our lives events--both the good and the bad. I've had some great opportunities to lead: certainly reporting for nearly 30 years, requires one to be aggressive, decisive, and make split second decisions--and live with them. I think those experiences have helped me lead today, as I run a small company. I think being a mom of four kids (now 10,10,13 and 14) also has taught me a lot about how to manage others--good parenting is about having rules, but also finding common ground so your children can flourish. I certainly don't consider my employees my children! But I think the mindset about helping people grow and reach their goals is somewhat similar. Finally, I think working under some really awful bosses (and some great ones!) taught me about the best ways to lead--and the things to avoid doing!

How has your previous employment experience aided your tenure as a journalist and businesswomen and philanthropist?

My previous employment greatly helped my journalism career: my first job was mucking stalls to pay for my riding lessons. I quickly learned--no one was going to underwrite my (expensive) lessons and if I wanted to take them, I'd have to figure it out on my own. Also--mucking stalls is hard, physical work. If you do a poor job not only is your boss angry, you put the horses at risk too. I had been pre-med in college, so many of the jobs I tacked (with the goal of going to med school) were grueling and had tough hours. It made working crazy morning-tv hours pretty easy. I think any experience that challenges you--and you survive--allows you to go into the next experience more confident and competent.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure working in television?

Highlights: I've been so lucky to have covered some of the biggest stories of the last two decades: Katrina, the Japanese tsunami, the Haitian earthquake. It's been a really great career. I've won a bunch of awards for my reporting and got to focus on longform documentaries like Black in America and Latino in America. I've been so lucky. Launching a company was a long time goal of mine. My husband reminded me today of a conversation we had ten years ago about what the long-term strategy was! Of course there are always challenges: juggling four kids and a job that requires a lot of travel is never easy. It's hard to know when to say NO to assignments. Certainly, launching a company is a challenge. But so far, it's all been very rewarding and quite successful!

What advice can you offer to women who want a career in your industry?

Women interested in a career in journalism should write, write, write. This job is about expressing oneself well. Also, they should network--attend every journalism event (NABJ, NAHJ, etc etc) that they can find. Finally, internships are crucial. You need to show people you 'get it' from grabbing coffee to doing high level research. These days, all of our interns can edit. So I would also encourage specific skills: editing, researching, writing.

What is the most important lesson you've learned in your career to date?

Having the real skills to work on are being comfortable with change, being flexible with new experiences. I think my ability to be adaptable--to hit the ground running and figure it out as I go, has helped me immensely both as a reporter and an entrepreneur.

How is COVERGIRL's Girls Can Initiative making a real difference?

COVERGIRL's Girls Can initiative is all about highlighting women who've been challenged, but the recognized that they CAN overcome challenges. I think it's not only inspiring, but also gives young women the specific tools to think about how to move past negative feedback and become the woman they want to be. It's a great message. And statistics show us that while women are making strides (in pay, opportunity, jobs) we are also still not quite where we need to be.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?

There is no work life balance! It's about trying to integrate those two things in a way that works at the moment. I work at home, bring my kids into the office, have a lot of 'cross pollination' of business and pleasure. I think the key is to not take it all to seriously, and to keep a good sense of humor about one's flaws. I've covered a lot of disasters--and keeping a level head about things that are clearly NOT disasters is probably a good idea.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?

The biggest issue for women in the workplace is true equality- in pay, in opportunity. Sometimes I'm dismayed we are having the same conversations that we were having decades ago. It's really depressing at times.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?

Mentorship has been huge in my life. My first boss Jeanne Blake, was a huge mentor and supporter. Dick Parsons was a great mentor when I joined CNN. I think I've helped because I'm a great mentee. I work hard and really take the advice I get seriously. As a new business owner I've been picking the brains of successful entrepreneurs. It's been very helpful.

My sisters have probably been most helpful as mentors in my personal life: they all had challenging jobs and kids and getting their advice on that front was always helpful. (when my oldest daughter was 3months old I called my sister Cecilia crying that I was exhausted, miserable and flailing and failing on every front. She said: "perfect! You're right where you're supposed to be."

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?

I have had the opportunity to interview two amazing women: the ballerina Misty Copeland and Mindy Grossman the CEO of HSN. We hosted them as part of my Starfish Foundation's powHERful conference this year. They're both amazing and the stories they shared with our young women were very relevant. They talked about being resiliant, and flexible, getting beyond sterotypes for women and also about forging one's own path.

What do you want to personally and professionally accomplish in the next year?

In the next year I'd like to grow my company. We've had a really tremendous first 18 months and now we are positioned to make some important hires. I'd like to get back in shape--I've let excercise slide while I focused on the company and I'm ready to start competing in road races again! I'd like to regain a little balance in my schedule. My days can be pretty crazy. Every so often I'd like to look at my calendar and say--oh, I can go have dinner with my husband tonight! I'm not triple booked with meetings!

Before You Go