AIB Featured Business Leader – Oprah Winfrey

AIB Featured Business Leader – Oprah Winfrey

When you think of Oprah Winfrey, you probably think of her television show. That’s no surprise, as The Oprah Winfrey Show aired for a staggering 25 years, starting in 1985 and only ending in 2011 when its star was 57 years old. But Winfrey has more strings to her bow than one show, no matter how popular it has always been.  She has raised more than $51 million for charity through her Angel Network, campaigned for children’s rights and in November 2013, received the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her contributions to her country. From humble beginnings in a small farming community in Mississippi, she is currently estimated to be worth a cool $US3.2 billion.

Winfrey was born in 1954 to a teenage mother and lived with her grandmother during her early years while her mother looked for work elsewhere. A gifted child, Winfrey was reading Bible verses at age three, and reciting poetry in the local church community. When she was six she went to Milwaukee to live with her mother, but life wasn’t easy for either of them. Her mother worked long hours as a housemaid, and Winfrey suffered abuse from male relatives until age 13 when she ran away from home. Troubled times followed, until age 14, she went to Nashville, Tennessee to live with her father. A strict disciplinarian, he encouraged Winfrey to use her considerable talents and she soon became an honour student and prize-winning speaker.

At 17, Winfrey won the Miss Black Tennessee beauty pageant and was offered her first media role as an on-air radio broadcaster. She went to Tennessee State University on a full scholarship and graduated with a degree in Speech Communications and Performing Arts. Upon graduating, she signed with a local television station as a reporter and anchor.

Her flourishing media career led her to Baltimore, where at 22 she joined WJZ-Tv News as an anchor and co-hosted her first talk show People Are Talking. Her reputation spread, and in January 1984, just as she turned 30, she was invited to Chicago to try and save a struggling half-hour morning program. By the end of the year, AM Chicago was the most popular show in town, expanding to an hour long, and in September 1985, was renamed the Oprah Winfrey Show.

In 1988 Winfrey incorporated her own production company, Harpo Productions Inc., which acquired the Oprah Winfrey Show in its entirety. The show continued to make headlines, with Winfrey also producing and starring in a number of made-for-TV movies throughout the eighties and nineties. A 1993 interview with reclusive pop star Michael Jackson became the most watched television interview of all time. In 1998, Winfrey was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Academy, a high honour for someone aged only 44 at the time.

When Time’s 100 Most Influential People List was instituted for the first time in 1999, Winfrey made the list. The list was brought back in 2004 as an annual feature, with Winfrey scoring a spot every year from 2004 to 2013 save for one. Her reach has extended to publishing, with Oprah’s Book Club creating a number of instant bestsellers and her own magazine O, The Oprah Magazine, enjoying the most successful launch in the history of the industry. Winfrey is also one of the partners in Oxygen Media, which focuses on programming aimed at women, and runs her own network, the Oprah Winfrey Network, in conjunction with Discovery Communications.

In 1998, Winfrey established Oprah’s Angel Network, which has provided schools and educational materials in South Africa, rebuilt homes in the American South after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and given grants to organisations designed to improve the lives of women and girls worldwide. The Network shut down in 2011 when the Oprah Winfrey Show wound down, but much of its work continues through the Oprah Winfrey Charitable Foundation.

Now 62, Winfrey still commands sell-out crowds across the world touting her self-help brand, and hosts a nightly program called Oprah’s Lifeclass. She makes her principal home in Montecito, California, sharing a 42-acre ocean-view estate with her partner Stedman Graham. It’s called Promised Land, a fitting tribute to that disadvantaged little girl who once recited Bible verses in her grandmother’s church.

What do you think?

There is no doubt that Oprah has had a fantastic career to date, and importantly has instilled a culture of philanthropy and generosity, setting a benchmark for her peers. How does Oprah’s personal and professional journey inspire you?

This article was written by Tanya Ashworth-Keppel on behalf of the Australian Institute of Business. All opinions are that of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of AIB. 

Image Credit: Business Insider

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