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Entrepreneurial Lessons From Giants: Oprah Winfrey

Nnanyelugo is passionate about the discovery of traits in extraordinary people for adaptation by entrepreneurs desirous of success.


1. Her Beginnings

Life magazine honoured her as the most influential woman of her generation, while CNN called her the world's most powerful woman. Forbes also rated her as the first black female billionaire in the world and the 2004-6 only black woman billionaire in the world. At 32 years of age, Oprah was already a millionaire. By 2014, as head of a billion-dollar media empire, her net worth exceeded $2.9 billion.

This breath-taking prosperity status contrasts with Oprah's beginnings. She was born a poor girl on January 29, 1954, in Kosciusko, Mississippi. She lived on her grandmother's farm where there was no running water, up till she was six years old in 1961. She later moved to Wisconsin to be with her poor single mother who struggled on welfare in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

At about the age of nine, Oprah's teenage cousin raped her. That trend of sexual molestation continued with an additional three male family friends until she was about fourteen years of age. The combined abuse and early exposure turned Oprah into a teen rebel. She broke curfews and enjoyed stealing. All that stopped when her father, a barber in Nashville, brought her to live with him.

2. Early Career and Emergence

Following Oprah's 1971 recognition as the most popular student at a Nashville high school, she got a ticket to compete in the Miss Black America pageant. That also opened the door for her to win an oratory scholarship to Tennessee State University. That same year, she entered and emerged as the winner of the Miss Teen Fire Prevention pageant, which was organized by a local radio DJ. It was her outstanding performance in the competition that made her secure a job as a newsreader in the radio company. Two years later, when she was 19 years old and still in school, she took a job as a broadcaster and was the first black American as well as the youngest presenter of current news at WLAC-TV (CBS station in Nashville, Tennessee).

Upon graduation in 1976, Oprah migrated from Tennessee to Maryland, where she worked as an evening news anchor. However, it was evident that the young Oprah could not effectively manage her emotions as she unprofessionally shed tears while reporting some emotional news at WJZ – TV. As a result of that, in 1977 Oprah left and moved on to co-host a morning television chat show called People Are Talking. Seven years later Oprah migrated to Illinois, where she presented AM Chicago, a 30-minute morning talk show on ABC affiliate WLS-TV. By 1985, the show, which used to be last in the ratings, topped the chat.

In 1986, through the encouragement of legendary film critic Roger Ebert, Oprah licensed her show for a national audience. It was reconfigured as an hourly program and renamed The Oprah Winfrey Show. The television programme was the first nationally syndicated TV show, to be hosted by a black American woman. Oprah Winfrey was 32 years old at the time. That same year she received a nomination in the 1986 Oscar awards for her Best Supporting Actress role in The Colour Purple. Ever since then, Oprah's journey has been positively persistent towards global stardom and far-reaching affluence.

3. Why the interest in Oprah Winfrey?

Over the decades, Oprah Winfrey has been a reliable source of inspiration for women. But Oprah's entrepreneurial abilities go far beyond gender and race. She is a global example of how it can be possible for anybody to rise to worldwide stardom and incredible affluence from a state of poverty. That is precisely the root of the interest in the story. The puzzle has always been how a poor black girl that suffered severe psychological scars of sexual abuse and emotional betrayal from people that she should ordinarily look up to towered above those let-downs and still found the strength to rise to the heights she attained? How did she cut through the huddles of gender and racial discrimination to emerge a superstar and the head of a global media empire? Oprah is one of those models (beauty, media and business) that maintained a definite upward curve of continuous success. For her, it was success after success. It was as if every barrier she overcame became a steppingstone for a new level of success. Another puzzle was how Oprah was able to consistently understand the changing mood of the consuming public, which also always gave her unequalled public acclaim.

4. Entrepreneurial lessons from Oprah

We cannot possibly know and exhaust all the elegant traits that made Oprah Winfrey what she eventually became. We know a few of them based on the evident results across her life trajectory. We understand that a steady track record of outstanding performance would not have consistently happened by accident. It was for all reasons possible and in the aftermath of hard work and focus. In the paragraphs below, we identified only seven of them that are obvious. They are:

a. Effective combination of passion and talents
b. Achieving and sustaining outstanding performances
c. Extraordinarily hard-working
d. Bold entrepreneurial move
e. Great customer intelligence skills
f. Diversification into multiple streams of profitable businesses
g. The influence of her father

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a. Effective combination of passion and talents

Despite Oprah's impoverished background, it was apparent that she knew what she wanted to be and worked hard to achieve it. So, there was a harmony between her interests (what she loved to do) and her strengths (her capabilities). As they say, "if one creatively excels in doing what he/she loves to do, the logical consequence is wealth." Oprah has always been a gifted speaker while she was still with her grandmother. She had the opportunity to speak at church and school. It was her winning a speech contest that enabled her to receive a full scholarship to college. And while in college she did not stop there. Her first job in 1973 when she was 19 years old was also consistent with that passion. So, her entire career aligns with the skills and attitudes that she had always had as a kid. Her investments have also been along the same areas of interest as her strengths.

b. Achieving and sustaining outstanding performances

Oprah Winfrey is undoubtedly a lady of firsts. Continuously achieving a series of outstanding performances can only be a consequence of dedication and hard work. It was the excellence speech that she gave at the contest that won her full scholarship to Tennessee State University. It was because she distinguished herself as an excellent student that she earned a nomination for the competition in the first place. It was also without doubt that it was her outstanding performances that enabled her to cut through the racial and gender discrimination that was pervasive in the United States at the early stages of her career. It was also her distinguishing performances at every point where she worked that underscored her constant elevation to higher levels. It was her excellent performances that attracted people with good investment interests in her talents and abilities. It could also be her life of excellence that made her the first black person and the third woman to control her studio.

c. Extraordinarily hard-working

As already mentioned, sustaining a string of outstanding performances can only be the result of hard work. As a kid, Oprah loved to read and consequently did very well academically. She worked hard and was voted the most popular student at Nashville high school, which gave her the key to competing in the Miss Black America pageant. Oprah subsequently won an oratory scholarship to Tennessee State University in 1971. The same year she entered for the Miss Teen Fire Prevention Pageant that was organized by a local radio DJ and won. Again, as a 19-year-old college student, Oprah took a job as a broadcaster at a TV station, and that effectively made her the first black person and first woman hired to anchor the news in Nashville. Devotion to duty and hard work punctuated her life. She knew what she wanted, maintained her values of outstanding performances, and she worked hard to sustain the achievements recorded by her.

d. Bold entrepreneurial move

Following her 1984 outstanding leadership in a casual and personal talk show, she moved to Chicago to host a talk show called AM Chicago. Again, in response to her exceptional performances in the show, it was renamed The Oprah Winfrey Show. In 1986, critic Roger Ebert encouraged her to license her show for a national audience through syndication. The move triggered a positive somersault for Oprah. The program, which eventually lasted an hour instead of 30 minutes, became the highest-rated television talk-show in the United States. Oprah Winfrey, by that fact and at age 32 became the first African American nationally syndicated television host. Her show attracts more than 10 million viewers daily. The first year, the show made $125 million while Oprah earned 24% of that income.

e. Great customer intelligence skill

Winfrey's understanding of the interests of the average American consumer of that period helped her a lot. Her shift into casual talk shows when she did was timely and demonstrated her understanding of the preferences of consumers. It was also timely when she occasionally veered off sensationalistic topics and focused on some serious issues like child molestation, racism, as well as gender intolerance. That approach helped her in developing natural relationships with guests who turned out to be more comfortable telling their personal stories to her on national television. She continued to sell what the American viewing public wanted to watch or see in a program such as hers to them.

f. Diversification into multiple streams of profitable businesses

Even though Oprah focused narrowly on her area of interest and talents, she also widely diversified her investments within that same area. She set up her influential book club in 1996, co-founded Oxygen Media in 1998, The Oprah Magazine, she also co-produced a Broadway musical version of The Colour Purple, created the website as well as a 24-hour channel called Oprah radio. She also created the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN). Oprah's investment diversity speaks to the reality of multiple streams of income as one of the secrets to attaining and sustaining affluence.

g. The influence of her father

We can correctly guess that the decision of Oprah's father to make her live with him after she suffered a series of sexual molestations and was already turning into a wild teen moderated her. It must have helped Oprah in shedding the scars of the abuse she suffered and positively adjusting to launch into her new world of outstanding performances. From the record, her father took her in when she was about fourteen. At that time, she used to call her dad "Pops". Five years earlier, she was a teen rebel who was breaking curfews and stealing. But her caring father reshaped and refocused her for the honours that she eventually enjoyed.

5. Conclusion

There are two essential lessons that stand out when discussing the rise and rise of Oprah Winfrey. The first is that someone's socio-economic background cannot successfully stand in the way of the person's success if he/she is genuinely focused and hard-working. Secondly, matching passion with talents where there is a consistent desire to record outstanding performance will always result in marvellous entrepreneurial success. As we saw, these two qualities defined Oprah. Overall, Oprah's story changes each time we moved to another position. At every point and every angle, there are new and beautiful things to learn from this superstar.


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