by Lori Lakin Hutcherson (@lakinhutcherson)
Not many people on Earth have their names become synonymous with genius in their profession, let alone genius in general. Einstein, Shakespeare, Mozart, even Spielberg and Prince easily come to mind. Notably, they are all men, mostly White, and only one is known by his first name. But when you say, “Hey, where are the women? What women do you think of when someone says ‘Who are the geniuses?,'” an immediate response would (or should) be… Oprah.
It may seem like opinion, but I want to go on record that saying “Oprah Winfrey is a genius” is a fact, and one that should be touted widely. Oprah’s status as a cultural icon, media mogul and inspirational leader is taken as a given, but when you look back and reflect on her journey from rural poverty in Mississippi to global icon, you too will recognize how much intelligence, excellence and genius it took to get there and what’s more – stay there.
What follows below in regards to recognizable achievement, vision and success rightfully will only add credence to the “Oprah Winfrey is a genius” fact, but I submit that the secret sauce of Oprah’s claim to that title has been best articulated (and realized) by Oprah herself:
Everybody has a calling. And your real job in life is to figure out as soon as possible what that is, who you were meant to be, and to begin to honor that in the best way possible for yourself. – Oprah Winfrey
Oprah Gail Winfrey, originally named “Orpah” after the biblical figure in the Book of Ruth but had it misspelled and mispronounced so much that “Oprah” stuck, recently celebrated her 65th birthday on January 29, 1954. Winfrey was born in Kosciusko, Mississippi, to Vernita Lee, an unmarried teenage mother and housemaid, and Vernon Winfrey, a coal miner turned barber turned city councilman who had been in the Armed Forces when Oprah was born.
According to wikipedia.org, Winfrey spent her first six years living with her maternal grandmother, Hattie Mae Lee, who was so poor that Winfrey often wore dresses made of potato sacks, and the local children made fun of her. Her grandmother, ever in Oprah’s corner, taught her to read before the age of three and took her to church, where she was nicknamed “The Preacher” for her preternatural ability to recite Bible verses and command the stage.
Despite parental neglect from her mother, sexual abuse by family members from the age of nine, and the stillbirth of a son at age 14, Oprah’s intellect and ability to speak powerfully in public earned her a full ride to HBCU Tennessee State University on an Oratory Scholarship.
As Oprah honed her skills through education and experience, she became the youngest news anchor and the first black female news anchor at Nashville’s WLAC-TV. Oprah then became an anchor in the larger market of Baltimore, MD before taking over the hosting position of low-rated AM Chicago in 1984.
Oprah aligned her talents, smarts, professionalism and relatability to catapult her over Phil Donahue’s long-venerated talk show Donahue for the top-rated slot. Oprah then wisely took advice from movie critic Roger Ebert to make a syndication deal with King World Media and have ownership in her program – the beginning of the Oprah brand.
The Oprah Winfrey Show debuted September 8, 1986 and topped daytime talk show ratings for 25 years until she retired from the show. Oprah really hit her stride and pinpointed her brand when she followed her instincts in the 1990s to shift away from “tabloid-style” shows to ones with a focus on literature, self-improvement, mindfulness and spirituality. Even though she briefly took a ratings dip during the change, she soared to the top again and outlasted several popular talk show hosts of the time such as Sally Jesse Raphael, Ricki Lake, Montel Williams, Donahue, Jenny Jones, and Jerry Springer.
Oprah formed Harpo Productions (Oprah spelled backwards) and soon extended beyond her eponymous talk show to star in and/or produce Academy Award-level movies and Emmy-winning television such as The Color Purple, Beloved, Selma, Precious, The Butler, The Women of Brewster Place, Their Eyes Were Watching God, The Wedding, and Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, to name several.
Oprah, staying true to her love of literature and non-fiction, launched Oprah’s Book Club in 1996, creating what is now commonly known as “The Oprah Effect” – where her selection or seal of approval increases sales by millions to whatever book (or product via Oprah’s Favorite Things) she highlights. She also had her own best-seller in 2014 with What I Know For Sure.
Oprah extended her media empire by branching into publishing herself with “O” Magazine in April 19, 2000, which is still one of the few print magazines going strong today.
Oprah then took on cable television, first by co-founding the women’s network Oxygen, then by teaming up with Discovery Communications to launch the OWN Network, which built slowly but is now going strong with programming such as Super Soul Sunday, Queen Sugar, Greenleaf, Iyanla’s Fix My Life, and The Haves and Have Nots. And let us not forget Oprah has launched several other successful syndicated talk shows such as Dr. Phil, Dr. Oz, and Rachael Ray.
Winfrey’s company also created the Oprah.com website to provide resources and interactive content relating to her shows, magazines, book club, and public charity.
Speaking of Oprah’s philanthropy, it is almost too extensive to recite. But certainly some of the highlights include the Oprah Winfrey Academy for Girls in South Africa she founded and funded, which opened in January 2007, her $12 million contribution to the building of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, and Oprah’s Angel Network, which raised more than $50 million for charitable programs, including relief to the victims of Hurricane Katrina.
One of my personal favorite acts of Oprah’s giving back has to be her creation and execution of Oprah Winfrey’s Legends Ball in 2006 – where she hosted a three-day event to honor the Black women who came before her in all fields of entertainment, arts and civil rights.
Oprah treated and feted women such as Coretta Scott King, Maya Angelou, Nancy Wilson, Cicely Tyson, Tina Turner, Leontyne Price, Diana Ross and Ruby Dee like the queens that they are and were, but seldom got that level of full appreciation in their heyday. Every now and again this special will re-air on OWN, and if you’ve never seen it, it is worth your time to find it. There is even a direct link about it on Oprah.com – check it out.
And we haven’t even talked about the money yet.
There has been a course taught at the University of Illinois focusing on Winfrey’s business acumen, namely: “History 298: Oprah Winfrey, the Tycoon”.
Forbes’ list of The World’s Billionaires has listed Winfrey as the world’s only black billionaire from 2004 to 2006 and she was the first black woman billionaire in the world by 2003. As of 2014, Winfrey has a net worth in excess of 2.9 billion dollars and has overtaken former eBay CEO Meg Whitman as the richest self-made woman in America.
Columnist Maureen Dowd pretty much nailed it when she said this about Oprah: “She is the top alpha female in this country. She has more credibility than the president. Other successful women, such as Hillary Clinton and Martha Stewart, had to be publicly slapped down before they could move forward. Even Condi [Condoleeza Rice] has had to play the protegé with Bush. None of this happened to Oprah – she is a straight ahead success story.”
Beholden to no man, champion of all women, in January 2018, Winfrey became the first African-American woman to be honored with the Golden Globes’ Cecil B. DeMille Award for lifetime achievement. In her powerful acceptance speech, she recalled being inspired by seeing Sidney Poitier honored at the Globes decades earlier, before emphasizing the importance of a free press and the power of speaking the truth in a “culture broken by brutally powerful men.”
“So I want all the girls watching here and now to know that a new day is on the horizon,” she said, in closing. “And when that new day finally dawns, it will be because of a lot of magnificent women, many of whom are right here in this room tonight, and some pretty phenomenal men, fighting hard to make sure that they become the leaders who take us to the time when nobody ever has to say, ‘Me too’ again.”
If she wanted to be our next President, seriously, Oprah could.
But whatever she decides to do next that she hasn’t done already, just know will be filled with intelligence, intention, growth and connection. Because that is the genius of Oprah.
And that’s a fact.
Famous Oprah Quotes:
“I have church with myself: I have church walking down the street. I believe in the God force that lives inside all of us, and once you tap into that, you can do anything.”
“Real integrity is doing the right thing, knowing that nobody’s going to know whether you did it or not.”
“When you undervalue what you do, the world will undervalue who you are.”
“Be thankful for what you have; you’ll end up having more. If you concentrate on what you don’t have, you will never, ever have enough.”
“Turn your wounds into wisdom.”
“You can have it all. Just not all at once.”
“One of the hardest things in life to learn are which bridges to cross and which bridges to burn.”
“The thing you fear most has no power. Your fear of it is what has the power. Facing the truth really will set you free.”
“You don’t become what you want, you become what you believe.”
“The great courageous act that we must all do, is to have the courage to step out of our history and past so that we can live our dreams.”
“Everyone wants to ride with you in the limo, but what you want is someone who will take the bus with you when the limo breaks down.”
“Do the one thing you think you cannot do. Fail at it. Try again. Do better the second time. The only people who never tumble are those who never mount the high wire.”
“You get in life what you have the courage to ask for.”
“The key to realizing a dream is to focus not on success but on significance — and then even the small steps and little victories along your path will take on greater meaning.”
“Forgiveness is giving up the hope that the past could have been any different.”