Oprah Winfrey on Career, Life and Leadership (Transcript)

At Stanford Graduate School of Business, Oprah Winfrey speaks on her career journey and the importance of listening to your instincts. She also offers advice to students on how to find their calling: “Align your personality with your purpose, and no one can touch you.”


Oprah Winfrey: Thank you. Whoo. Love it.

Love, love love. Tweet, tweet. Whoo! You.

So happy to be in the bubble.

Love it. Aren’t you all the luckiest people in the world? Oh my God, I envy you.

Hi Amanda.

Amanda: Hi Oprah. I can’t believe I just said that.

So we have been so excited and eagerly anticipating this day. This campus has been buzzing since the announcement was made last week that you’d be coming here. And I received.

Oprah Winfrey: Thanks for the buzz. I’m so glad you know I still have buzz. So good.

Amanda: I received a lot of support and advice from my friends and that was really great and I just wanted to say I think the best advice I’ve heard was don’t worry Amanda, if you mess up, Oprah can just interview herself. So, if I falter, feel free to ask yourself some questions, and we’ll, and we’ll be good.

But to get things started, I want — I thought we’d frame today’s talk with framing three sections with quotes of yours that you shared after wrapping up your 25th season and final season of the Oprah Winfrey Show.

And I thought some of these quotes, I mean you share so much wisdom but, these really spoke to me, and thought it would be a great way to frame our discussion.

Oprah Winfrey: Okay.

Amanda: So this first one that I will read for everyone and for you so you don’t have to strain your neck is –

“You have to know what sparks the light in you so that you, in your own way, can illuminate the world”. – Oprah Winfrey

So I wanted to take this time to talk about your early career and how you discovered your calling. So let’s go back to when you were college age. Did you know that you wanted to get into TV and media specifically?

Oprah Winfrey: No, I did not. I thought that I was going to be a teacher. I was in my Sophomore class at Tennessee State University. I’d already been working in radio since I was 16 and my — I remember I was in Mr. Cox’s drawing class for theater. And I was terrible drawer. He said, I couldn’t draw a straight line with a ruler.

And I got a call in that class, from a guy at the local station CBS, and he’d been calling me several times when I was working in radio. So I started working in radio at 16, and I won the Miss Fire Prevention contest, another long story. And so when I went back to the station to pick my prize, some guy said, would you like to hear your voice on tape. I said sure and I started reading this copy on tape. They called everybody in the building, said here this kid read. I was 16, they hired me in radio. So I was in radio at 16.

And so I started getting calls about my freshman year to come into television. I had never thought about it. And still was living at home, and couldn’t figure out how I’d manage those — I had biology at 1 o’clock, and so I couldn’t figure out how I would be able to manage my schedule.

And Mr. Cox said to me, the one, same professor who said you can’t draw a straight line with a ruler. He said, I came back from taking this phone call and he said who was that? I said there’s this guy at CBS, he keeps calling me, he wants me to interview for a job, and Mr. Cox said, that is why you go to school, fool. So that CBS can call you. That is why you are in school.

So I — he said you leave now and go call him back. And, I did. And I was hired in television, not knowing anything about it. Having in mind Barbara Walters but thinking. Oh, okay I can do that. Not knowing how to write or film or anything.

And I think it was because it was the – it was the times and I literally had somebody who was willing to work with me that I managed to, to find my way. But I had to find my way, because, the reporting never really fit me, and what did work for me. I’m this old, I’m so old that when I started that it was the year of live action cam. And so, it was like video cameras live, and so, the news stations would do a live, a live shot they would throw to somebody live even if nothing was going on. Just so they could say live action cam.

And what I found was I wasn’t so good at the writing part but if I was just standing up and talking about what had just happened it was really good. And then I started to feel — so I started at 19 working in television, became an anchor immediately afterwards. My father still had an 11 o’clock curfew. Can you believe such a thing? That I am — that I am the 10 o’clock anchor in Nashville Tennessee. I am the woman on the newscast. Reading the news, and my father would say be home by 11. And I’d say, dad, the news is on at ten, he goes and it’s off at 10:30 so be home by 11. So I had a very strict, very strict father.

So, anyway, I could feel inside myself, that reporting was not the right thing for me even though I was happy to have the job. I got an offer to go to Atlanta. I was making $10,000 a year in 1971, but still in college, so I was thinking I was doing pretty good.

Amanda: Yeah.

Oprah Winfrey: I got an offer to go to Atlanta for $40,000 which I thought – it’s over. I’m going to make $40,000. And my boss at the time said to me you do not know what you don’t know. And you need to stay here until you can learn to write better until you can perfect your craft as a journalist. And so I — he said we can’t give you 40, but we can give you 12. So I stayed and you know the reason why I stayed is because I could feel inside myself that even though the 40 was alluring at the time, that he was absolutely right.

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So to make a long story short, because I’d be here all day just talking about how it all came about. I started listening to what felt like the truth for me. A couple of years later I moved to Baltimore. I could feel that as a reporter, and by this time, 22, I’m making 22,000. I met my best friend Gale there who said oh my god, can you imagine if you’re 30 and you’re making 30,000. And then you’re 40 and then it’s 40,000. We actually had that conversation in the bathroom.

So this is — I started to feel that reporting wasn’t for me. But I had my father, I had my friends. Everybody was saying, oh my God, you’re an anchorwoman, you’re on TV. I mean, you can’t give up that job.

And when I was — by the time I was making 25, my father goes, you just hit the jackpot. You’re not going to make no more money than that. That’s just it. So I was torn between what the world was saying to me, and what I felt to be the truth for myself. It felt like an unnatural act for me reporting, although I knew that to a lot of people, it was glamorous. And, I started to just inside myself think what, what do I really want to do, what I really want to do.

And I will say this. 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 that you really do want to do.

Amanda: Okay. So you discovered talk then, right? Around that time?

Oprah Winfrey: I didn’t discover talk. I was being – I got demoted. They wanted to fire me but I was – I was under contract. They didn’t want to give up the 25,000 so they were trying to keep me on to the end of the year. So they put me on the — this is how life works. They put me on a talk show to try to avoid having to pay me the contract out and the moment I sat on the talk show interviewing the Carvel ice cream man and his multiple flavors. I knew that I had found home for myself. Because when I was a news reporter, it was so unnatural for me, I, you know, to cover somebody’s tragedies and difficulties and then to not to have feel anything for it. And I would go back after a fire.

And I would take the blankets and then I would get a note from my boss saying, what the hell are you doing? You’re just supposed to report on it.

Amanda: Can’t be that empathetic.

Oprah Winfrey: Cannot be that empathetic. And it felt unnatural for me. So if I were to put it in business terms, or to leave you with a message, that the truth is I have from the very beginning listened to my instinct. All of my best decisions in life have come because I was attuned to what really felt like the next right move for me. And so, it didn’t feel right. I knew that I wouldn’t be there forever. I never even learned the streets in Baltimore, because I thought I was there longer than I thought, I was there eight years I should’ve learned the streets.

But I kept saying to myself I’m not going to be here long, I’m not going to be here, I’m not going to be here so I’m not going to learn the street.

So when I got the call to come to Chicago. After you know starting with a coanchor and, working in talk, for several years, I knew that it was the right thing to do. And I knew that if I didn’t — even if I didn’t succeed because at the time, there was a guy named Phil Donahue who was the king of talk. And was on in Chicago, and every single person, except my best friend Gale, said you are going to fail. Every single person, when I learned of it, my bosses by this time thought I was terrific, and said, you’re going to — you’re walking into a land mine. You’re going to fail. You’re going to fail. Chicago is a racist city. You’re black, you’re not going to make it, everything to keep me sane. They even offered me a car and apartment and all this stuff, and I said no. If I fail, then I will find out what is the next thing for me. What is the next true thing for me?

Amanda: It felt right to you, so you went for it.

Oprah Winfrey: Because it felt like this is now the move I need to make. And I was not one of those people – you know, all of my – the people who worked with me in the news, they would have their tapes and they’d have their stories, and they’d have you know resume’s ready. I didn’t have any of that, because I knew that the time would come where I would – where what I needed would show up for me. And when that showed up, I was ready. Because my definition of luck, is preparation, meeting the moment of opportunity. And I was prepared to be able to step into that, that world of talk in a way that I knew I could do it.

Amanda: Great. So, often in your career I’m sure you were a minority. Perhaps as the only woman. The only black person, the only person from a poor family. Did this affect you on your professional path? And how did you navigate situations in which you might have felt more alone? And now how did that impact how you lead and how you might help people who may be feeling that same thing?

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Oprah Winfrey: Okay, Amanda, that’s a lot of questions.

Amanda: I’m sorry, all right let’s –

Oprah Winfrey: Let me put my glasses on.

Amanda: I figured I had you here, I was going to – I was going to ask as much as I can.

Oprah Winfrey: Oh, Amanda went deep on me for a minute there. Whoa. Back up sister girl, c’mon, back up. So first one is –

Amanda: So how did you navigate situations in which you would have felt more alone?

Oprah Winfrey: Always the only, only woman in the room – still walking only woman in the room. And there is a room full of white men, usually older thrills me. Just thrills me. I just, I just love it. Usually the only black person in the room, also, never really concerned me because I don’t look at people through color. I didn’t get to be where I am by – and who I am, by looking at the color of people’s skin. I really, literally, took Martin Luther King at his word. And, understand that the content of a person’s character, and, refuse to let anybody else do that to me. So, I love it, just love it.

And there’s a wonderful phrase by Maya Angelou, from a poem that she wrote called To Our Grandmothers, that she says, when I come as one but I stand as 10,000. So when I walk into a room and particularly before I have something really challenging to do or I’m going to be in a circumstance where I feel I’m going to be you know, up against some difficulties, I would literally sit, and I would call on that 10,000. I would call on back to the ancestors, I would call on those people who come before me, I will call on the women who forged a path that I might be able to sit in the room with all of those white men, and I love it so much.

I, I call on, I call on that. Because I know that my being where I am, and first of all, being who I am and where I am didn’t come just out of myself that I come from a heritage and so I own that. And I step into that room not just as myself but I bring all of that, that, energy with me. So it has never been an issue for me except when I was, I think, 23, still working in, still working in Baltimore. I’d gone to my boss and said that the guy who was working with me, my cohost on the People Are Talking show, was making more money than I. And we were cohosts. So I went to my boss and I said, this was in 1970, so I was older than 23, this was 1979, ‘80, and I said I, I just would like to -.You know how intimidating it is to go to the boss in the first place. But I’m going to go, and I’m going to stand up for myself.

And, I said, Richard’s making more money than I am, and I, I don’t think that’s fair because we’re doing the same job. We sit in the same show. We do the same. And, my general manager said, why, why should you make as much money as he? And I said, because we’re doing the same job. And he said but he has children. Do you have children? And I said no. He said, well he has to pay for college educations. So he has – he owns his own home. Do you own your home? I said no. He said, he has a mortgage to pay. He has insurance, he has — do you have that? No. So, tell me, why, why do you need the same amount of money? And I said, thank you for your time. And I left. I left. I didn’t complain about it. I didn’t file a suit about it.

I knew, that in that moment, it was time for me to go, and that I started the process for myself, of preparing myself for – you will not be here long. You are not going to be able to get what you need. I had a boss at the time who was African American, and had just been for the first time, made an assistant news director, and was drunk with power. Drunk with power, and felt it his, I think, I don’t know, I think he woke up in the morning thinking of things he could do to harass me. I decided not to file a suit against it, because I knew, at the time, I would lose. That no good would come of it, that I would be blackballed in television, that it would turn into a major thing, and I knew, I didn’t have long to stay there. I had a vision for what the future was, even though I couldn’t place exactly where my future would be, I knew who held the future. Because I am really guided by a force that’s bigger than myself. I know that my being here on the planet is not just of my own being.

Amanda: So you used that as momentum to just leave, cut your losses and go.

Oprah Winfrey: No, I just said — I filed it away. There will come a time.

Amanda: Huh, it’s going to come back. Yeah, you were right. I think you were right.

Oprah Winfrey: When I will be sitting in the same room. And it happened, like, in the late 90s. I had the Oprah show and I ran into that guy. Lord, Jesus, thank you. Oh my god. Oh, one of the sweetest moments that ever happened. Oh, go ahead.

Amanda: Okay. Here we go. So, right now, as we sit here, we’re about five miles from Facebook and Sheryl Sandberg. And last year, she published the book Lean In. And it’s gotten an incredible traction. It had some, you know, criticism as well. And I was wondering if you were to write a book on women in careers, what would your title be?

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