Warning: This article contains references to child abuse and child loss.
Oprah Winfrey overcame a difficult start to her life, worked hard, took risks and became one of the most admired and respected women in the world. More than just a celebrity talk show host, Winfrey has used all her skills and experience to build a media empire and an award-winning career that continues to evolve.
Whether you're a recent graduate, a worker hoping to become your own boss, or someone hoping to achieve even more after retirement, you can learn a lot from the life story of one of the most successful female entrepreneurs in the world. Let's take a look at some of the highlights of her life and work, and the lessons you can take away for your own career success.
Watch Oprah Winfrey's timeline below:
Winfrey has inspired many with her climb to success, which is more than just a simple rags-to-riches story. Born to a teenage mother in 1954 in Kosciusko, Mississippi, she had a tumultuous childhood. Initially raised by her grandmother on a farm, she spent several years with her mother in Wisconsin, where she suffered from both poverty and sexual abuse from male relatives. She fell pregnant due to this abuse and suffered the loss of her child, who was born prematurely.
After understandably acting out as a young teen, Winfrey was sent to live with her father and stepmother in Nashville, Tennessee. She considers this a pivotal time in her life, as her father's strict rules and attentive guidance put her on a new and positive path. She flourished in school, and through a public-speaking competition earned a scholarship to Tennessee State University.
Learning was a way of life for Winfrey, and she gained knowledge and confidence from school, her father's tutoring at home, and her active participation at church. In one of her most famous quotes about the importance of learning, she credits it as the beginning of her achievements: “Education is the key to unlocking the world, a passport to freedom.”
For young people hoping to follow in Winfrey's footsteps as one of the richest self-made women ever, the key is to start early. High school jobs and college internships get you on the right path to becoming a journalist or media personality. Winfrey began her career at 17 on radio, reading the news part-time at a local radio station. At 19, she progressed to TV, becoming both the youngest and the first Black female news anchor at WLAC-TV in Nashville.
She later transferred to Baltimore and found her true calling when she lost out on a news position but was hired to host a daytime talk show. Her forthright and engaging style got her noticed by bigger outlets, and in 1983 she was hired to take over the struggling morning talk show AM Chicago. Ratings soared, the show was extended to an hour and was renamed The Oprah Winfrey Show.
The Oprah Winfrey Show
The skills you need to be a successful entrepreneur include networking, strategic thinking, and asking the right questions every step of the way. Winfrey used all three when she was faced with the decision of keeping The Oprah Winfrey Show in relative safety at ABC or going with syndication to reach a wider audience. On a date with famed movie critic Roger Ebert, who had his own successful TV show with fellow reviewer Gene Siskel, Winfrey humbly asked for advice.
Ebert used his own experience in television, plus his intuition about her growing fame, and quickly calculated the potentially enormous profit that syndication could bring her. Winfrey wisely chose syndication, and her show went national on September 8, 1986. She ruled the airwaves until 2011, with the Emmy-winning show airing in 145 countries and pulling in 15 to 20 million viewers an episode at its peak.
Winfrey chose at every turn to make her show stand out from the rest, often taking risks with controversial topics. Rather than being an impartial and detached interviewer, she shared personal stories and opinions with her audience and guests.
She drew viewers in with her endless positivity and guides to self-improvement, including a desire to better understand other people's cultures and circumstances. Her uniquely sympathetic and inclusive style helped make her one of the most celebrated and successful celebrity entrepreneurs.
TV and movies
Winfrey's career is proof how essential multi-tasking skills are to the highest levels of success. Aside from the intensive work of a daily talk show that aired for 25 seasons, Winfrey found a way to excel in additional career paths.
It began with a pivotal role in a 1985 film adaptation of Alice Walker's book The Color Purple, which earned her an Oscar nomination. Through the following decades, she interspersed her daytime talk show duties with both starring and guest roles on TV, voice work in both TV and film, and more movie roles.
She also became the founder of Harpo Productions in 1986 to help expand her efforts in making TV and film content. She achieved even more as a producer, including the Emmy-winning TV movie Tuesdays with Morrie and Oscar-winning films Precious and Selma. In 1998, she co-founded Oxygen Media with five other experienced producers and media executives and launched the cable channel Oxygen.
In 2008, she partnered with Discovery Communications to create the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN), where she currently develops and stars in programming for the channel. She continues to utilize the skills she honed as a news anchor and astute interviewer, landing her prime-time specials and a correspondence gig on TV news show 60 Minutes.
Print and online media
After years of reading, sharing and discussing favorite books with The Oprah Winfrey Show senior producer Alice McGee, Winfrey worked with the show's whole team to bring that private book club out to her audience. In September 1996, Oprah's Book Club was launched with an announced title and subsequent discussion segment. It was an instant hit.
Winfrey's personally chosen recommendations created a major hike for the publishing industry, reviving older titles and launching new ones to bestseller status. Many of the US suburban book clubs, that today can make an obscure book a hit on their own, have been inspired by Oprah's famed book recommendations.
Not content with invigorating the book market, Winfrey continued her incredibly successful branding strategy with her own lifestyle magazine. O: The Oprah Magazine launched in 2000, with Winfrey herself on nearly every cover for 20 years of publication.
Today, Winfrey houses her incredible collection of personal and curated content on Oprah.com. The Internet destination for all things Oprah, it includes the digital version of O Magazine, plus links to OWN TV content, seven different newsletters and two podcasts.
Activism and philanthropy
While clearly a strong and formidable woman who has achieved life-changing power and wealth, Winfrey has chosen respect over fear as a leader. She has used her international platform to promote diversity, inclusion, peace and charity. Through her long-running talk show, she often gave a voice to disadvantaged, ostracized and misunderstood people and communities.
While known for her incredible giveaways of expensive items, like cars and exotic vacations, to her show's audience, Winfrey has also raised and personally contributed millions to charitable causes. First with her Angel network and then with The Oprah Winfrey Charitable Foundation, Winfrey devotes her efforts largely to global education efforts and empowering women.
Her tangible and greatest accomplishments, including the creation of 60 schools in 13 countries and granting hundreds of scholarships to college students, have continued to inspire others to follow in her footsteps. This includes taking an active role in our governance. She was instrumental in the passage of the National Child Protection Act, which was signed into law by US President Clinton in 1994. Her cultural and charitable significance earned her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013.
The first lesson of Winfrey's life was perseverance, even in the most difficult of circumstances. A key step in launching her new life as a young woman was having a strong role model and applying herself to her education. Her teenage success in media also shows it's never too early to start on your career path.
Winfrey's incredible empire and legacy proves that one of the best ways to become a successful entrepreneur is to remain adaptable, and keep trying new avenues to challenge yourself and keep the money rolling in. Don't forget that Winfrey has also infused everything she does with her personal experiences, perspectives, and positive messages. Anything that helps you connect more meaningfully with others contributes to your success.
Has Oprah Winfrey inspired you to achieve more in your career? Have you learned career lessons from other famous entrepreneurs? Let us know in the comments below!