Soledad O’Brien is a globally-recognized name. She’s an award-winning journalist, documentarian, a producer who doesn’t shy away from hard topical programming, and the CEO of her own media company. However, she’s also been committed to investing in the education of young girls.
And recently, she was formally recognized for her passionate work by the state of New York. At the 2018 PowHERful Summit, Senator Andrea Stewart-Cousins presented O’Brien proclaiming July 14 as the annual PowHERful day in New York. PowHERful is O’Brien’s education-focused foundation that works to get girls in and through college. I had the chance to talk with O’Brien about what drives her desire to educate young women and what she believes young women of this generation need to succeed.
“I remember so clearly when I was seven years old and I was learning how to ride my bike. I kept tipping over and my dad said to me, ‘Oh you’ll get this because you’re the kind of person who never gives up,’” she says.
Of all the things Soledad O’Brien could list about what fuels her determination to educate young women, she starts with her own early life experiences of having someone believe so firmly in her potential despite the circumstances.
She continued, “My father’s words never left me. Outside of my home growing up I really had to learn how to tune out the many voices that said, ‘You can’t.’ What my father did all those years ago was so important. He reframed an experience for me and told me a necessary and powerful truth about myself that I’ve held onto my entire life.”
And that powerful truth has filtered down into many of the ways O’Brien operates in her respective industries. She doesn’t give up on her belief that good journalism, good storytelling and good teaching and mentorship can have a transformative impact on local and global communities. With the young women scholars that pass through the PowHERful foundation, O’Brien sees her role as reflecting back to them their own strength and possibilities.
With her warm and inviting demeanor, it’s not hard to believe O’Brien plays an active role in the lives of the 25 scholars involved with the foundation. She shared that she keeps the numbers small because she wants to be able to have access to every girl and permit realistic access to her and the team of mentors.
It’s a perfect New York summer day and I’m sitting across the table from O’Brien in a Chelsea office in downtown Manhattan, overlooking the Hudson River through floor-to-ceiling windows. O’Brien is dressed in comfortable white pants and a bright orange top, on a short interview break from the PowHERful Summit taking place in an auditorium just a few rooms away. This is how she’s spending her Saturday. With more than her plate full as a busy working mother of 4, I had to ask why this foundation and this investment in young women now?
“It really happened because of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans,” she says. “I was so frustrated as a reporter because there were so many practical things that needed to be done. And I was thinking, what can I do?” Through various outlets, O’Brien met several young women who — despite being awarded small scholarships, working hard and being intelligent — were still struggling to get an education.
O’Brien realized that finishing college was nearly impossible for these women because getting into college wasn’t enough, they needed opportunities for fully getting through college. “For me, it has always been about tangible and practical solutions. That’s what was needed for these individual women,” she says.
So PowHERFul was born, a Foundation where the mission is to get young women to and through college, providing financial assistance, mentoring and training and other services to help them succeed in college and their early career. O’Brien’s entire face lights up and a wide smile spreads easily when I ask her to tell me about one of the first scholars and where that young woman is today.
“There was this sharp young woman who had to drop out of NYU because her family had run out of money. She wanted to be a journalist and had been a student of a friend of mine. I took her to be my intern at CNN.” But, O’Brien shares it wasn’t that cut and dry. The woman could barely afford to eat and didn’t have a place to live.
She ended up letting the young woman stay in her apartment, fully investing in her and helping the student through college and with opportunities. “Today she’s an anchor in New Orleans. Not only that, she recently took on her own intern from one of the current scholars at PowHERful. So it’s come full circle,” she says.
A large number of the PowHERful scholars are first-generation college-bound students from desperate poverty. But O’Brien points out, “Your family can be middle class and you still not have any money, especially if you have kids you’re trying to put through college. Some girls just really need mentoring.” She relates the story of a young woman whose mother was killed in the Newton School shooting and her father had brain cancer. “He reached out to me and basically said, there are people in our community who will pay for my daughter’s education but I really need her to be mentored. So we made sure she was connected to the right people and opportunities.”
The PowHERful Foundation connects with young women at the collegiate and internship stage before their real professional lives begin. Yet the reality is you can provide all the opportunities in the world for people but it doesn’t mean they will succeed in their pursuits, especially if they are not used to understanding how certain systems work. I wondered aloud about this with O’Brien. She says she encourages soft skills, and the central message she gives young women is that success is really up to you as an individual. It doesn’t mean one has to do it by oneself but she teaches the girls that ultimately they are responsible for their success. She believes that today’s generation of young women need a lot of the same skills that previous generations have needed.
“What makes you successful in the workplace is understanding the game that’s being played,” she says. “Of course you have to be good at your job, yes, but you also have to figure out other key things like who do you deal with when there’s a problem, how do you deal when there’s a problem? How do you figure out what’s really being said in different circumstances?”
O’Brien doesn’t think many young women are encouraged or given the opportunity to learn these things. On her own journey, she saw that long-term professional success requires more than just about hard work, and she wants to ensure she shares that.
“I find for a lot of young women, the ones who are successful in the beginning put their head down, work hard, come in early, grind away and are fantastic employees. That’s a great winning strategy at the beginning but you have to transition to understanding the other elements that make for success, the networking, the outreach, the self-promotion, the being available and putting yourself out there.”
She’s found that for various reasons women are reluctant to do that, both in her generation and with young women today. But O’Brien believes there is a strong need for women to be able to talk knowledgeably about their work and to readily share about what they’ve accomplished. Otherwise, nobody knows. “It’s the key to getting young women to understand that their success is dependent on them. You can’t just sit there and grind away and hope that one day someone floats by and offers to promote you. It doesn’t work like that.”
College can be a challenging time for young women as they navigate their identities and interior lives amidst various pressures. Growing a strong sense of self-awareness and finding their voice is a vital part of these years. O’Brien confided that the girls who come through PowHERful have been in almost every situation one can imagine.
“They’ve been homeless, sexually assaulted, dealing with gender transitions and so forth because this is the real world,” she says. “We want the girls to know that what they are dealing with is just what they are dealing with and we need to know it so we can help them get through it. So getting people to be open and honest is step one.”
She works to make sure the young women know that the PowHERful team is there to support each girl getting to and through college, whatever that requires. Sometimes, she says, that may mean a girl needs therapy paid for so they have to figure out a way to meet that need. Or it could mean someone needs to call her or a mentor in the middle of the night.
Creating this ecosystem of support is simple for O’Brien. She builds it on the model she has with her husband and four kids, the adults keeping one another informed on what they notice and what’s going on with each girl so that no one falls through the cracks. Ultimately, O’Brien says, “I just want to be able to do for young girls what was done for me, to tell them a necessary and important truth about themselves that they may not see yet.”
Enuma Okoro is a writer and speaker based between Nigeria and New York.