She’s one of the most gifted storytellers of our time. Her ability to capture our attention—through hearts and minds—has earned her acclaim around the world. Soledad O’Brien is an award-winning journalist, documentarian, entrepreneur, and philanthropist. Yet when I got on the phone with her, I felt like I’d reconnected with an old friend to catch up. That’s how easy she makes it to share your stories.
For years, she’s unapologetically held people accountable as a reporter and shined a light on matters that others would rather leave in the dark. In 2013, she founded her own production company, Starfish Media Group, to “produce programming that looks at under-the-radar stories and sparks a conversation through thorough reporting.” In the midst of all this, she’s also a mother, wife, daughter, sister, and friend.
On Stage with Us at ASUG
Soledad took the keynote stage during the 2019 SAPPHIRE NOW and ASUG Annual Conference to tell the story most important to each of us: the power of you. She joined others in conveying how important it is to find a pathway to your personal and professional best.
She’s often said that the best way to tell a story is through the eyes of other people. But she’s also never shied away from drawing from her own life to engage with and inspire others to embrace change. I had the opportunity to talk to Soledad and ask her to share her story. Like I noted earlier, it was as though I was catching up with an old friend. The only thing that could have made it more perfect would have been a glass of wine to go with the conversation.
Sharon: How do you choose your inner circle? I like to use the word tribe, but what I mean is the people in your life who will support you, lift you, guide you, inspire you, challenge you, and motivate you to be your best self.
Soledad: First, I think they choose you. But when I think of my inner circle, it’s the people who are there when all the bad stuff goes down. They’re either handing me a tissue or sticking around to help in some way, like emptying the garbage can, literally. They’re on their phone making things happen or having a glass of wine with me, holding my hand, and letting me cry on their shoulder.
When my mom and dad passed away within 40 days of each other, I looked up and all my girlfriends were there helping and being present.
So, your tribe, to some degree chooses you. It’s the people who constantly back you up. We all know who they are. They’re the ones who hold you accountable. They’re the ones who give you the whole, “girl, you’re so right,” but also the ones who are going to ask you, “what’s your role in things going bad?” I really love that question because it’s powerful.
Sharon: Is it important to have separation between your personal and professional inner circle?
Soledad: Probably, but I don’t have one. I’m sure some good psychologist would say yes, but I don’t know anybody who does. I think it’s because all of us work so much that it’s just not realistic. My day started at 6 a.m. today and will end at 9 p.m. I think it’s more important to make sure you’re around people who are building you up and making you a better human being and to get rid of the ones who aren’t. That’s something I’ve done very successfully in both my personal and professional life.
When I started my own company, my inner circle advised me to make sure I have a “no jerk” rule. They said, “now that you’re running it, you’re responsible for the tone.” Knowing your responsibility is important. You can’t allow people to treat others badly, even if they’re great to you. So, having my work spill over at home is fine. Most of my work friends will come over to my house and we’ll work on a project, a documentary, a script, or whatever in the living room with a glass of wine and there are no issues.
You’re responsible for the environment you create. I’ve really taken that to heart, and I think that’s a better rule of thumb than worrying about separating professional from personal. But the key is that you make sure your environment, both at home and at work, is filled with the people you want to be around and that they bring value to your life.
Sharon: You mentioned earlier that both your parents passed away this year. What have you learned from each of them that adds to who you are today?
Soledad: My mom was a tough nut, and I really learned a lot from her. She taught me from a very young age to call out bad things. A big part of being a journalist is to be able to call out BS. I learned that from her.
Growing up, we were the only black family in our neighborhood, but that did not stop my mother from calling out the executive in Suffolk County, Long Island, New York to protest discriminatory housing practices in our community. Imagine doing that in the 1970s when you are the only black family in the community. It’s not going to make you friends. And I still remember her saying some stuff is right and some stuff is wrong and I’m just going to be on the side of doing what’s right.
And so, when I think about what can be called out today, I think about not having enough women in senior leadership positions. Let’s not all smile and pretend it’s cool; it’s not. Somebody needs to be the brave one who calls it out. And usually when you have the first person say it, then other people follow.
As for my dad, he was a very gentle person. And what I really learned from him was to be chill. He was a big believer in “people make mistakes, but sometimes it’s okay to forgive them.” He also was a believer in forgiving yourself. He taught me that we'll always have another opportunity tomorrow to get it right.
So, they’ve both added to my life. It’s the yin and the yang and I got a little bit from both.
Sharon: What’s something that overwhelms you? How do you manage it?
Soledad: I’m most overwhelmed when everything is coming down at once. For example, September and May. September is getting everybody off to school and May is getting everybody out of school, which means August is a nightmare with buying school clothes, getting everyone enrolled, and filling out all the forms—especially with four kids.
And when that happens while there’s a breaking news story, or my parents were sick, or something else needs attention, it just becomes craziness. I try my best to get the attention to where it needs to be, but sometimes it needs to be on five things at once, and that gets really hard. But I’m a big list maker. So, even if I see five things needing immediate attention, I step back and ask myself, “are they really all equal?” The answer is, “probably not.”
I make my list and ask for help. Sometimes, it’s just running through the list and being okay with pushing back and saying you need to back out of or reschedule something.
Sharon: What’s been the hardest “no” you’ve heard in your life?
Soledad: I don’t know if I’ve ever been devastated by a no. I’m pretty good at knowing what’s coming down the pike. Usually for me, a no comes at a time when I’ve tried everything, and the result is a mutual no.
Even when I’ve had jobs or opportunities that have gone away, the no always kind of made sense. There have been other times when I’ve taken a no and turned it into a yes for something else.
Sharon: What has been the most significant barrier in your career and how have you overcome it?
Soledad: I don’t know that I’ve had any barriers. That might just be because I think of life that way. I think that I’ve had some really good opportunities and then had some tough things happen, but I’ve never thought of them as barriers.
I think being a woman and being a woman of color are part of me and what I was born with. I love being a woman of color. Now, sometimes I have to convince people that I could be a tremendous asset, and sometimes that’s a little more work, but I’ve never thought of it as a barrier.
Sharon: What do you do to recharge and take care of yourself? What’s your self-care routine?
Soledad: I know some people think of self-care as getting a massage once a month, but that’s not how I think about it. To me, self-care is about making sure you’re not spending time on things that don’t deserve the time. It’s about working smarter, not harder.
And I truly believe that women are often very guilty of working very hard or feeling like they need to outwork someone else to get ahead. I’m certainly guilty of that. We have this, “I will get in earlier and I will leave later, and I will work you under the table” mentality.
But wanting to do it all leaves you out of the important conversations because you’re busy making the photocopies no one else wants to make. Your value is in knowing you have something valuable to bring to the table. And so being smarter with how you work as opposed to working harder is key. And to me, that’s self-care.
Sharon: What advice would you give to people who want to make big leaps in their life, whether professional or personal, but are afraid of failure?
Soledad: First, I think everybody’s afraid of failure. I don’t know anyone who is embracing it, but the key is to know how to mitigate it. You go in knowing some things are going to go wrong, but you mitigate the potential for the big, important things.
Again, I’m an avid list maker, so that’s what I do before I make a big leap. Doing so helps structure all the things that I’m thinking about, all the things other people are thinking about, and how I’ll deal with all those issues. I’m a big believer in needing a road map and a plan. Without a road map, I find that I just kind of end up any old place, which is a very interesting thing to do creatively, but not such an interesting thing to do if you’re trying to get to a specific goal.
So, sit down and just ask yourself a lot of questions. Identify people who have done the same thing and talk to them. Ask how long is this going to take? How am I going to live before it kicks in? Who can give me useful advice about what to do? Where will I work? What will my hours be? What exactly am I selling? What are the defining characteristics that make me different and better than everybody else?
Make sure you do your due diligence. It is the most critical thing you can do because it will save you a lot of heartache.
Sharon: What’s your favorite book and what are you reading now?
Soledad: I have so many books that I love, but my favorite book is written by a Southern author named Jill McCorkle and the book is titled, “Crash Diet.” I love that book!
And right now I’m reading, “Notes from a Young Black Chef” by Kwame Onwuachi. He’s an amazing author and we’re having him on our show.
Sharon: You’ve mentioned wine a few times, which is great because it’s one of my favorite things. What’s your go-to wine?
Soledad: Riesling! Super sweet!
Register for the ASUG Think Tank with special guest Soledad O'Brien on April 6, 2020, 2 p.m. CT.