Oprah Winfrey gives an exclusive interview to Black Enterprise Editorial Director Sonia Alleyne, discussing her business beginnings, mistakes, lessons learned, and her defining philosophy that is inspiring future business moguls.
In be's June issue cover feature, "Oprah Means Business," Winfrey talks about the winning formula that has taken Harpo Inc. from a five-person production company to a 430-employee multimedia conglomerate that grossed $345 million in 2007 (No. 14 on the be Industrial/Service 100 list). Her leadership has broken down barriers; her business instinct is the stuff of legend; and her innovation unprecedented. She has spent her entire career beating the odds-and has inspired millions of business-minded minorities in the process. Today, she is one of a handful of Black billionaires across the globe; her net worth estimated at $2.5 billion.
As the 54-year-old dynamo prepares to unveil the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN) in 2009-in which she will hold a 50% stake-she asserts that divine inspiration, not strategic planning, is the key to her company's success: "I haven't planned one thing-ever. I have just been led by a strong instinct, and I have made choices based on what was right for me at the time."
Winfrey admits to learning some hard lessons as a result of her nontraditional approach to business. Starting with just five employees, she got along for years without management controls or development programs to grow talent as she grew the business. "For too long, I operated this business like a family. After a while, you can't see everybody; you can't talk to everybody," she says. "And now you have people managing people who were never managers before." She didn't realize how much the company's rapid growth was taxing her staff. During that time, the nationally syndicated superstar was still making lunch runs because the rest of her staff was tied up with booking and producing tasks. For years, Winfrey's team prided itself on being a lean operation. In the process, she discovered that this strong work ethic also contributed to mass burnout.
As Winfrey progressed, she learned another vital lesson-that she is her own best counsel. At the beginning of the decade, veteran TV executive Geraldine Laybourne decided to start Oxygen, an independent cable network for women. To make the venture work, she courted Winfrey as an investor. Winfrey recalls: "I went along with the Oxygen plan because my lawyer at the time, and lots of other people around me said, ‘How are you going to let there be a woman's network and not be a part of it?'" The network struggled with programming and branding, and Winfrey eventually reduced Harpo's programming commitment. "It was an ego decision and not a spirit decision, which is how I make all my decisions," she says. "The only decisions that get me in trouble are ego decisions."
Winfrey's brand of leadership demands that nothing be taken for granted. "I don't yell at people, I don't mistreat people, I don't talk down to people. So no one else in this building, in this vicinity, has the right to do it," she states emphatically. "Treating people with respect is the most important thing to me. It's not just talk." That creed-both inside and outside the organization-is a large part of her legacy. She has developed a series of ventures through a variety of media platforms to communicate her guiding philosophy of dignity, purpose, and empowerment. "Television is the most powerful medium we have," she continues. "The Internet is close and there will be a hybrid of the two at some point. But that medium inside the home to communicate with people, that visual medium … is the most powerful thing you can have. That is an enormous amount of influence."
As the distribution contract for her show terminates in 2011, Winfrey looks forward to building OWN and promises that it will be more expansive than anything she's ever developed. "My intention is for it to live beyond me, for it to be a living network of possibilities for people in their own lives," she explains. "To be able to say that my life was used in service, to help people come to their highest potential-I would do it even if my name wasn't attached to it."
The complete exclusive interview with Oprah Winfrey can be found in the June 2008 issue of Black Enterprise on newsstands now.