Giving It Away
Giving It Away
The expansion of Winfrey's empire stoked the furnace of her wealth to record-breaking levels. By the early 1990s, thanks to successful projects and shrewd investments, she was the richest woman in entertainment. By 1995 her net worth had reached $340 million. By 2007 it had ballooned to an estimated $2.5 billion.
All this money put Winfrey in rarified company. She joined actor-comedian Bill Cosby as the first two African Americans to make the "Forbes 400" list of the world's richest people. She also overtook Meg Whitman, the former chief executive officer of eBay, as the richest self-made woman in America. (Self-made refers to the fact that her wealth was earned, not inherited.) Furthermore, Win-frey became the nation's highest-paid television entertainer and the first black woman billionaire in history.
Her rise from poverty to extraordinary wealth has been the subject of much discussion and analysis over the years. It was even the focus of a college course that debuted in 2001. The course was titled "History 298: Oprah Winfrey, the Tycoon," and it was taught by Professor Juliet E.K. Walker of the University of Illinois.
Winfrey has never been shy about enjoying her wealth. She likes to buy things like expensive clothes and fine cars. She also owns a good deal of property. Winfrey's main residence these days is "The Promised Land," a 42-acre (17ha) estate, complete with ocean and mountain views, in Montecito, California. Her show is still taped in Chicago, so she has a condominium there. And Winfrey has homes in Lavallette, New Jersey; Fisher Island, Florida; Telluride, Colorado; and Maui, Hawaii.
Winfrey says that she does not feel guilty about being wealthy when so many are poor. She commented in 2006, "I have lots of things, like all these Manolo Blahniks [shoes]. I have all that and I think it's great. I'm not one of those people like, 'Well, we must renounce ourselves.' No, I have a closet full of shoes and it's a good thing."47
Winfrey also likes to give gifts to those who are close to her. For example, she treats her staff well, rewarding them for their hard work. On one occasion, she paid for a wedding in Italy and honeymoon for one of her longtime producers. On another, in the summer of 2006, Winfrey celebrated her twentieth year on national television by taking her entire staff and their families to Hawaii—more than one thousand people in total.
And sometimes Winfrey gives away expensive items or experiences as part of a show. For example, a man who had gone from morbid obesity to a healthier size was featured in a segment on "Incredible Weight Losses." He told Winfrey on air that he had always wanted to sit in a Porsche. Minutes later he was presented with a new Porsche Boxster S, worth about sixty-three thousand dollars. On another occasion, she gave everyone in the studio audience a new car.
But this form of giving things away is essentially a publicity stunt. Such stunts are meant to boost the show's ratings and do not necessarily involve Winfrey spending her personal fortune. A far more significant indication of her willingness to spend on others is her extensive philanthropy. Each year, Winfrey gives away tens of millions of dollars to worthy causes—and asks others to be generous as well.
Scholarships for Essays
Winfrey has sometimes combined her philanthropy with other aspects of her show. For example, in 2006 she selected Elie Wiesel's Night as one pick of Oprah's Book Club. Night is a memoir about Wiesel's time with his parents in Auschwitz, a German concentration camp, during World War II.
To augment the book club, Winfrey and Wiesel traveled together to Auschwitz. Then she held an essay contest in which fifty thousand high school students competed to be on a follow-up show. Fifty were selected. Many of the winning essays were by students who had endured discrimination and persecution of their own, such as homophobia and the Rwandan genocide. As a surprise to the winning students, AT&T gave each a five-thousand-dollar college scholarship. Winfrey personally matched this amount for a total of ten thousand dollars.
Winfrey recognizes that she has had extraordinary opportunities in her life. She gets tremendous pleasure from being able to give the same sorts of breaks to others—breaks in life that they might not otherwise have. She comments, "My mission is to use [my] position, power and money to create opportunities for other people."48
Winfrey's philanthropic activities have therefore been extensive. In fact, it is estimated that she donates more to charity than any other show-business celebrity in America. She has so far given away well over $300 million of her own fortune, with no signs of stopping.
This generosity has landed her on still another rarified list. In 2004 she became the first African American to have a place on Business Week magazine's annual list of the nation's fifty most generous philanthropists. As of 2006, she was ranked thirty-second on this list.
Winfrey's interests in philanthropy—in where her money goes—take several forms. Perhaps naturally because of the events of her life, these interests are generally focused on helping the disadvantaged and those who have had deprived or difficult childhoods. Winfrey has been especially interested in helping young people, people of color, and abused women.
For example, she has provided money to put hundreds of African Americans through college. She did this, in part, by establishing a series of scholarships in her father's name at the school she left, Tennessee State University in Nashville. (In 1987 she gave the commencement speech there and was given an honorary diploma.) She has also donated generously to such institutions as Morehouse College (a historically black school) and the United Negro College Fund.
Likewise, she has funded projects for young people that were not strictly academic. For example, she underwrote a Boys and Girls Club in her hometown of Kosciusko. Winfrey dedicated the 30,000-square-foot (2,787m2) building in 2006. In a statement about the project, Winfrey wrote, "I'm offering this center to Kosciusko as a place where children can dream big and know that with preparation and determination they can make those dreams real."49
Winfrey has also been tireless in inspiring other people to donate to worthy causes. To help this along, in 1997 she started Oprah's Angel Network. The Angel Network is designed to get people around the world to help improve the lives of the underprivileged. It began as an effort to collect enough spare change to fund 150 scholarships through the Boys and Girls Clubs of America and to volunteer time to build two hundred homes for the needy through Habitat for Humanity International.
"If You're in It to Make Money, Forget It"
In a keynote speech for the American Woman's Economic Development Corporation in 1989, Winfrey outlined her "Ten Commandments" for a successful life:
- Don't live your life to please other people.
- Don't depend on externals to help you get ahead.
- Strive for the greatest possible harmony and compassion in your business and your life.
- Get rid of all the back stabbers around you.
- Be nice, not catty.
- Get rid of your addictions.
- Surround yourself with people who are as good [as] or better than you are.
- If you're in it to make money, forget it.
- Never give up your power to another person.
- Don't give up.
Quoted in Bill Adler, The Uncommon Wisdom of Oprah Winfrey. Secaucus, NJ: Birch Lane, 1997, pp. 230–31.
The Angel Network has since grown wildly, thanks to Winfrey's ability to promote it. To date, the network has raised more than $80 million in donations. Winfrey covers all of the administrative costs for the network herself. That way, all of the donated money actually reaches those in need and is not spent elsewhere.
The network funnels money to many groups around the world. One project it sponsors is "O Ambassadors," a program that works with schools to inspire students to be active, well-informed citizens. Also, within a year it raised more than $11 million for relief after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and other parts of the Gulf Coast in 2005. Winfrey matched this by contributing $10 million of her own money.
Winfrey frequently focuses her fund-raising overseas. For example, the Angel Network funds rural schools in twelve countries. Another example was "Oprah's Christmas Kindness," a 2004 program that focused attention on the plight of children in South Africa affected by poverty and AIDS. Winfrey and her crew distributed presents to fifty thousand children as well as backpacks full of school supplies, school uniforms, and other clothes.
Winfrey then used the show to ask her viewers to donate more money for the children. She promised that she would personally oversee where the money was spent. Winfrey's viewers around the world responded by donating more than $7 million.
South Africa has been the locale of an even bigger philanthropic project. Starting in 2002, Winfrey has invested more than $40 million in the ambitious Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls. This school is located near Johannesburg, the largest city in South Africa.
It was inspired by a conversation between Winfrey and Nelson Mandela, South Africa's foremost champion of civil rights and its first democratically elected president. Mandela asked her to do something for the children of his country. She chose to build a school for academically gifted but impoverished young women in the hope that they would someday become their nation's leaders.
Some observers criticized Winfrey because she has not funded such an academy in America. Her response was to voice disappointment that so many young Americans do not value the opportunities they already have. She comments, "I became so frustrated with visiting inner-city schools that I just stopped going. The sense that you need to learn just isn't there. If you ask the kids what they want or need they will say an iPod or some sneakers. In South Africa, they don't ask for money or toys. They ask for uniforms so they can go to school."50
The academy began operation in January 2007. Its first two classes include 152 girls, age eleven and twelve, selected from among thirty-five hundred applicants. Eventually, the school will have hundreds of students from grades seven to twelve.
Its twenty-eight buildings are spread out on a large campus. They include comfortable dormitories, well-equipped classrooms, a beauty salon, and two theaters. Winfrey personally chose much of what the girls use, from china and bedsheets to uniforms and the beds themselves—she reportedly sprawled out on each bed to check it for comfort.
Winfrey also insisted that the dorm rooms and the closets be extra large, although the girls have only a few changes of clothes apiece. She explained the importance of this when she commented, "It's because they will have something. We plan to give them a chance to earn money to buy things. That's the only way to really teach them how to appreciate things."51
Some of the criticism about the school has centered on what is seen as extravagant spending for a small number of students in a vast and deeply impoverished nation. However, many people have defended Winfrey for providing opportunities for especially needy girls. Winfrey also says the expense is justified. She states, "These girls deserve to be surrounded by beauty, and beauty does inspire. I wanted this to be a place of honor for them because these girls have never been treated with kindness. They've never been told they are pretty or have wonderful dimples. I wanted to hear those things as a child."52
Sometimes Winfrey focuses on honoring people in other ways besides money. A prominent example was the Legends Weekend, a three-day celebration she held in 2005. It honored twenty-five prominent African American women and was billed as "A Bridgeto Now—a Celebration for Remarkable Women During Remarkable Times."
Each of the honorees was a black woman who had made an outstanding contribution in the arts, entertainment, or politics. Winfrey commented about them, "These women, who have been meaningful to so many of us over the years, are legends who have been magnificent in their pioneering and advancing of African-American women. It is because of their steps that our journey has no boundaries."53
Among the honorees were two icons of the 1960s civil rights movement, Rosa Parks and Coretta Scott King. Others included singers Leontyne Price, Dionne Warwick, Patti LaBelle, Diana Ross, Tina Turner, Shirley Caesar, Gladys Knight, and Roberta Flack; activist Michelle Obama; actresses Ruby Dee, Cicely Tyson, and Diahann Carroll; and writers Terry McMillan, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, and Maya Angelou.
Also invited to the celebration were a number of what Winfrey called "the young'uns"—artists representing the next generations of black women. They included Alicia Keys, Ashanti, Angela Bassett, Kathleen Battle, Mary J. Blige, Brandy, Mariah Carey, Natalie Cole, Missy Elliott, Tyra Banks, Iman, Janet Jackson, Phylicia Rashad, Debbie Allen, Yolanda Adams, and Chaka Khan.
The three days of festivities took place mainly at Winfrey's California home. There were several events, including a lavish women-only luncheon. The lunch included, among other things, eighty cases of champagne from France, 120 pounds (54kg) of tuna from Japan, twenty thousand white peonies as part of the decorations, and entertainment by a symphony orchestra.
Each honoree had a personal waiter, and each of the more than sixty guests was presented with a red-alligator gift package holding engraved silver boxes and diamond earrings. Actress Alfre Woodard, commenting on the excitement this caused, told a reporter, "We were squealing like seven-year-old girls on Christmas Day."54
Other events included a formal evening ball attended by dozens of celebrities. Among them were Halle Berry, Spike Lee, Jesse Jackson, Tyler Perry, Sidney Poitier, Barbara Walters, Diane Sawyer, John Travolta, Tom Cruise, Quincy Jones, Smokey Robinson, and Barack and Michelle Obama. Eleven million people later saw a one-hour television special about the weekend.
Not all of Winfrey's formidable energy is devoted to philanthropic activities, honoring African American achievement, or even buying expensive shoes. As her popularity, wealth, and influence have grown, she has begun to flex her political muscles as well.
Often this activity has been behind the scenes. But one very public political fight started in 1991, when Winfrey became the driving force behind a national campaign to battle child abuse. She worked hard for passage of the National Child Protection Act. This federal law was designed to create a data bank of information about convicted child abusers. It was for use by schools and child-care agencies to ensure that dangerous people could not be hired in those places.
The first time it went to Congress the bill did not generate enough support. Then Winfrey produced and hosted an hour-long documentary on child abuse, Scared Silent. The program ran simultaneously on three national networks—a first for a program that was not a breaking (immediate) news story. Scared Silent was seen by 45 million people and generated more than one hundred thousand responses to an abuse hotline.
It also revived interest in passage of the data-bank bill. Support for what became known as Oprah's Bill grew, and the legislation passed in 1993. President Bill Clinton signed it into law. In his remarks to the public, Clinton singled out Winfrey for special praise:
I thank you, Oprah, for a lifetime of being committed to the wellbeing of our children and for giving child abuse issues such wonderful coverage on your show. You wrote the original blueprint for this law, and we're grateful, becoming a tireless advocate for its passage, lobbying Members of Congress of both parties for more than two years, and lobbying the President—people occasionally do that, too. All of us, but especially our children, owe you their gratitude.55
More recently, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Winfrey again used her tremendous popularity to inspire political and popular support—not just money. Winfrey went to New Orleans, and millions of people watched her shows about the hurricane's survivors (and those who did not survive). For example, she went into the Superdome, where thousands of people stranded by the storm were living in conditions of filth and disease, and she demanded quick relief.
Many observers contrasted Winfrey's actions with those of the federal government, which was severely criticized for its lack of speed and compassionate response. Writer Paul Harris commented at the time, "As President George W. Bush struggled to cope with the crisis, it was Oprah who set the tone of national shock."56And syndicated columnist Maureen Ryan angrily asked, "Can someone tell President Bush to call Oprah?"57
In the years to come, Winfrey will no doubt continue to use her power to expand this political and social activism as well as to expand her philanthropy and her personal media empire.