As an Emmy Award-winning journalist and former news anchor for CNN, Soledad O’Brien chased not only the big stories of the day, but the ones that changed our cultural landscape. Her coverage of Hurricane Katrina, the historic 2008 U.S. elections and her groundbreaking documentary series Black in America and Latino in America made her a household name.
Leaving CNN in 2013 to start her own TV production company, Starfish Media Group, today she’s focused on bringing a platform for new voices to be heard. So, how did she get there? B*Real caught up with the Harvard University alum at The Dream Project Symposium in Atlanta, where she shared her expert tips for new grads on the hunt for their first big break.
B*Real: May is right around the corner. Do you have any career advice for young women graduating from college this spring?
I think the best thing to do is be very aggressive and do a lot of informational interviews. I think that there’s a lot that you can learn about an industry by just grabbing people and not asking them for a job, but ask, “Can I pick your brain for 15 minutes?” And when you get a job interview, and you have an opportunity to sit down, you can take all of that you’ve had conversations about and frame that into really thoughtful questions.
When the interview questions turn to, “What questions do you have for us?” You can say, “Well actually, where is the industry going?” and talk about some of those big questions that you’ve had covered in your informational interviews. I think you have to be really aggressive about that and really understand the industry you’re getting into.
B*Real: So what’s the worst thing you can say or do in a job interview?
I’m always disappointed when I interview people for jobs and they have nothing to ask me. I’m impressed when they actually do say, “Well, actually, I do have three questions.” That’s the kind of person you want to hire, so I would advise, and certainly young women who are coming out of college and looking for their first job, to ask tons and tons of questions.
B*Real: What’s the best piece of advice you received?
The best piece of advice I ever got was from my mother, who said most people are idiots. And if you listen to them, you’re a bigger idiot. I think that, in TV news especially, people will be like, “Girl, you can’t wear your hair like that, don’t do this, you can’t do that….” Those people don’t know, they literally have no idea. So make sure you’re only listening to advice that’s relevant, that they’re doing the exact thing that you want to do and stop listening to the rest of the chatter. It doesn’t do anything for you and if you listen to it, you’re a bigger idiot. I thought that was great advice.
B*Real: You create various documentaries through your production company, Starfish Media Group. What keeps you feeling inspired in business?
It’s funny. I don’t think of everyday inspiration. I have four kids, so my day begins with jumping out of bed and running into the shower and go, go, go. But I love running [a] company. Its been a really great experience to own something and have it be successful and think about how to grow it and employ even more people down the road. I think what made me want to be a journalist originally was this opportunity to tell stories. I felt like there were people whose stories weren’t really being told, and often they would just kind of miss out on the conversation in the mainstream media.
B*Real: What keeps you inspired as a journalist?
What I wanted to do, whether I was working for a network or now as a production company serving [the public], was to make sure those voices were incorporated into the bigger discussion, that they didn’t have to be pushed in and pushed out around very specific topics. We did a documentary about the women of Ground Zero, about women as rescue workers, and it was a really interesting conversation about the contributions of women during 9/11. I think anytime you can go in and reframe an issue is a great opportunity, and being able to do that is certainly what inspires me in journalism.
B*Real: What’s something you learned about the “real world" that you weren’t taught in school?
I think it’s really important for young people to understand that 50 percent of your success will be, do you do your job? Do you go in on time, do you execute on the things you’re supposed to, which are in your job description, and do you leave when you’re supposed to and do a good job? But there’s another 50 percent that are the soft skills. It’s how you deal with conflict, it’s how you look, it’s how you present yourself, it’s how people see you — it’s everything. I think it’s a mistake to not think that the actual skills, the work that you do, and those soft skills, how you navigate in the workplace, are not equally important. You know, people get fired or don’t get promoted all the time because of these soft skills that they may not have or haven’t figured out. Your work can be great, but if you’re a jerk, you’re not going to get ahead.
B*Real: What unique challenges do you think women face when entering the work world, and how can we overcome them?
There’s a lot of evidence that shows what they call a “confidence gap” for women. There’s a great study about women who push back and negotiate a salary. And we know that men are much more likely to negotiate up on their salary, but we also know that women are much more likely to be penalized when they do. If you want to close this income gap, how do you ask for more, what you think you deserve, but not be penalized or be told, “She’s too aggressive” or “She’s pushy or kind of obnoxious?” It’s a tricky thing for young women to navigate because we still have a premium on being likeable in the workplace, where nobody really cares if the man is likable. It’s ridiculous because men can be tough but women are the “B” word. I think women are judged differently, and I think it’s very challenging.
B*Real: In terms of your career in media, how did you discover this was what you wanted to do professionally?
I started out writing stories about fires. And I was doing stories about community centers opening, and then I started covering the first Iraq War in the early 1990s, and just constantly saying [to myself], “I’m not just doing this one thing. I do a lot of things.” And even now, even though I’ve done a lot of reporting on race, Black in America documentary series and Latino in America documentary series, my work actually covers a very wide range that no one ever feels like, “Oh, I know what she does. She does this one thing.” Even in the company that we run, I report for HBO, for the documentaries that I do for CNN and Al Jazeera, I host things for National Geographic and I’m producing documentary series for other networks. I try to do a number of things based on what I like, what’s interesting to me.
B*Real: And what’s your advice to young women who are trying to figure it out?
I would tell young women especially, and young people, don’t get pigeonholed. You really want to say, “I have a wide set of skills and I can go anywhere. Put me in, because I can do everything well.”
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(Photo: Jasmine Alston Photography via The Garner Circle)