Soledad O’Brien: Navigating the Not-So-Linear Career Path

At one point in her career a typical day would start at 3 A.M. and wrap up around 3 P.M. And that was just the work day. Then it was home to her four kids, who were all under four years-old at the time that she was also hosting her own morning show. Award-winning journalist and self-proclaimed optimist, Soledad O’Brien has always been short on time, but never on passion.

Known for telling the stories that are often left out of mainstream media, she has navigated one of the most rapidly changing industries and still came out on top.  Most recently, she started her own production company, Starfish Media Group, all while still balancing freelance journalism and running a foundation to aid young women, as well as being a wife and a mother to her four children.

But if you ask about her biggest challenge so far, she’ll tell you it’s not unique: “I think it’s hard being a working mother. “

After 12 hour days, “I still left work with a million things to do. I think it’s a typical story for a lot of people. How do you manage to do the things you want to get done, the important things, and they’re all important things? It’s really hard,” says Soledad.

Although she’s a pro, it’s not her multitasking, but genuine character that makes her so relatable and successful across the board.  Soledad has made a career out of giving a voice to those who aren’t often afforded the chance to use their own. In doing this, she has found her voice, which she owns with fortitude and merit, effortlessly gaining public respect.

As her formal name suggests, Maria de la Soledad Teresa O’Brien has quite a mixed heritage. Her father was Irish and Scottish, but hailed from Australia, and her mother is Cuban with a blend of both black and Latina roots. Growing up in a predominately white neighborhood in St. James, New York, Soledad did not fit the cookie cutter mold of the Northeast. But with a supportive family behind her and a relentless drive, she learned not just to embrace her differences but capitalize on them.

“When I was 13 years-old, I felt like an outsider, but as I got older, and as a journalist, it was a great thing because being an outsider as you try to figure out other people’s experiences is a plus,” she explains.

Even after marrying her husband, Brad Raymond, Soledad kept her full name, seeing it as a moniker for her veritable personality.  She began her career as a journalist with a goal to fill in the gaps of mainstream media and report on the issues and people who are too often left out of the conversation. In doing this, she learned her unique culture and appearance could be a tool for understanding, helping her to transcend the emotional walls that block the truth and allow her to relate to a diverse population.

Although she now views her background as a platform to create change with her stories, Soledad knows not everyone is afforded the same luxuries of support and guidance growing up as a minority. Which is why in 2006 she started the Starfish Foundation to help young girls in need afford an education and reach their highest potential.

True to her character, whether speaking at women’s conferences or one-on-one with the girls at her foundation, Soledad is always real, often shrugging off her impressive resume and explaining it as a highlight reel.

“There’s a lot of bad and challenging things that have happened, and yeah I’d love to forget some of that stuff, but it really helps people to realize that it is not magic. I had a lot of great opportunities, some things I completely fumbled and here’s what I learned from it—I think that kind of honesty is really critical,” she explains.

While for NBC News as a producer, Soledad learned this early in her career.  On her day off, she was cleaning her office when a story broke, and she was forced to jump on a plane to cover a press conference in jeans and cowboy boots. Laughing as she defends that it was really good outfit for cleaning, she admits, not so much for a young professional producing a news story.

Despite the cowboy boots incident of ’91, Soledad has set herself up and achieved success, graduating from Harvard University and working her way up from a local news station in Boston to become one of the most respected correspondents for several prestigious, national media outlets. But even after taking all the right steps to land her dream job, the real challenge has lied in navigating her career as the industry rapidly changes.  Throughout the years, Soledad has been able to remain so effective as a journalist by maintaining a macro view on her career, allowing her to look at every job as an opportunity to grow her skillset.

“When you think of your career that way, all the little things that can be frustrating become small because you have bigger mission and goal; it’s not necessarily about the job you’re doing right now.”

When Soledad made a bold jump from the widely popular NBC News to a less glamorous role on cable television for CNN, she had a lot of people questioning her decision. Today, she will tell you that move allowed her more flexibility and the opportunity for growth that led her to become the founder and CEO of her own company and, more importantly, maintain her original goal to really create change with her stories.

Crediting her mom’s age old advice that “most people are idiots” in their opinions of what you’re doing, Soledad has been able to navigate her ever-changing career by staying true to herself.  Much like the stories she breaks, there are no bows that neatly tie up her career and label it a success, it’s constantly evolving with no clear edges or lines to divide a story that she knows will never be read as black and white.

Although Soledad’s authentic sense of self and honesty is half the reason she has made it so far in her career, she faces her fair share of judgment as a minority woman in the media. And as a television reporter, she’s well aware of the power of appearance and the influence it can have, especially on a media career.

“I think everybody is judged in the first minute if meeting somebody, so my theory is don’t give people ammunition to judge you poorly,” she says.

 

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