Soledad O’Brien is the definition of a go-getter. She is a Harvard graduate, award-winning journalist, documentary maker, philanthropist and mother of four.
When she visited Georgia State on Nov. 16, she shared the stories that spotlighted racial disparities in America. She said she is drawn to reporting on topics that provide a service to affected communities.
“I think when I started reporting on Hurricane Katrina it was a really important story for me,” O’Brien said. “I think I really felt that being a reporter was a calling that you could be really useful [and] that that was providing a service. And often in other stories you don’t know if you are providing a service.”
Through her work on the Today Show, MSNBC and CNN, she has amassed numerous awards. Including the NAACP President’s Award in 2007 and her first Emmy for her coverage of the crisis in Haiti in 2011, according to IMDb. However, journalism wasn’t always her career goal.
She started college career as a Pre-Med student at Harvard, and originally sought to help humanity through science.
“When I was in middle school, I was a candy striper. In high school, I worked in a pharmacy. Everything I was doing was to go to medical school, and all of a sudden I didn’t go,” O’Brien said.
When O’Brien started working at a TV station for class credit, her passion for journalism was ignited, and she has been storytelling ever since.
“I felt that I was doing a service for humanity as I kind of grew up the ranks. I got to find stories that I thought were really relevant and important that the other people weren’t telling,” O’Brien said. “So that’s what really got me interested first in television news, and I think what’s made me stay is that it feels to me that there are so many stories that we are not talking about. So I could be working forever.”
When O’Brien switched from journalism to documentary filmmaking, she created Black in America in 2008 and released Latino in America in 2009 to tell the stories of minorities. She said the transition was smooth and sees documentaries as a luxury for journalists.
“Most of the stories I did when I worked on a newscast were about 90 seconds long, maybe two minutes or two and a half minutes if you were really lucky,” O’Brien said. “A documentary is the opposite of that. The goal is to sit in someone’s life and really understand what they are trying to tell you. So I think it’s a real blessing when you are a journalist to do a documentary.”
She said students struggling to find their passion should be open to trying new things.
“I think it’s really about trial and error. I don’t know a lot of people who could just kind of pick one thing and stick with it forever and be really passionate. I think you just have to do internships and interview people about what they do,” O’Brien said. “Figure out everyone else’s path to see what works for you.”
Throughout her career, O’Brien said she’s had many formal and informal mentors. Now, she uses her skills to mentor others through her Starfish Foundation that has paid 28 women through college.
“I think some people can be opposite mentors. I think sometimes you can see someone so badly behaved or such obnoxious human being that you say, ‘Wow. That’s what that looks like. So that’s what that looks like when you think you are being all tough and strong, but actually you are just freaking out and yelling at somebody,” O’Brien said. “I am not doing that. I see that all the time at the airport.”
O’Brien said her greatest achievements so far have been to start a family and to lead a resilient career, but she is looking forward to what the future holds.
“I think that probably the best thing that you can do is be helpful and useful to people in some capacity. And so I really hope the achievement of that, the greatest one, is still down the pike of it,” O’Brien said.
One of the next steps in her career is to grow Starfish Media Group, her production company founded in 2013 that is centered around reporting on character-driven stories.
“We are going to start building out a docuseries unit that will happen at the beginning of the year, O’Brien said. “So we will head into year three with a pretty robust production arm that is docuseries [and] we have already been selling some of them.”