Q&A with Soledad O'Brien
On Oct. 21, Soledad O’Brien will host a panel discussion titled “Race in America" as part of the UNLV Barrick Lecture Series. The former CNN, NBC and HBO journalist, and current CEO of Starfish Media Group, has tackled many social issues in her work. Following her keynote speech at MGM Resorts Foundation’s Women’s Leadership Conference in August, she talked with Desert Companion’s Heidi Kyser about her stories, her new venture and the ever-changing media landscape.
You founded Starfish Media a little more than a year ago. What word describes the transition from reporter to CEO?
It depends on the day you ask. Some days, I'd tell you "chaotic," and other days I'd tell you "rewarding." … I'd say it's gotten to that point of being fun and feeling like, okay, I understand what is required to be the CEO and the decisions I need to make and the vision for this company, which is my vision. It took me a little while — maybe the first six months — to figure out what that was. It was a tough transition from being a reporter, because there are so few things in common with running a company, yet the key thing, the vision, is exactly the same. I had a very strong sense of what stories I wanted to tell, and I translated that into the company I want to run, because of the stories I wanted to tell. So that part has been easy. And that's probably the most important part.
As a journalist, I strive to do what you do: tell big, important stories through the lens of a personal experience. I'm curious, how do you choose your subjects? Are there certain characteristics you look for?
Yeah, always. I think it's — the character has to pop. They have to be somebody who's interesting sitting there eating cereal. I really look for someone whose head I want to jump into and figure out what they're thinking and why they do what they do. Whether that person is heroic or an antihero, I really just want to understand their thinking. And I think you also have to have people who are willing to be very honest with you, and open and give you a lot of access to their lives. It really only works when someone is willing to answer the push, the tough question.
How would you tell consumers to find those good stories in this media-crowded world?
It's a great time for consumers. It is a chaotic landscape, but everyone's trying to figure out what makes something sticky. You know what makes something sticky? Good storytelling. I learned a little trick with my kids. They're now 13, 12, 10 and 10. Probably 4-5 years ago, they'd be having a meltdown, and I'd pick up a book. "Corduroy is a bear," I’d start to read, just for my own amusement, and suddenly everyone — no matter what kind of fight they were having — would be leaning on me, or sprawling across my lap. Everybody is compelled by a good story. Advertisers are looking for it. Brands want it. News is desperate for it. And there are tons of stories to be told. So I actually think for viewers and readers, it's a great time. Everything is searchable and it's coming across a lot of different platforms.
In your recent Politico interview, you talked about the strategic choices you've made in your career: jobs that would take you where you wanted to go, even choosing friends based on who would support you. Was there a counterbalance to that? It could seem over-controlling to an outside observer.
I think a better way to put it was, I just cut off people who were not supportive. Very quickly. I realized — and it's always my advice to the young women in my foundation — it's going to be a haul, especially for the people who started off somewhat behind. You don't have the luxury of having that person weighing you down, saying, "You're probably not going to make it anyway. Let's just go do this instead!" … I'd sign a contract, have a baby, sign another contract, have another baby. You know why? Because I don't want to negotiate pregnant. It's not a powerful feeling to sit in the office with your boss, who's probably a man, and try to convince him to have me front and center with all these interesting and important stories when I'm pregnant with twins.
I’ve covered several powerful women and have frequently heard them asked questions beginning with, "As a woman...?" Would you eradicate this habit from discussion entirely? Change it?
When I anchored on The Today Show, I once asked a woman CEO about balancing life and work. My dad called me up and said, "That's a ridiculous question. You would never ask a male CEO that." Totally true. But at the same time, I know, as a woman, and the women in the audience here today know, we're trying to figure that out. So it's both an unfair question and incredibly relevant. … It's challenging to figure it out, and I think more and more men are trying to figure it out now, too. So, maybe the answer is not: Women, stop talking about it. Maybe it's: Men, start talking about it. And let's have a conversation as people about how we balance incredibly busy and fulfilling lives.