If you don’t know the incomparable Soledad O’Brien, you better ask somebody! Better yet, allow us a moment to tell you who she is. O’Brien is an award-winning journalist, founder/CEO of Starfish Media Group and anchor of Matter of Fact with Soledad O'Brien. You may recognize her face as a former anchor on MSNBC, CNN, Al Jazeera and HBO or her active Twitter fingers.
One thing everyone knows about her is that she is not afraid to speak her mind and chase facts. In addition to her political commentary and media involvement, O’Brien is passionate about community outreach and social impact, which is why she is the co-founder/board chairperson of The PowHERful Foundation.
The foundation began in 2011 with the mission of transforming one young woman’s life at a time through the power of going to college. These young women are supported financially, provided mentorship and reminded that their success should not be hindered by the obstacles in their lives.
PHOTO: NY Daily News
21Ninety was given an opportunity to talk to O’Brien and PowHERful's Executive Director, Renée Joslyn (former director of The Clinton Foundation), about how the foundation came to be, O’Brien’s advice for young women overcoming obstacles and how women invest in younger women. Read on for the full interview:
21NINETY: The PowHERful Foundation was created as an organization to help young women get through college despite their personal obstacles. Why did you select this as your cause?
SOLEDAD O’BRIEN: I think there’s a huge value in investing in women. I know that when you’re very intentional about a strategy — getting young women through school, not just to school — you can make a tangible change and ensure women complete their education. But it’s a lot of work and commitment. On our part, and that of our students. But we know the investment is worth it. We’re changing individual lives, but also investing in changing families and communities.
21N: You shared the "Starfish Story" of how countless starfish washed ashore on a beach and were dying but a little boy continued to pick them up one by one to throw them back in the ocean. An older man did not see the significance in the boy’s effort because he felt there were too many to save them all. However, the boy explained to him the difference would be made to the individual starfish who is given a chance to live. Why did you choose that story to help explain the mission of PowHERful?
SO: I think that story has a clear message: That no matter how big and overwhelming a problem might be, tackling it — piece by piece — can be an effective strategy. Empowering young women is a big endeavor. But the way to do it is if everyone works toward a common goal. We tackle the problem by providing wrap-around services, by supporting young women. It’s a journey, not a quick fix. But we see them as starfish — worthy of investing in, worthy of helping and nurturing, and rooting for.
21N: As a veteran journalist, you have covered all kinds of stories over the course of your career. How did your role as a journalist inspire your desire to create an organization like the PowHERful Foundation?
SO: As a journalist, I know the data and statistics around success in college for young women who head to school in the face of a lot of obstacles. I’m an optimist but also a realis— I know how hard it is for some of our young women to get through school. We know they need support to succeed, and mentors. They need tutors and financial support. My experience as a journalist has helped me fully understand how to best help these young women succeed.
21N: Can you name a moment in your life where mentorship played a pivotal role in pushing you to the next level?
SO: Oh gosh, I’ve had so many mentors. I think a real strength of mine has been leveraging mentors throughout my career. So I have many, many mentors. Some are peers, some are colleagues. Mentors have been essential to my success and it’s why we’re pretty obsessed with connecting our young women to mentors.
21N: Through the foundation, how are mentors chosen to work with the scholars and how many young women are enrolled on an annual basis?
RENEE JOSLYN: Currently, we have 12 young women enrolled in the program. Our application process will open again in April 2019. Mentors are chosen based on the need of our scholars. Depending on their career and academic needs and wants, we tap our board members, friends of the Foundation, and networks to identify possible mentors. Each mentor goes through an interview process and is approved by the scholar before the final match.
21N: As a woman of color, specifically a Latina, why is it so important for you to give back in this way?
SO: It matters that all young women understand the power they possess being exactly who they are.
21N: In addition to the scholarships provided, the PowHERful Foundation also hosts a PowHERful Summits. In your opinion, what do attendees gain from the Summit?
RJ: We are very proud of our PowHERful summits that bring together girls and young women with professionals in their communities to help them navigate their options when it comes to education and career. Girls and young women gain instant mentors, inspiration, and concrete steps to reach their goals. They also learn they are not alone and that even the most successful women have to overcome obstacles - so giving up is not an option.
21N: Since its inception in 2011, and I know this may be a hard question, what are your top five standout moments?
SO: Oh gosh, graduation from law school for our scholar Tierra. She carried her baby daughter! And also our scholar Amanda, who got her PhD. Really proud of them! But really, every young woman’s success is amazing. They’re like my own daughters.
21N: Your foundation is focused on changing the lives of young women and empower them by giving them access to education, but how has this organization changed you?
SO: I’ve learned so much. The specifics of how you can truly be helpful to students in need. I’ve learned a lot about what makes someone successful. It really is about the opportunity. So we spend a lot of time getting opportunities for our young women to try new things.
21N: What advice would you give to young women trying to overcome obstacles to become the best versions of themselves to be a beacon of hope for their families and communities?
SO: I think the advice — that’s good for everyone — is to focus on persistence. Once I asked a running coach the best way to tackle a marathon. He said: don’t stop. And he’s right. To some degree, a lot of success is in just sticking it out through the hard times.
21N: What advice would you give to women looking to give back to young women to empower them and help them reach their full potential?
SO: It’s the most rewarding work you’ll ever do. Investing in young women is very important work. But it’s also really fun. And really, really worth it.
21N: Is there anything else you would like to share with our readers?
SO: We've got some exciting programs rounding out 2018, and coming in 2019, including 'PowHERful Career Convenes' that take young women into the heart of America's largest organizations to connect them with opportunities that lead from college to career. Our first Career Convene will be with Goldman Sachs this September.
We'll also expand our internship opportunities with major companies to provide more young women with the access they need to succeed. All those announcements will be on our social media pages: Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook.
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