Interview: Soledad O’Brien Sprinkles Black Girl Magic & Love With The Starfish Foundation

One named Beyoncé Giselle Knowles-Carter previously posed the question; “Who run the world?” and answered it in the same breath, “girls.” Bey was right—the 2010 census revealed women make up just over 50 percent of the U.S. population. Just last week, another study by the National Center for Education Statistics showed African-American women are the most educated group in the country.  In the past 30 years, the attendance of Black women in higher education has steadily risen in both race and gender. There are numbers that will make anyone feel good to be a woman, or at least know one. It’s also a joy for Soledad O’Brien, award-winning journalist and co-founder of the Starfish Foundation, a group dedicated to providing scholarships and mentorships to ambitious young women from underserved communities.

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O’Brien began her mission six years ago with husband Brad Raymond following Hurricane Katrina. O’Brien wanted to help the residents and open the minds of young women with the idea of obtaining long lasting careers in their passions. “College is about having the finances but even more than that, it’s about having the support and how can people help you navigate them,” O’Brien says. “So we decided that we would start a foundation that’ll really help people not only get to college, but through college as well, and so Starfish started out of that with about just one or two girls to a group of about nine and we decided to make it official and get an executive director. So five years ago we got an executive director for the first time, and we became officially the Starfish Foundation, so now we have 25 girls each year that we put through school.”

Those girls, in turn, have become mentees to the next batch of young women, creating a true sisterhood. Sheba Turk, a former scholar of the Starfish Foundation, says elevating one another is the key to creating a growth for women in the workforce.

“If I didn’t have people like Kim Bondy and Soledad recommending me, who knows if anyone else would have taken a second look at me,” Turk says at the Sixth Annual Starfish Foundation Gala Thursday evening in New York (June 9). After graduating from University of New Orleans, Turk went on to make a splash as an anchor at Eyewitness Morning News for WWL-TV and her own show, The 504. “I think that’s why this foundation is so important and not just for black women but for minorities and all women. The foundation is about women helping women and teaching you that when you become a woman (because most of us come into this as girls) to reach back out and help other women. We have such a negative stigma with all of the reality TV we watch [with] women fighting, but we know that’s not the reality. We need these relationships to be broadcasted and the first way you do that is having them in your own life.”

This year’s current scholars dressed to the nines at the gala and channeled their inner ‘Yonce as the sounds of Grammy-winning Irvin Mayfield and the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra filled the Tribeca Rooftop. Keeping true to the New Orleans inspiration that began O’Brien’s mission, mentees and mentors showered each other with love and appreciation.

VIBE spoke with O’Brien before the eventful gala on the importance of education, black girl magic and what the Starfish Foundation has planned next. Check out the interview below.

What would you say has changed from last year to now with the Starfish Foundation?

Soledad O’Brien: We have a different craft of young women, so this year we have about five young women. I’ve been tweeting pictures of scholars who have been graduating. It’s been really fun. One of our students who graduated from law school, if you look at my Twitter feed you’ll see her carrying her baby up to graduate. It’s been really, really fun to tweet pictures of them. We had a handful of them who graduated this year. In some ways nothing’s changed, we always chased ambitious young women who want to be successful and understand that it’s going to take a lot to be successful. They were not born into the manor. They were not handed the key to the city, and that means that they might have to work extra hard and how they have to juggle work and a lot of other things in order to be successful but they can be successful.

Every year we do a different group of students and I think every year we are refining our process. We also do a summit called “PowHERful” where we have a couple hundred young women from different communities come in; we do it in New York City, and it’s hosted by Google. We’ll do it in July in seven cities: Tampa, New Orleans, Birmingham, Minneapolis, New York City, L.A., and Cleveland this year. So PowHERful has really grown for us and it’s a way to sort of extend our reach where we’re sending 25 girls to school through our foundation.

I love that there are a lot of programs out there like that who want to help a lot of ambitious girls that don’t really have that clear sense of direction on what they want to do. 

S.B: Exactly and if you didn’t know, how would you know. Like if you didn’t know how to apply for an internship, how would you know?

Black women are the most educated group of people in America, but at the same time, they only make up about 8 percent of private sector jobs. Why do you think there’s a disconnect?

S.B: Fairly interesting, a sort of companion statistic to that is the number of young women when I go to talk at a corporation, and you as the people who are the assistants how many of them have their Bachelor’s degree. Invariably, every single young woman who’s black has a Bachelor’s and a number of the young women who are white don’t. So they’re much more educated in many cases. And this is anecdotally; I know there are statistics to support this. They’re much more educated than their peers. And you kind of go, “Why are you an assistant which is a good entry job but other white women who are in the same position you are academically, they got in higher?” They didn’t start as an assistant. They started as a junior executive. So I think it’s a couple of things. I think there is a tremendous validity. It’s very hard to be things that you really don’t see in front of you. I think that there’s a lot that our parents instill in us, around what’s possible. My mom and dad were not in business. So it was really hard for me to figure out business because I didn’t live it. My dad and my mom was a teacher, my dad was a professor. So in order for me to be successful in business I literally had to hang out with people who ran businesses to learn that it was not magic. There are specific steps. And I think for a lot of our young women it’s a similar thing. How would you possibly know what you could be, how would you know you could be a junior executive if you don’t know any junior executives? How would you know? Like hey you could be much bigger or you could just be ballsy and go for that bigger job and fake it in the interview and just impress people with how smart you are, which a lot of kids do, but if you’re not sure it’s very hard to feel confident about your abilities when you don’t know. So I think a lot of what we try to do with our scholars is that exact thing. Give them internships so that they’re like, “Oh, I see what I can be doing.” It’s just expanding the information, sometimes it’s just like,”Oh, I didn’t know that this existed.” So our job is to make sure that they do know so that they can make intelligent, thoughtful choices about their future.

I completely agree.

S.B: That’s for our scholars, but that’s really what PowHERful is all about as well. We actually did one in Birmingham the other day. Very interesting, a number of women who are foster kids were in the audience and we had in our panel, a young woman who just had a baby and got up there and said I was a foster child, I was abused as a kid. I’m now a lawyer, and a partner at a law firm and she blew them away. She served and this is possible, I am sitting here, here is what I did. Because I think if you look at the data around foster kids and going off to college, forget law school, going off to college the data is terrible. Because you need to see people do it and be successful to be able to execute for it by yourself. This is not magic, there is no magic here, zero. It is about figuring out the system. And sometimes I think people feel like “Oh, it’s magic.” It’s not magic.

No, it’s hard work and determination.

S.B: Yes. And when I gave a commencement speech this year, it was really fun, and I’m always asked what do you think made you so successful. And I’m like honestly the moment I felt like quitting, I just didn’t. And I can’t even say I did something heroic, I just didn’t quit. I’d go to my bed, I’d eat Haagen Dazs and sit in my bed and cry and wail about how everybody wasn’t fair to me and life sucked, but the next morning I got up and I kept going. And I think to me that’s the secret that the next day you get up and do it anyway. I think if there’s some kind of magic, it’s that. And so teaching people that that’s what makes you successful I think is a very useful thing to do. When I left CNN, I started a production company. You have to sit down with other people who run stuff. I’m really thinking, “I’m messing things up, what should I be doing? Can you explain this to me?” You have to pick other people’s brains to get good advice so you can be successful. You can’t just sit there and wishfully hope something washes upon you. It doesn’t work like that.

This year there were a slew of stories coming from Chicago and Detroit where schools are literally deteriorating and children are still in these schools trying to get an education. Why do you think there’s a lack of funding? Do you think there’s a lack of funding or a lack of interest when it comes to the education system these days?

S.B: You know, I think because it’s not very tangible, there are people who can take kids out of school districts and they go make thoughtful decisions about education. I think people who can’t are necessarily well represented by their elected official. So if you’re in poverty, I don’t get the sense that people are out there trying to win their vote. So I think it’s hard and also it’s not necessarily tangible. Education is a thing you have to invest in over the next 20 years. You have to decide, this is a moral issue, something that is a value to us. We’re not going to see results tomorrow morning, and by Friday I’m not going to have a chart that tells you it has all been solved. You have to decide, as a community, and not as a Republican, not as a Democrat, not as an Independent, but as a community do we value children. Not just my children, not just your children, but in everybody’s kid. Because guess what, as a community we are utterly screwed if we do not educate everyone for jobs that exist today. You can’t have a hole in a boat and be like, well it’s not my end of the boat, we’re good. It doesn’t work like that. But I think sometimes it’s so tangible and politicians run on what exists at this moment. Like that whole transgender back root thing grew to a large degree is a very hot button issue.

I wish that we can kind of find a way to make all of these issues hot button issues because they affect all of us, and they do effect the future.

S.B: Absolutely. And I think the movement towards figuring out how to improve public schools, and school reforms generally has grown a lot over the last five years. Because people and corporations are recognizing without a valuable workforce, it’s going to be hard to hire people. And cities are recognizing without a workforce that’s being paid money, we don’t have a tax base. So it actually does matter. It’s going to have really rich residents, but it actually needs everybody to be working a job and paying taxes. There needs to have home tax, property tax, sales tax, and income tax. That is the kind of stuff that builds your roads, funds the mayor’s office, pays for your police and your fire. So it is ultimately self-interest, to make sure that even those with the least voice among you are gaining from the employed in some capacity.

Anything else you would like to add?

S.B: I would just say that’s a real focus for our scholars, and our powHERful students. It’s exactly that. It’s figuring out how do we get you in a workforce, in a way that you’re passionate about your career, and in a way that you are absolutely positioned to make the most money you possibly can, in a career that’s most interesting and most exciting to you. It can be whatever you want it to be. It just has to be something that you’re excited to do and that you love to do.

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For more information on the Starfish Foundation, visit their website here.