oprah winfrey
Oprah Winfrey went through years of hardship to get to where she is today. Source: Michael Tran/AFP

Now a household name, it is hard to believe that Oprah Winfrey went through poverty, discrimination and years of abuse to get to where she is.

She is a true story of inspiration — a self-made one at that, not the Kylie Jenner kind. 

And she has the awards to prove it, up to hundreds. These include the National Civil Rights Museum’s Freedom Awards, People’s Choice Award and many more. 

A media executive, actress, talk show host, television producer and philanthropist — she’s the personification of a woman who can do it all.

She even founded Harpo productions, O, The Oprah Magazine, and her charitable work has reached local, national and global platforms. 

How did it all begin?

oprah winfrey

Oprah Winfrey received an Honorary Doctorate in the faculty of Education from the University of Bloemfontein. Source: Paballo Thekiso/AFP

The early years of poverty and abuse

When we hear the phrase “started from the bottom,” Winfrey’s journey depicts it perfectly.

Born to unwed parents, Winfrey spent the first few years of her life on a remote farm with her grandmother, where she learnt to read by the age of three. 

However, soon after, she had to move in with her mother in a poor neighbourhood in Milwaukee. There Winfrey experienced years of abuse by her cousin and mother’s boyfriend.

She even wanted to run away. “I used to bring boys home and cause all kinds of problems for myself,” the mogul said in an interview with Barbara Walters.

At 14, she found a home again when she was sent to live with her father in Nashville. 

Her father was strict and required her to read a book each week and write a book report on it.

Despite his strict ways, Winfrey is grateful for her father’s strong hand and has even said that “he saved her life.” 

She began paying more attention to her education and attended East Nashville High School. Winfrey participated in many clubs and organisations, including student council, drama and debate club. 

During her school years, she found her passion for public speaking, which then led her to win a competition scoring her a full scholarship to HBCU Tennessee State University.

There, she majored in Speech Communications and Performing Arts. 

In university, she won several accolades, this includes being invited to a White House youth conference, being crowned Miss Fire Prevention and winning Miss Tennesse and Miss Black Nashville. 

While still in college, Winfrey was offered the opportunity to sign with a local television station as a reporter and anchor.

CBS’s job offer made her Nashville’s first African American female co-anchor of the evening news on WTVF-TV. 

Eager to kickstart her career, she left college one credit short of graduating. This was a fact that her father never let her forget.

“He’d say, ‘Oprah Gail’ – that’s my middle name – ‘I don’t know what you’re gonna do without that degree’,” Winfrey told graduates at a 2008 Stanford commencement speech.

In 1987, she returned to complete her course and finally received her degree. 

Winfrey would go on to change television forever. Not long after moving to Chicago to host Channel 7’s A.M. Chicago, the show was renamed The Oprah Winfrey Show.

By the time she was 32, her talk show would be syndicated to 120 stations nationwide.

oprah winfrey

Oprah Winfrey has started many organisations to give back to the community. Source: Amy Sussman/AFP

Oprah Winfrey gives back 

As someone who grew up poor and abused, she made it her goal that others should not suffer the same.

To do so, she supports numerous educational endeavours worldwide but especially in South Africa. 

The Oprah Winfrey Endowed Scholars Programme provides financial support, leadership experiences and service opportunities to students in financial need. 

The programme has funded the education of over 700 students at Morehouse College over the past 30 years.

Aside from that, she also provides aid to Tennesse State University, the Chicago Academy of Arts and the Chicago Public School. 

That’s not all she has done. Winfrey strongly believes education is the key to levelling the playing field and dreamed of building a school for girls in South Africa who are going through situations as she did. 

Luckily, with the help of Nelson Mandela, she was able to open the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls (OWLAG).

Its 52-acre campus is equipped with state-of-the-art classrooms, labs and a well-stocked library.

To date, over 528 girls have graduated from OWLAG, and 90% of graduates have gone on to attend top universities such as Oxford, Stanford and Spelman. 

She started a campaign for a national database of child abusers in 1991 to help other victims as well.

In Dec. 1993, President Bill Clinton signed “Oprah’s Bill,” which became the centrepiece of the National Child Protection Act, creating a national registry of convicted child abusers.

Winfrey’s hard work, resilience and hard work have led to a successful career across several industries — a reminder that no matter where we come from, we can make it too.