I Want Your Job: Soledad O'Brien, Founder And CEO Of Starfish Media Group

by Emily Arata
Fran Roberts

Soledad O'Brien is having a good day. The fast-talking journalist has just been to the DMV, an experience she generally deems "hellacious.”

However, the visit was surprisingly painless. As a response to the quick service, O'Brien even asked to hug the woman behind the counter.

It's hard to tell who's more surprised, myself or the lady in the story. I'm out here berating every schlump who cuts in front of me on the subway, but O'Brien's playing friendly neighborhood Mother Teresa to the masses.

It just shows the kind of person O'Brien is. After decades of on-air stories, she knows how important even the most minute human interaction can be.

The award-winning journalist and CEO of her own company, Starfish Media Group, talks a mile a minute in declarative sentences that wouldn't dare turn upwards into questions.

It's almost as if she decides what to say three sentences ahead of time and her lips are playing catch up.

It's the love of a good story that brought O'Brien, 49, to her passion after an entire young adulthood spent preparing to go pre-med. After watching her sister take the same chemistry classes with enthusiasm, O'Brien realized it wasn't her calling.

“I could do the work and kind of regurgitate the answers, but I just wasn't passionate,” O'Brien tells me.

This is her first mention of passion, but it's far from the last.

A love of the job and a dedication to hard work are the steering winds behind O'Brien's success, and she talks about them in nearly every other sentence. It's clear she's a planner, seeing the career field like a game of chess to be won.

Soon, the ambitious young woman had picked up a job at a local Boston TV station. Although her days consisted of grabbing coffee for the staff and dutifully fetching dry cleaning, it was the beginning of the O'Brien we see today.

"I was also very good at multitasking and I think that the beginning levels were really about that. Are you sharp, do you get it and can you multitask enough to get all this stuff done?” she remembers, admitting that most jobs don't start out magazine-worthy. "I was good at that. And so I kind of rose through the ranks.”

Here's another thing you'll notice about O'Brien: She's never afraid to announce her successes.

Without missing a beat, she explains:

I'm really good at saying I'm good at things, if I'm actually good at things. What I don't do is BS … I don't do it to brag, and when I say I'm bad at something it's not self-flagellation. It's really just being honest.

Part of understanding your strengths, however, is knowing your weaknesses. O'Brien says that balance is extremely important when it comes to her career. She views gaps in knowledge as obstacles yet to be conquered.

That very determination is part of what made O'Brien such a valuable asset as she rose in the ranks through NBC and CNN. After a decade anchoring programs including "Starting Point" for CNN, the network let her go amid creative differences with the company's president, Jeff Zucker.

It was time to tackle another item on the to-do list: entrepreneurship.

The production and distribution company O'Brien created in 2013, Starfish Media Group, has meant a chance to embrace her business side while still frequently reporting on-camera. It also means slightly less travel for O'Brien, who's a mother to four.

Where work ends, family immediately begins.

O'Brien shares,

Because I have four kids, my average day is a very busy day. And I think it really is more that than the job and the company.

But, O'Brien cheerfully takes the challenge in stride.

Chaos has a way of turning to order around her “tightly-wound Virgo” personality. It also helps that she always knew motherhood was in the cards.

O'Brien explains,

I'm very, very strategic. I really believe in figuring out where you want to end up and making sure you're doing all those steps to get there. I've never looked at my job as 'Well, I'm just going to wing it, see where this takes me.' Never.

The plan must be working out because O'Brien's become known for exciting and groundbreaking reporting. Her documentary series "Black in America," now produced under Starfish, has never been so relevant.

When asked how it feels to have picked open one of America's festering wounds and sparked conversation, O'Brien jumps in with enthusiasm.

She says,

We were reporting on policing in the African American community in our very first 'Black in America' [in 2008]. Everybody else kind of caught up to us ... What we have done successfully, and done well, is to tell stories about individuals and groups that are ignored.

Now, at a high point in her career, O'Brien couldn't be happier to pass along her success to individuals who haven't gotten the attention they deserve.

The philanthropic cause she founded, the Starfish Foundation, sends 25 young women to college each year and helps teach important career skills to over 300 girls.

O'Brien says,

My parents were educators, they were phenomenally helpful in helping us understand the value of a good education ... And so, when you really have someone who believes that your education can be everything it's easy to say 'Wow, that worked for me. How do I give that to other people?'

While passing on her love of learning, O'Brien's also still looking for the next way to find happiness in her career.

"I think one of the most amazing things about being a woman is that there are lots of stages of your life," she said. "I don't know that my husband would say the same thing."

Now, O'Brien looks ahead to the next phase, which might involve another business or two. The casual way she puts the idea out there suggests she's already fully decided to make moves, it's just a matter of time.

She muses,

I think part of the fun of life is growing and changing. I have no idea where it's all going to take me, but I do know the past two years I've focused very heavily not just on journalism, but on being an entrepreneur. That's a very different thing for me and it's fascinating. I loved it. It's amazing and I'm good at it.

For young women just starting out, O'Brien argues not much has changed from her days of coffee runs and waiting on others. The same core principles still count.

She says,

Journalism has not changed. The same exact rules apply whether you're talking about social media, or you're talking about Instagram or you're talking about how you interview people. Be smart, work hard, really do research, really understand your story, double-triple check, make sure you're running your story by people who are more senior than you.

In fact, there isn't much difference in how O'Brien acts and how a college grad should.

"Having a really good sense of yourself and being self-aware is a really good value at any age in any business," O'Brien adds confidently.

And with that, she's off, traveling to an exotic location or heading home to be with her family. Either way, O'Brien's career is certainly an adventure.