The truth behind how Oprah’s career made her a billionaire

As of 2021, Oprah Winfrey’s net worth clocks in at $2.6 billion. Ranked at number 10 on Forbes list of self-made women, she’s currently the only black female billionaire in the U.S. 

There are plenty of reasons to be fascinated with Oprah’s career. One of the only true rags to riches stories out there, so much can be learned from the tenacity, grit and pure talent that got her where she is today. Here’s a look at Oprah’s life journey from poverty to billionaire. 

Childhood

Oprah was born in Kosciusko, Mississippi. Her parents were separated, and she lived with her mom in poverty. Oprah didn’t have a bed or room of her own until age seven – but this didn’t deter her from showing academic promise early on.

When she started school at age five, she skipped kindergarten. Oprah endured physical abuse at her grandmother’s hands and was raped at nine years old by a cousin and molested by two other family members before age 14. At 14, Oprah had a baby who died shortly after it was born. 

Education

Despite the horrific things she endured growing up, Oprah continued to achieve academic success – earning a full scholarship to the University of Tennessee.

She won the Miss Black Tennessee pageant at age 17, which landed her an on-air job at a local radio station, where she worked during college. When her career started to take off, Oprah decided to leave school to work as a local television station reporter. 

Early career

Audiences were drawn to Oprah’s outgoing personality and empathetic demeanor — characteristics sought after as talk shows started to gain popularity in the 1980s.

Oprah left her reporting career to debut as a talk show host on a new morning talk show called People Are Talking. This led to her own 30-minute talk show, which eventually expanded to the hour-long The Oprah Winfrey Show, which Oprah licensed and nationally syndicated, making her a millionaire at just 32 years old in 1986. 

Building Oprah’s empire

The Oprah Winfrey Show still holds the record for the highest-rated American talk show, which ran for 25 years.

The income and notoriety Oprah gained from The Oprah Winfrey Show led her to create other businesses leveraging her household name. She founded her own production company, Harpo Inc., that same year. Her performance in The Color Purple earned her an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. 

During the 1990s, she expanded her business ventures further, co-founding the women’s television network Oxygen. She wrote multiple books and started her now-famous book club.

Oprah launched O, The Oprah Magazine in 2000, which is estimated to have earned $1 billion in revenue over 15 years. During the 2000s, she found Oprah.com, co-produced the Broadway musical version of The Color Purple, which won a Tony award for Best Revival of a Musical in 2016.

In 2006 Oprah launched the 24-hour Oprah radio channel on XM Satellite Radio. In 2011, Oprah created the television network OWN: The Oprah Winfrey Network. Oprah sold a 24.5% stake of the network to Discovery Communications for an impressive $70 million in recent years. 

As of 2015, Oprah has a 15% stake in Weight Watchers equity, where she serves as spokesperson. 

Oprah is also an avid investor in real estate. She owns million-dollar homes in California, Hawaii, Colorado and Tennessee. Her property in Chicago recently sold for $7.5 million. 

Accolades

In addition to her long list of awards for The Oprah Winfrey Show, acting and producing awards, Oprah was awarded the Cecil B. DeMille Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2018 Golden Globes.

Her career has been studied by investors, entrepreneurs and even college students. In 2001, University of Illinois offered a course entitled “Oprah Winfrey, the Tycoon” to students interested in learning more about her work and how she achieved such great success across TV, radio and media. 

So, how did Oprah get that rich?

There’s no question that Oprah’s talent, charisma and personality led to her fame and monetary success.

But a closer look at Oprah’s career shows she learned something early on in her career that enabled her to earn money off her show in a way that others hadn’t been able to at the time – she licensed her show through syndication.

This not only gave Oprah the creative freedom to produce her show through her own authentic lens (which undoubtedly helped her ratings, viewership and overall longevity of the show) but enabled her to earn more revenue. This enabled her to use the money she was making to fund new business opportunities and turn her into the media tycoon billionaire she is today.