What's it like being schooled by Oprah Winfrey?

I’ve mentioned this before but Marc and Craig’s life stories do read like a Hollywood movie script. Below, I share an abridged extract from Craig’s personal chapter in WEconomy. You need to read the whole chapter to get a flavour of the unbelievable life this 30-something has already lived – this short section covers only his schooling by Oprah Winfrey.

During our book tour we have been asked many times what charity can learn from big business. To many, the ideals and drivers of each, appear opposite. In their WEconomy chapters Craig and Marc set out to prove that rigor of business, when applied to charity, has the ability to scale impact in the most incredible and sustainable way. As Oprah taught Marc and Craig:  “It is easy to do good – it’s hard to do it well.”


Schooled by Oprah Winfrey by WEconomy co-author Craig Kielburger:

The Oprah Winfrey Show asked me, at 16, to appear on an episode featuring young people making a positive difference in the world. Oprah, being Oprah, had prepared a surprise for each guest. I was introduced to a young New Jersey boy whose school had held a fundraiser; he presented me with a giant novelty check for US$3,378 to help build a school in Nicaragua. We both turned to Oprah to wrap up the segment.

“You know what?” she announced. “I want to build a hundred schools with you.”

After interventions from lawyers who tried to dissuade her (she hadn’t fully vetted us, yet she’d made a very public promise), Oprah had made up her mind. This would be her first major overseas investment. A few days later Marc and I flew back to Chicago to meet with Tim Bennett, the president of Harpo Productions at the time, who warned us: “You have no idea what’s about to happen when this goes to air.” Then he asked us three questions: “Do your schools have paraseismic engineers? Do you do currency hedges to make sure fluctuations don’t affect the final price of your projects? Do you have a third-party governance and evaluation system in place?” Marc and I looked at each other—para-what? Clearly, we did not fully understand the power of Oprah. We had a passionate group of young people and the eyes of Oprah’s viewers upon us, but we didn’t reallyhave the infrastructure to support her generosity. We quickly learned how Oprah ran her empire. She and her team were the ultimate business professionals, and in return for her investment, they acted like venture capitalists who expected us to grow and deliver scalable social change in a model similar to  a  successful tech company, not a fledgling charity.

Suddenly, we had the equivalent of what the for-profit industry would call “series A/B/C” funding rounds to secure world-class designers, builders, and engineers. Our school buildings have since survived earthquakes in Haiti and China. Marc and I reported to Oprah’s board of directors, which she chaired, on risk assessment, cost evaluation, long-term sustainability—factors we didn’t realize applied to charitable leadership but have since become hallmarks of all our programming. With me in high school and Marc a college undergrad, we were getting schooled at the unofficial Oprah Winfrey MBA program. At the time, it was all a bit terrifying. We would leave board meetings drenched in sweat and searching for a dictionary.

When we first stood in front of Oprah’s team, we were kids, earnest young people with a desire to “help children.” Although we had no shortage of good intentions, we quickly learned that it’s much harder to achieve lasting impact. Over time, we understood the difference between doing good and making scalable, sustainable change. We learned how to act on the best strategies to streamline efficiencies and reduce costs to achieve the greatest impact-per-dollar, lessons and tips we’ll discuss in Part Three…

It’s not a hand-out, but a hand-up that breaks the cycle of poverty.  That watershed realization led to a cycle of constant innovation and learning. Eventually, we would further hone our geographic focus to countries in which we could make the most impact.

We have since realized that when it comes to doing work in developing countries, especially in some of the poorest and most politically challenging of the world, there is still much to learn. The hardest part of development is not identifying what works through research- driven models, but operating within cultural contexts that are often vastly different, and complicated by extenuating circumstances of dire poverty and weak rule of law.

We know, of course, that donor and business partners in the West expect charities to be run like solid businesses with efficiency, transparency, and sustainability. Building world-class processes and procedures in nations with nascent democracies is the most challenging aspect of our work, yet at the same time some of our most important.

If any of these solutions seem obvious or to have appeared too quickly, keep in mind I’ve condensed years into a few hundred words. And at every stage, we got flak from consultants and old-school charity experts who warned us that our holistic model defied the 30-second charity soundbite plea to attract donors. Anything more is too complicated, they said. Tell people you just build wells. Tell people you just build schools. How could we do that, knowing that building schools isn’t enough on its own to create sustainable change?

Oprah was the first to teach us that visionary philanthropists are acting more like venture capitalists, with more sophisticated goals and metrics. They are willing to listen, do their research, and they want more than a picture of a smiling child. They want measurable results: reduced infant mortality rates, increased graduation rates, and long- term economic improvement.

Get your copy of WEconomy and read more stories and lessons from Sir Richard Branson, the Dalai Lama, Magic Johnson and many more!  



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