Whether pinning pundits on talking points during Starting Point or exploring volatile topics in CNN documentaries like “Black in America,” and “Unwelcome: the Muslims Next Door,” Soledad O’Brien lives up her to her reputation as a tenacious journalist with a distinctive brand of sharp wit. (In fact, The Daily Beast recently penned her, “cable television’s morning thunder.”) Yet this Harvard graduate houses a gentler side that nurtures and transforms the lives of young women across the country when the din of the daily spotlight is off.
Recently honored by The New York Women’s Foundation for their philanthropic work, O’Brien and husband Brad Raymond mentor and financially support the educational pursuits of 20 young women who otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford schooling on their own. The inspiration for the initiative came when O’Brien was covering Hurricane Katrina, and was deeply moved after connecting with a young woman who was struggling to stay in school in the disaster’s aftermath. O’Brien and Raymond—the latter of who is the head of an investment bank firm—paid for the woman’s tuition and supplies, which ended up setting a precedent for more students the couple would soon sponsor with the Soledad O’Brien & Brad Raymond Foundation.
“It quickly became clear that it wasn’t just about paying bills for tuition and books, these girls had to be mentored for long-term success,” O’Brien tells YouBeauty. “I have a lot of friends who share these values and a constant influx of people I meet who would make ideal advisors, so I began connecting them with the girls, and the foundation just grew from there.”
The New York native takes an active role with the group. Talking with the women weekly keeps their daily struggles close to mind. In helping the women to overcome adversity, O’Brien believes the ripple effect stretches further. “Our strength is not in scaling. It’s completely investing in a small group, and giving these women a chance. As we consistently see in studies, when you invest in young women, they return to their communities and affect transformational change,” says O’Brien.
The immigrant daughter of a Cuban mother and an Australian father, O’Brien says she was influenced by the teaching background of her parents, which instilled the value of education as the greatest economic equalizer. O’Brien and all five of her siblings attended Harvard. Yet the 46 year-old journalist says that similar opportunity for others is growing scant in the present economy. “You simply can’t hold a middle income job today that realistically pays for a tuition bill at the same time, and young women are being forced to sacrifice the very thing they can least afford to lose—an education,” says O’Brien.
A strong sense of personal mission powers O’Brien through each day, which involves an always challenging career, as well as the demands that come with mentoring women who must often navigate onerous obstacles. “For me, it’s all about finding a voice for people as a journalist, whether it’s for coalminers, Muslims or women at Ground Zero. In the same way, I feel I’m giving these young women a voice in their own lives, by giving them an education,” says O’Brien.
And yet a high profile career, growing philanthropic foundation and marriage are not the only elements O’Brien juggles daily. She is also mom to four children, including a set of twins; two girls and two boys who range in age from nine to 12 years old.
With the nearly impossible logistics that she battles while juggling all of her roles, we couldn’t help but wonder: How does she look so alert, awake and with-it for live television every morning at 7am? And how do we get in on the secret?
“First, I have to thank my parents, who are in their 80’s and look great!” says O’Brien with a laugh. “But the best skill I have is the ability to fall asleep anywhere, anytime—in fact, if you hand me a pillow right now, I can show you—and I find that there is nothing that makes me look better than catching some sleep however I can get it.”
O’Brien also credits a long-trusted beauty team with turning her bright-eyed in the mornings, no matter where her work may lead her, or at what hour.
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