I recently had the opportunity to interview Oprah Winfrey, and while this was an amazing experience (sadly, I didn’t get rich by osmosis), meeting one of the most powerful women in the country made me think about the lessons I’ve learned by watching successful Black women in action.
Despite the odds, sisters all over the globe are doing some inspiring things. From the White House and Congress to the United Nations and countries around the world, Black women are showing up and showing out in politics, business, and entertainment.
So what can we glean from their achievements?
Here are 7 lessons from some of the world’s most successful Black women
1. Decide what you want to do
If you have a goal you want to accomplish, you have to make a decision to commit yourself wholeheartedly to making it happen. Back in 1989 Joyce Banda knew she wanted to bring change to her country by empowering its women. She once said, “I sat down in 1989 and I made up my mind at that point that I was going to spend the rest of my life assisting women and youth to gain social and political empowerment through business and education. I convinced myself economic empowerment of women was going to be key, especially in a country like this where most women didn’t go to school.” And she did it. Banda become Malawi’s first female president in 2012 and continues her work to reform the nation.
2. Work harder than everyone else
Ursula Burns was a summer intern at Xerox in 1980 and 30 years later she’s the boss. Burns outworked her cohorts and moved up the ranks, and despite having a Masters in Engineering from Columbia, she gave up her engineering gig with the company to be the executive assistant to the president of marketing. She called the move “risky” but admits she learned a multitude of lessons she still uses today. In 2009, Burns was named CEO of Xerox, proving hard work and strategic decisions can pay off in a huge way.
3. You’re going to doubt yourself, but can totally bounce back
When Oprah launched her network OWN, things did not get off to a smooth start. While she was the Queen of Daytime TV, running her own network proved more difficult that expected. OWN struggled to find its audience, she had to layoff workers, and many counted Oprah out. And for once in her life, Oprah felt like a failure and began to publicly talk about how difficult it was getting OWN off the ground.
After a come to Jesus meeting with David Zaslav, Discovery CEO (whose company invested $300 million in OWN), she knew she had to get it together. These days ratings are up, OWN is profitable, and Oprah’s doubters have once again turned into fans.
4. Know your boundaries and when to say no
Being successful comes with responsibilities, especially if those around you haven’t accomplished as much as you have. It can be difficult to say no, but as Auntie Oprah explains, it’s necessary. “When you’re the most successful person in your family, in your neighborhood and in your town, everybody thinks you’re the First National Bank and you have to figure out for yourself where those boundaries are.”
5. Get yours, but give back
Maya Angelou once said, “When you get, give. When you learn, teach.” Mellody Hobson has taken this advice and embraced it wholeheartedly. She is the president of the largest black-owned investment firm in the nation (Ariel Investments), and sits on the board of such companies as Starbucks, Groupon, and DreamWorks SKG.
Despite her booming portfolio, Hobson is also a serious philanthropist and a staunch proponent of education. Hobson sits on the board of After School Matters, a non-profit that provides Chicago teens with high quality, after school programs. She also works closely with the Chicago Public Education Fund and The Field Museum in Chicago.
6. Surround yourself with positive people
There’s a reason Oprah, Michelle Obama, and Valerie Jarrett hang out together–those we associate with can either help or hinder us in our lives.
Mrs. Obama breaks it down: “Do not bring people in your life who weigh you down. And trust your instincts … good relationships feel good. They feel right. They don’t hurt. They’re not painful. That’s not just with somebody you want to marry, but it’s with the friends that you choose. It’s with the people you surround yourselves with.”
7. Stay positive, no matter what
Love her or hate her, Beyoncé has successfully positioned herself as one of the most profitable artists of the decade, amassing a net worth of around $300 million. While she has some of the most dedicated fans on the planet, Beyoncé also manages to engender some of the most ardent critics as well.
Despite having her every move dissected and questioned—Is she a feminist? Did she really birth Blue Ivy? Is she played out?—Beyoncé manages to continue to remain positive. Whether it’s her nature, or just immense brand discipline, Bey has managed to sidestep the social media faux pas of her peers and continue to stay upbeat, even while she’s being raked over the coals.