When I turned 30, I decided that my guiding word for my 30s would be legacy. While my twenties were about defining who I was and crafting my own identity, this decade is for laying the groundwork so that my work can be of service to others. And if there is one Black woman who has built an impactful legacy during my lifetime through her service to others, and in doing so has inspired me immensely, it is Oprah Winfrey.
Most people know that Oprah the richest Black woman in the world. This isn’t what I care about or admire. Oprah is one of the most philanthropic people in the world, having donated millions of dollars to health and education initiatives, including the creation of the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa.
I haven’t shared this with that many people (and don’t think I’ve ever shared it publicly), but one of my lifetime dreams is to open a leadership and educational academy for talented young African girls. It is not lost on me that where I am today in life is a combination of natural intellect, family nurturing, and happenstance opportunities. My parents are very much self-made — if we had not left our very small and rural village in Nigeria to move to the US, it’s unlikely I would have ever left Nigeria. If they hadn’t prioritized and encouraged education, I probably would not have gotten a PhD. I know in my core that there are millions of young girls who are way smarter than I am, who simply do not have the family support, resources, or access to high-quality education that has the power to transform their lives, and really the lives of their entire communities. Oprah’s commitment to the education of girls around the world, both through her own personal donations and leveraging her celebrity status, despite her own modest upbringing, is a model of legacy that I look up to.
In addition to her philanthropic work, in a lot of ways, Oprah was also the OG influencer. At one point the Oprah Winfrey show had 15 million viewers A DAY. Whatever blender Oprah said to buy, people bought. Whichever books she said people should read, they read. People whom she validated — Dr. Oz, Dr. Phil, Rachel Ray, Iyanla Vanzant — all became immediate successes because Oprah’s opinion carried so much weight. But Oprah didn’t just endorse products, she encouraged people to become better versions of themselves. While there has been controversy around the self-help, spirituality practices and beliefs that Oprah has supported, she has still inspired and encouraged millions of women to become better versions of themselves.
When I think about what I want my legacy to be, and what I want to do with my “influence”, it boils down to two things: create opportunities where more women and girls can access education, and inspire women to be the best version of themselves. Oprah has spent her lifetime doing that work, and has been an inspiring role model for me as I set out to do the same.
I hope you enjoyed my Black Women Who Have Shaped Me series for Black History Month! If you missed my homages to Maya Angelou, Sade, or Chimamanda Adichie, make sure you check them out.