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Soledad O’Brien Interview, Founder of the Starfish Foundation

Soledad O’Brien is an award-winning broadcast journalist, executive producer, and founder, with her husband, Brad Raymond, of the Starfish Foundation, which helps disadvantaged minority women get into, and through, college. She also leads annual PowHERful Summits, free day-long empowerment events for women ages 15 to 23 throughout the country. We caught up with her at the PowHERful Summit at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio.

Q: What exactly is PowHERful? What is the PowHERful Summit?

O’Brien: PowHERful gives high school and college-age girls an opportunity to explore career options, receive useful guidance, and interact with successful professionals. It’s for young women who are serious about their future and looking for ways to enhance the journey.

Q: Speaking of girls, you have two, ages 14 and 15, as well as 12-year-old twin boys. How are the teen years going?

O’Brien: They’re great! My older daughter was really tough as a baby, she was a very difficult two-year-old, but every year she gets more wonderful. She’s grown into this lovely, sweet, kind child with amazing skills. I don’t cook at all, and she makes these elaborate, intricate dinners. I haven’t had any of the teenage terrors that some of my girlfriends describe. I can’t tell you why, but mine are just very pleasant.

Q: How do you think your experience as a parent has differed from that of your own parents when they were raising you?

O’Brien: My parents were solidly middle class. They never had financial struggles, but there were things they were never going to pay for. I loved horseback riding, but they had six kids, so it was never going to happen. I think the challenge that I have now, because I make multiples of what my parents made, is how do you not create obnoxious kids, because they have access to so many things. That’s one of the reasons that I always try to drag my kids into understanding the things I care about.

In addition, I make it very clear to them that this money is my money; there is nothing to inherit, zero. Go do whatever you want to do to support yourself with the passion that you have. It’s not something I’m underwriting for you. I think that really lets them think about ‘what do I want to be, what do I really want to do,’ not that ‘someone will do this or do that for me.’ We will help them pay for college. It’s very hard to burden your kids with a lot of post-graduate debt.

Q: Knowing how difficult it is for a child to pay for college, how do you decide which girls to sponsor through your foundation?

O’Brien: It’s really hard. They have to write a lot. We know them inside and out before we accept them. These are really great, hard-working kids. They need to have the stamina to be successful in a challenging environment.

Q: How do you balance your career, marriage, and parenting?

O’Brien: I think life is a bit of a juggle. I’m always running through the day because I’m always overbooked. But I get a lot done so I’m okay with that. I’m at PowHERful now because if I can spend the time with a group of young women who can really use this kind of day, then my family can survive a weekend without me.

I don’t mind these decisions. My husband is there. He jumps in for me, and I jump in for him. What makes us a good couple is that we pick up the slack for one another. Also, we have a family Twitter account, so everyone knows what everyone else is doing. My son sent me a virtual hug recently when I had a bad head cold while on the road. We also use it to check in with everyone’s schoolwork and tests. It’s not our primary way of communicating, but I really like technology.

Q: Do you enforce any rules around technology in your family?

O’Brien: I like to empower people to do the right thing rather than constantly give them punishments for the wrong thing. Everyone has cellphones, but we have very clear strict rules, and anyone who doesn’t abide by them loses their phone immediately. No using your cellphones before homework is done, no cellphones in bed. My daughters are on Snapchat because everyone’s on Snapchat. So I know what they’re doing, what their friends are doing, and I know the tone of their conversation. The way I manage it is not to say, ‘You can’t be on Snapchat,’ but to help them be intelligent about it.

Q: Any advice to new parents of teens?

O’Brien: I haven’t really made it through yet, so I shouldn’t be the person giving advice, I should be taking advice. Though one thing that’s really important, and my husband is much better about this than I am, is that you have to have a sense of humor. When my daughter was four, she was always telling me about her friend Samantha. Her mom walked Samantha to school every day, and made her lunch every day, and was there every day, and when I was complaining about the Samantha situation to my husband, his supportive response was that maybe Samantha’s mom should get a job. His point was that I can’t compare myself to other moms because at the end of the day, we all have our own way of doing things.

For another interview with Soledad O'Brien:

Beth Segal is a writer at the Cleveland Plain Dealer, and photographer for Your Teen Magazine.

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