Oprah Winfrey stuns Charlotte audience with $1.15 million gift to help students

Oprah Winfrey stunned a packed Charlotte ballroom on Saturday by announcing a major donation to help more local minority students afford and succeed in college.

Winfrey had just finished a half-hour talk on leadership at the 17th annual Maya Angelou Women Who Lead Luncheon at the Westin hotel in uptown when she asked the audience: How much money have you raised?

“We do want to make this the world record-breaking event,” Winfrey quipped to the 1,120 people, mostly women, who attended the United Negro College event.

The United Negro College Fund had hoped to raise $1 million at the event for scholarships for deserving area students to attend historically black colleges. But a running tally on huge video screens showed that $1.15 million had been raised.

Winfrey then announced she would match the amount, boosting the total raised to $2.3 million and bringing everyone to their feet in sustained applause.

“Boom!” UNCF officials tweeted later Saturday afternoon with a video of Oprah on stage. “The awesomeness that is @oprah just matched the $1 million that was raised...””

“I believe in the power of education,” Winfrey had just finished telling the audience at the end of her speech. “There is nothing better than to open the door for someone.”

In 2007, she founded the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa. Graduates have attended colleges and universities worldwide, including three who graduated from Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, Winfrey said.

Winfrey also announced plans this month to campaign in Charlotte in 2020 for healthier living. As part of a nine-city winter arena tour, her “Oprah’s 2020 Vision: Your Life in Focus” wellness event is scheduled for Jan. 18 at the Spectrum Center in uptown, the Observer has reported.

On Saturday, she recalled telling Angelou at the famed poet and civil rights activist’s kitchen table in Winston-Salem how she believed the South Africa academy “will be my greatest legacy.”

Angelou chided her, she said.

“‘You have no idea what your legacy is going to be, because your legacy will be every life you touch,’” Winfrey said Angelou told her.

To the Charlotte audience, Winfrey added: “Your legacy is how you treat everybody.”

Winfrey focused her talk, however, on leadership tips for women. The advice applies to men as well, she quickly added, noting that men also were in attendance.

“The first rule of leadership is to put yourself first on the list,” she said. “..You cannot give what you do not have. That’s not selfish, it’s ‘self-full.’ ”

And “listen to the whisperer,” that gentle voice inside, she said. “Your job is to figure out the pattern of your life, the flow.”

Some need more than a whisper, she said — pebbles, maybe. “Some need bricks,” she added, drawing laughter.

Winfrey offered one sage bit of advice after the next: “All stress comes from wanting the reality of the moment to be different than it is.” And “when people show you who they are, believe them the first time.”

“Oprah Winfrey inspires us to live a purposeful life,” said Tiffany Jones, area development director of the United Negro College Fund.

The luncheon also honors local women each year for making a positive difference in the community and continuing Angelou’s legacy as a civil rights activist. Angelou also was a poet, essayist, playwright, screenwriter, singer, actress and dancer. Her 1969 memoir, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” was the first non-fiction bestseller by an African American woman. She died on May 28, 2014, at age 86 at her Winston-Salem home.

Saturday’s honorees were Madelyn Caple, Wells Fargo Private Bank western region managing director; Tish Guerin, Carolina Panthers director of player wellness; Tiffany Eubanks-Saunders, Bank of America market executive; and Joan Zimmerman, CEO of Southern Shows.

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Joe Marusak has been a reporter for The Charlotte Observer since 1989 covering the people, municipalities and major news events of the region, and was a news bureau editor for the paper. He currently reports on breaking news.