University of Iowa grad won the 'career lottery' with Harpo job

OWN network president speaks at Tippie College graduation

Diane Heldt
Published: May 20 2013 | 9:24 am - Updated: 28 March 2014 | 3:33 pm in

University of Iowa graduate Sheri Salata has worked for Harpo Studios for nearly 20 years and now runs the studios and the Oprah Winfrey Network.

But she assured University of Iowa business graduates this past weekend that it's OK if they don't have a plan all figured out just yet.

"It took me several tries, up to six tries, to find the entry-level position that would ultimately be my path," Salata said in a phone interview before her talk. "If I were looking back at myself on my graduation day, with my parents and grandmother standing there so proudly ... it would have been great to know that I wasn't required to have it all figured out that day, or within six months."

New graduates should be less critical and nicer to themselves, she said. There is an unfolding process that can take place in your life that allows time to figure out what you really want to do and what makes you happy, Salata said.

"The freedom to know that getting the title right on your business card should not be your primary, driving motivation, I think can be very freeing at this time in your life," she said.

Salata was the featured speaker at the UI Tippie College of Business commencement ceremony Saturday in Carver Hawkeye Arena.

She earned a bachelor's degree in business administration from the UI, and is now president of OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network and runs Harpo Studios. She first joined the company in 1995 and served as executive producer of "The Oprah Winfrey Show" from September 2006 through its finale in 2011.

Between OWN and Harpo Studios, Salata manages about 300 employees. She admits she learned her best leadership skills while working for people who hadn't developed theirs yet.

"Even a difficult situation with a boss can really be your most valuable in shaping and forming the kind of leader you want to be," she said. "And remember what it felt like to be the most junior person. If there's any chance that you can hold onto that even as you're moving up and getting promoted if you can see the organization you're trying to lead through the eyes of your most junior person you've got your feet underneath you then."

At age 27, Salata entered the television industry via an entry-level job as a personal assistant to an executive producer at a Chicago advertising agency. It was a risk, jumping to that job from a more stable career, she said, but it paid off.

Her solid business background gave her an edge in the television world, Salata said.

She did "win the career lottery" in working for Oprah, who is "exactly like she is on TV, but more fun," Salata said.

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