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Oprah Winfrey is the first African-American philanthropist to make the BusinessWeek Top 50 list. BW's Michelle Conlin recently asked Oprah to tell us a bit about her commitment to charity. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow:
Q: Did you have a role model as a philanthropist growing up -- someone who gave in perhaps even the tiniest of ways but who was instrumental in demonstrating the virtue of charity?
A: So many things in life inspire philanthropy, such as your faith in humanity and your belief in the human spirit to overcome. As far as a role model, I'd say there were moments with generous people that stand out for me. I will never forget when I was about 12, and my mother told my siblings and me that we would not be receiving Christmas gifts because there wasn't enough money.
I remember at the time that I felt sad and thought: "What would I say when the other kids asked what I had gotten?" Just when I started to accept that there would not be a Christmas that year, three nuns showed up at our house with gifts for us. There was a turkey, a fruit basket, and some games, and for me, there was a doll.
I felt such a sense of relief that I would no longer have to be embarrassed when I returned to school. I remember feeling that I mattered enough to these nuns -- who I had never met and to this day still don't know their names -- and what it meant that they had remembered me.
My memory of the nuns' generosity that Christmas is what inspired me to create ChristmasKindness South Africa 2002 -- an initiative that included visits to orphanages and rural schools in South Africa where 50,000 children received gifts of food, clothing, athletic shoes, school supplies, books, and toys.
Q: Do you foresee your philanthropy continuing to focus on kids, women, and education?
A: My foundation will continue to focus primarily on funding education projects globally. I believe that education is freedom. It provides the tools to affect one's own destiny. My gifts are more focused and directed toward making immediate change.
Right now, the single biggest project my foundation is working on is building The Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls South Africa, which will cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $20 million and will educate close to 5,000 girls in a 10-year period. It's my vision that this academy will help to develop the future leaders of South Africa and be a source of pride for South Africans for generations to come.
Q: Do you foresee more of your philanthropy going global?
A: From the start, The Oprah Winfrey Foundation has been committed to empowering women, children, and families by furthering education and welfare for low-opportunity communities around the world. Through my Foundation, we have awarded hundreds of grants to organizations that carry out this vision. It provides teacher education and scholarships to students who are determined to use their education to give back to their communities in the U.S. and abroad. [It] contributes school supplies and builds schools to educate thousands of underserved children internationally.
Q: One of the celebrity magazines claimed that you intend to bequest your fortune after you pass on. Is this true, or do you have a plan to give most of your wealth away during your lifetime?
A: You'll just have to wait and see.
Q: What has been more meaningful -- making your money or giving it away?
A: Making other people happy is what brings me happiness. I have a blessed life, and I have always shared my life's gifts with others. I believe that to whom much is given, much is expected. So, I will continue to use my voice and my life as a catalyst for change, inspiring and encouraging people to help make a difference in the lives of others. I'm fortunate that the work I do in my life becomes more meaningful with every experience.