CAMBRIDGE, Massachusetts (Reuters) - Talk show host, entrepreneur and philanthropist Oprah Winfrey used the struggles of her television network on Thursday to try to inspire Harvard graduates, saying they were armed with more tools of empowerment than any generation in history.
In a commencement address at the Ivy League school outside Boston, Winfrey told the graduates that they were bound to stumble no matter how high they might rise, but that “there is no such thing as failure — failure is just life trying to move us in another direction.”
She said she was asked to speak at Harvard after her newly launched Oprah Winfrey Network had been declared a flop by the media, and that she wondered what she might tell graduates “in the very moment when I had stopped succeeding.”
Inspired by the words of a hymn and knowing she would be delivering the Harvard address, Winfrey, 59, said she found the determination to move forward.
“I am here to tell you today, I have turned that network around,” she said. “Learn from every mistake because every experience, encounter and particularly mistakes are there to teach you and force you into being more of who you are, and then figure out what is the right next move.”
Winfrey joined a long list of politicians, policy makers, captains of industry and authors — including Bill Gates and J.K. Rowling — who have offered their wisdom and advice to Harvard’s graduating classes.
Long a fixture on Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people list, Winfrey has been popular on the college commencement circuit, speaking at Stanford University, Duke University and Spelman College in recent years.
Winfrey said she found a renewed sense of purpose in 1994 when she interviewed a 9-year-old girl who collected pocket change to help people in need, inspiring the celebrity to start her Angel Network charity, which has raised funds to send underprivileged students to college, among other things.
“It helped me decide that I wasn’t just going to be on television every day,” she said. “What became clear to me was that I was here on earth to use television and not be used by it, to use television to illuminate the transcendent power of our better angels.”
In the U.S. political system and the media, she said, “we often see the reflection of a country that is polarized, that is paralyzed and is self-interested.”
“We all know that we are better than the cynicism and the pessimism that is regurgitated throughout Washington and the 24-hour cable news cycle,” Winfrey told the graduates.
The vast majority of Americans realized that gun rights could be balanced with efforts to reduce gun violence, she said, and that U.S. immigration laws could be enforced while offering a clear path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.
“Your generation is charged with this task of breaking through what the body politic has thus far made impervious to change,” she said.
She said the Class of 2013 was “armed with more tools of empowerment than any generation in history,” referring to social media and its potential for mobilizing humanitarian efforts.
Earlier in the day, Winfrey was also awarded an honorary doctorate. Boston Mayor Thomas Merino was among the other recipients of honorary doctorates at Harvard’s 362nd graduation ceremonies.
Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Paul Simao