Soledad O'Brien on How Education Can Combat Gender Pay Gap, Being "Disappointed" in Cable News' Election Coverage

Soledad O'Brien - Getty - H 2016
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Soledad O'Brien - Getty - H 2016

The veteran journalist talked to THR about drawing on her own life to inspire the scholars helped by her Starfish Foundation higher-education charity, ahead of Thursday night's annual benefit gala.

Soledad O'Brien is quick to admit she "grew up in a very boring two-parent family in suburban Long Island." But the veteran journalist says this stable upbringing has inspired her higher-education Starfish Foundation charity to try to remove any instability and distractions from the lives of the female scholars they're supporting.

"I was never worried that my parents wouldn't have a job. I was never worried there wasn't going to be food on the table," O'Brien tells The Hollywood Reporter. "A lot of our scholars come to us with a lot of chaos. What we try to do is remove that chaos and make sure that they understand that they're with us for four years and if they do well in school, they'll get a good job and their [only] job now is to do well in school. We'll take care of everything else. … I think once you remove a lot of this chaos, students are much more able to succeed because they're not worried. We have a number of scholars who would work a semester and drop out and then go back for a semester … it's impossible to really keep in the flow because they're trying to figure out when they're going to be able to make money for the next semester. We're trying to remove a lot of that."

In 2011, O'Brien and her husband Brad Raymond established the foundation, which provides young women in underserved communities with the financial assistance and other resources and support they need to get through college and succeed beyond that. Scholarship candidates are nominated and have to explain what they're hoping to get out of their education, something that should be of the utmost priority for a candidate.

"I like to say the people we choose are the type of people who would step over their own mother in order to achieve their dream of an education. It's sort of a joke but it's kind of true," O'Brien tells THR. "Sometimes it's the parents that can derail them. If they're lucky they have a really supportive family that wants to see them succeed but sometimes that's not the case. We want young women who really are going to do anything to be successful and most of the young women that we have that are successful fit that bill. They want it really, really badly."

On Thursday night (June 9), O'Brien and Raymond will host their sixth annual benefit gala in New York. This year's event is particularly focused on mentorship, highlighting another aspect of the foundation's work to remind its scholars of how they can do anything they put their mind to.

"When someone helps you out and picks you up and puts you on the right path, you sort of owe it to turn around and reflect back to them the things that you see are possible for them," O'Brien says. "Sometimes we need someone to tell you what you're good at and what you could do."

The foundation's support and education doesn't end with college, as O'Brien explains that Starfish advises its scholars on their careers including how to find an internship, how to dress for an office job and other tools to succeed.

They also have "straightforward" conversations about how to make sure you're being paid what you deserve, how to ask for a raise and how to walk away when you're not getting what you deserve. As O'Brien explains, being open about how much you're being paid is key to removing the "secrecy" that helps sustain the gender pay gap.

"Often people don't even know what someone's getting. There's a certain amount of secrecy that at the end of the day helps people who are paid," O'Brien says. "'Don't tell anybody but I'm going to give you…'"

Then when that information comes out, other people who aren't making that much realize they're not getting what they should be, she adds.

"I think a lot of the issue is people don't understand what other people have access to, what they're getting and what their colleagues are getting. The gender pay gap completely exists among anchor people, 100 percent, and it's just inherently unfair. The only way to really fight it is to have people tell you this is what's normal: This is what's fair," she says, singling out House of Cards' Robin Wright as someone O'Brien says she was glad to see was being open about wanting to be paid the same as her male counterpart.

O'Brien currently runs the Starfish Media Group, a multi-platform production and distribution company that is dedicated to uncovering and producing stories about the people behind divisive issues. She started the content-creation entity after 10 years at CNN and while she continues to work as an anchor, reporter, producer and documentarian, she's no longer a part of the daily news cycle during what's been a wild 2016 election. Looking back, she liked and misses the "platform" of being a daily cable news anchor but doesn't miss the "terrible schedule" and has been "disappointed in some of the interviews."

"I think that they have been lacking. And I think we're giving a lot of air time to people who go unchallenged and that's a little disappointing," she said, adding that she also doesn't like the cable news pattern of seemingly switching between people saying different, salacious things.

She's hopeful, though, that before the election she'll be able to explore some of the issues in this campaign via projects she couldn't yet divulge details about.