University of Iowa graduate, former Oprah Winfrey Show executive pitches giving

Sheri Salata: 'Thank you for calling me a philanthropist'

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IOWA CITY — Although Oprah Winfrey is known internationally for giving millions to charity, Sheri Salata said the media mogul’s philanthropy isn’t about publicity. She didn’t do it for the cameras.

“The thing that I can reveal is that most of Oprah’s philanthropic efforts were never public and won’t ever be public,” Salata said. “No one will ever know the degree to which she made sharing a way of life.”

And Salata would know. The University of Iowa alumnus — after graduating in 1980 with a bachelor’s degree in business administration and spending years working various jobs — landed a spot behind the scenes of the famed Oprah Winfrey Show, where she rose through the ranks to become an executive producer.

The position shaped not just her career, but her life, including her passion for giving.

“I took note, I watched every bit of that, and I said, ‘Me, too. Yes. Yes, yes, yes. Me, too. That’s who I want to be,’ ” Salata said. “I want to be so successful, and I want to have so much influence and so many resources that I can say yes a lot of times when it comes to that.”

Those intentions became reality after television journalist and UI alumnus Tom Brokaw, while preparing to go on the Oprah show, asked Salata if the university knew about her. Right about that time, UI Foundation representatives began reaching out, asking if Salata would think about being more involved. She took the challenge.

“Ok,” Salata said. “What could I do? And we just started having conversations about what was possible.”

Salata shared her view of philanthropy Thursday as part of the University of Iowa’s “Phil was Here” campaign to inform the campus about philanthropic opportunities and the paramount role they play in the institution’s success.

“Thank you for calling me a philanthropist,” Salata said, conceding her giving feels like a “drop in the ocean.”

Since 2014, Salata has supported nine UI students through a Sheri Salata Women Who Lead Scholarship, and she’s giving to innovation initiatives at the Henry B. Tippie College of Business. She also serves on the Tippie Advisory Board, but said she doesn’t necessary subscribe to the traditional notion of philanthropy.

“When we talk about philanthropy, I’m going to be a bit of a disrupter here,” she said, explaining giving isn’t all about cutting checks and giving up weekends. “The definition I like the best is the betterment of human kind.”

That, she said, involves self-care and big dreams and open eyes and saying yes.

“If you want to start on a road to philanthropy, don’t be off put if you can’t write a check. And don’t be off put if you don’t have a weekend to volunteer,” Salata said. “Maybe it starts with being a little kinder of yourself. Maybe it starts with being more deeply appreciative of your own gifts and telling yourself a different story about yourself.”

“In that way, we become people who inspire,” she said.

Salata, an Illinois native, said she ended up at UI after requesting a brochure, in hopes of attending with her best friend. Her first visit was the day her parents dropped her off for school.

“Good thing the brochure was right,” she said, describing the campus as “mystical and magical” and “a place I could call home.”

The university, for her, was about big opportunities in the context of a quaint community. And she said those ideas and ideals shaped her career view and path.

“I think my time at Iowa was so idyllic and so filled with friendship and possibility and potential, and the freedom that I had as a college student all kind of seeded the ground for possibility,” she said. “Now it would be years before I would spin that into gold for sure, but my dreams got seeded here.”

With her daughter, Alexis Wright, now attending the university, Salata said her university giving couldn’t feel more right. But she noted the importance of donations from a wide range of givers at a time when higher education is being pressed financially.

“I don’t think a lot of people understand that,” she said. “Certainly I wasn’t aware how much the University of Iowa relies on the philanthropy of its alumni to continue to innovate, to continue to be the best, to continue to have world class programs. ... As it turns out, what makes a university spectacular and world class are the contributions of alumni and friends of the university who are willing to say, ‘I want to share some of my bounty with the home where I seeded my dreams.’ ”

l Comments: (319) 339-3158; vanessa.miller@thegazette.com

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