Oprah Winfrey posing with students at her Leadership Academy; she and the students smile, and she holds two students' hands.

Oprah Winfrey’s Leadership Academy: A Philanthrocapitalistic Mission

Cover image courtesy of Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls

–By Emily Doan–

This paper explores the philanthrocapitalistic components of Oprah Winfrey’s $40 million Leadership Academy in South Africa, which offers an elite education to impoverished teenage girls. Built as a promise to Nelson Mandela, Winfrey sought to use education as a tool to move impoverished teenage girls up the social ladder. Even though the school provides a world-class education, critics note that the school acts as a “vanity project” of Winfrey’s, as this project is also rooted in her desire to see her donations go to an organization that she would be intimately connected to. Her “vanity project” was built with luxurious accommodations and school materials which are all “graced” with Winfrey’s touch, including “O” monogrammed dorm furnishings. Other critics note that it is practically “too luxurious” for impoverished students, as the surrounding community could have greatly benefited from Winfrey’s contribution if it was thoughtfully dispersed with the community’s needs in mind. Along with the high standards and luxurious accommodations, the Academy enforces strict visitation and community policies for the safety of their students, however, the strict policies do not make the Academy immune to criminal allegations.

Oprah Winfrey’s Leadership Academy: A Philanthrocapitalistic Mission

In January of 2007, the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy opened its luxurious doors to its very first class of seventh and eighth grade girls. The expansive school complex dreamt up and designed by Oprah Winfrey, a famous American media proprietor, is located in Henley-on-Klip outside of Johannesburg, South Africa and aims to educate academically gifted, underprivileged girls from South African communities. By educating these girls, Winfrey hopes to equip them with skills to move up the social ladder by boarding them at the school with restricted communication capabilities. No expense was spared in the crafting of the Academy, where Winfrey’s “O” insignia graces the entire school. The Academy comes at a time when education in Africa is a hotly contested issue regarding the access of education to young South African women. Opinion remains divided on whether the price tag of the school is “too much” for a town surrounded by impoverished communities, when the money could have been thoughtfully applied to better the lives of the surrounding communities, rather than a small group of girls. While the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy fulfills a promise to Nelson Mandela and provides a world-class education to impoverished teenage girls, it also fulfills Winfrey’s philanthrocapitalistic vision to develop an organization that could be exclusively controlled and constructed by her.


Winfrey’s Academy endeavor is an example of rising “philanthrocapitalism” among celebrities and the ultra-rich. Philanthrocapitalism is defined as “an emerging model for charitable giving” that is “more ambitious, more strategic, more global……requiring higher levels of personal involvement by donors” versus more traditional approaches (Jenkins 753-754). This model combines strategic giving and a high level of personal involvement with a capitalistic business model to create a results-orientated approach that is unseen in most forms of charitable giving. This results-orientated approach is used to measure the organization’s effectiveness. The “subset of ultra-rich, experienced business people” who follow this model are deemed “Philanthrocapitalists.” Along with implementing capitalism, philanthrocapitalists also use their vast social connections to “bring governments, businesses, and other funders to embrace and support their particular vision and their proposed solutions” (Jenkins 746). These social connections not only provide monetary support, but also provide vital social support for a philanthrocapitalist’s vision of “passing on” their talents that have made them successful to those that are less fortunate.

These “philanthrocapitalisticomponents are distinct in Winfrey’s Academy. The “higher level of involvement” is seen in Winfrey’s engagement in personally choosing every school adornment, teaching a virtual class, and being the primary funder of the Academy. Amongst her “higher level of involvement,” is her focus on results, or school performance, which is another facet of philanthrocapitalism. She has also implemented strategic plans and ideas that are specifically meant to produce high academic results that reflect well on the Academy, which subsequently bolsters support. Along with these results, Winfrey has also relied on her connections with local dignitaries and fellow celebrities, like Nelson Mandela, Angelina Jolie, Julia Roberts, and John Travolta, to provide valuable social and monetary support. All backing she has received has enabled her to further her vision of bringing underprivileged girls to live a “life they should be living” (Charumbira 626).  Because of the strong celebrity support, and the providing of a world-class school to the community, charitable giving is generally presumed to be beneficial, regardless of its form, however, philanthropy is often taken for granted and rarely subjected to intense scrutiny.

Previous and Current Philanthrocapitalistic Endeavors

Winfrey’s first “philanthrocapitalistic” project was a mentorship program for young teenage girls in Chicago. In the 1980s, Winfrey’s teen mentorship project was established in the Cabrini-Green housing projects in Chicago, a neighborhood notorious for frequent gang activity nicknamed “Little Hell”  (Lee 127). Through her high involvement, Winfrey’s project aimed to mentor troubled teenage girls and instill in them the core values that she credits for pulling her out of her own troubled teenage years. Following a results-orientated approach, Winfrey measured her success by following her mentees over a period of time and assessing their usage of the values and skillhe taught them. However, the ambitious mentorship project failed when none of her mentees used their newly taught skills to “rise out of poverty.” Winfrey’s rationale behind the collapsed project was that she did not have adequate time with her mentees to “instill values in girls whose upbringing wasn’t aligned with my teachings” (Winfrey). In a later reflection on the mentorship program, Winfrey realized that “trying to show people how to build successful lives was overwhelming,” and that she had took on too much to handle (Winfrey).

Following her failed mentorship program, and her realization that building successful lives for teenagers was difficult, was an attempt in 2002 by Winfrey to “adopt” ten American children. This project never came to fruition, or even past the planning stage, and abruptly ended in confusion and ambiguity, signaling yet another failed project. In this project, there was no viable plan or social support. A strong internal motivation Winfrey cites in her attempt to develop both the mentorship and “adoption” programs, was her desire to better teens’ and children’s lives so that they could rise out of childhood poverty and other hardships they might have experienced as Winfrey had growing up (Applegarth 2).

Both of Winfrey’s projects display the “one key ingredient of philanthrocapitalism,” which is the “willingness of economic winners to … apply to their giving the same talents, knowledge, and intellectual vigor that made them rich in the first place.” (Jenkins 756). The Cambrini-Green mentorship program and the “adoption” program were attempts to impress upon disadvantaged teenagers the values she held close through her own difficult upbringing, those specific values that Winfrey felt put her on a path of success that lead her to the ultra-rich lifestyle she lives now. However, it is ironic she wished to take on these projects to impress upon her values to mentees, when she finds that investing in people’s lives is “overwhelming.”

Winfrey’s third and current project, and arguably the one she is most intimately involved with, is the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy. The Academy is developed out of  her passion for education. It was education, she cites, that equipped her with the right skills to rise out of her troubled childhood to become a successful young adult at a local radio station. It was also Winfrey’s travels in Africa that “changed her forever.” Winfrey’s visit included a compelling conversation with Nelson Mandela in his home, in which she promised to open a school in Mandela’s county for impoverished girls “who had no other chance to make it in the world” (Winfrey). Following through with her promise, Winfrey made a $10 million commitment, which quickly turned into a lofty personal investment of $40 million. Aside from Winfrey’s promise to Mandela, her only other motivating factor was her own displeasure on where her donations ere going, as she states “I really became frustrated with the fact that all I did was write check after check to this or that charity without really feeling like it was a part of me” (Applegarth 2). Opening the Academy was an answer to her impersonal donation problem, as well as a completed promise to Mandela. 

Education and School Grounds

Winfrey chose to build her Academy in South Africa, largely because of her partnerships and discussion with Nelson Mandela regarding education in his country. Through this conversation, Winfrey identified a problem that she felt her philanthrocapitalist self “can and must put right.” Her relationship with Mandela offered a social platform for her endeavor and touched on a notable component of philanthrocapitalism- the utilization of social connections. Along with her relationship with Mandela, her partnership with government officials fostered a strong social backing for her endeavor, especially at the beginning of the Academy project. Winfrey’s partnerships symbolize a philanthrocapitalist’s “power to form and strengthen a variety of linkages and relationships” with world leaders and governments to cultivate support for her project. By establishing support among notable subjects, Winfrey leverages this backing and found that social assistance was even more valuable than monetary gifts for “putting this problem right” when the local community opposed the proposed school.

The problem Winfrey aims to “put right” is the poor school attendance and the lack of accessibility to education that girls have in post-apartheid South Africa. Under the apartheid,  many South African schools segregated genders, something that continues in many of their schools. The 1996 post-apartheid South African School Act that “established the goal of equal access to education for the first time,” following decades of discrimination, did not positively affect the number of girls attending school as hoped (Applegarth 3). Circumstances ranging from the societal pressures of girls to be home-keepers, to tend to sick HIV/AIDS affected family members, and the stigmatization of teenage pregnancy affected many girls’ decisions to not pursue schooling. Coupled with the stigmatization, teachers often raped their female students, further affecting many girls’ decisions to not attend school. One study found that about 33 percent of rape perpetrators, reported by female students, were their own educators (Applegarth 4). It can be difficult for girls to attend school in South Africa with the high risk of rape, particularly when coupled with high pressure to be a home-keeper and a caregiver (Holmarsdottir 16). Together with Winfrey’s philanthrocapitalistic power, governmental partnership, and Mandela’s approval, Winfrey felt she had the power to address these concerns.

To pull the South African girls out of poverty, Winfrey staffed the Academy with the “finest South African teachers” and equipped them with the latest technologies to aid in successful learning and produce desirable academic results (Applegarth 5). The rigorous curriculum includes all the standard subjects and languages including English, Zulu, and South Sotho. Central to the curriculum are lessons constructed on “decision-making, critical and expansive thinking, social responsibility and the rewards of giving back to one’s own community,” even Winfrey makes regular appearances teaching a leadership class from her Chicagoan home (Applegarth 5). To cap off the curriculum, students are required to participate in community service activities. The rigorous curriculum is constructed to provide excellent academic outcomes, as it is the results that philanthrocapitalists focus on to determine if the organization is successful and efficient.

Along with a world-class education, Winfrey’s “higher involvement” is seen in her commitment to provide a “safe haven, and a place of high quality learning as a first order of business” to underprivileged girls who have lived in poverty most of their lives (Applegarth 4). Winfrey’s “safe haven” turned out to be a “spacious, thoughtfully-designed, and elegantly appointed space with…extensive grounds” and her “touch” everywhere (Applegarth 1). With “twenty-eight state-of-the-art buildings, including a gym, yoga studio, outdoor garden classrooms, a beauty salon, and an amphitheater” adorned with South African artwork and hand-carved woodwork in common spaces, the school is perhaps too luxurious (Applegarth 5). In fact, almost every item inside the school was chosen by Winfrey, including the “furnishings, the china, the uniforms, even the doorknobs” with no expenses spared (Applegarth 5). Her luxurious “touch” continues with the students’ school materials and dorm furnishings embellished with the “O” insignia.


Top critics call Winfrey’s philanthrocapitalistic endeavor a “vanity project” because of the extensive branding and high level of involvement in the Academy’s physical appearance and curriculum (Harvard 8). Her higher involvement has led to a building so luxurious that it meets Winfrey’s fantasy, not a South African reality. One critic notes that Winfrey poured $40 million into a five year project “building the school to her own Oprahlicious specifications” for so few girls (Samuels). One important question that Winfrey failed to ask is  “wouldn’t it be better to spend that $40 million serving more children in a more modest style?” (Applegarth 8). Another critic supports the community’s thoughts by stating, “in a sea of poverty, it made sense to spend so much on so few” (Applegarth 8). If the money was thoughtfully applied, her $40 million gift could have impacted the community’s best interests, not Winfrey’s best interests. Since the Academy is constructed with Winfrey’s best interests, it acts as a “prominent example of a project that fulfills an outsider’s vision and not a community’s” that continues to limit Winfrey’s money to inside the Academy’s walls (Applegarth 8). Besides her promise to Mandela, her vision is rooted in personal motivations that ignored the “time-tested path to succeeding in development aid: communities must identify ways outsiders can help, not vice versa” (Applegarth 8). Winfrey’s philanthrocapitalism serves disadvantaged girls, but largely leaves the community feeling unsatisfied and ignored.

Winfrey justifies her lavish spending by stating that a beautiful environment “inspires the beauty in you,” but what it failed to inspire hope in were the community members and important partnerships (Applegarth 6). Ultimately, Winfrey’s luxurious spending caused the Academy’s first and only development partner, the Gauteng Department of Education, to end their partnership. The Gauteng Department of Education stated that the project was “too elitist and lavish for such a poor country,” implying that the money could have impacted many poor community schools, rather than impacting one luxurious one. With this withdrawal, Winfrey remained committed to her vision and became the primary funder for the Academy. Today, she has continued to be the primary funder and continues to hold significant power over Academy decisions (The Foundation).

Strict Policies and Incidents

When Oprah promised to “take girls with that ‘it’ quality, and give them an opportunity to make a difference in the world,” she did not mention the strict rules that would come with it (Applegarth 9). The infamous visitation policies cuts students off from their home communities by limiting their access to their families. The policy, which extends to family members, limits students to one visitor per month, with each visitor having “to be approved at least two weeks in advance” for proper security screening (Applegarth 9). The visits are mechanical and structured, not allowing for organic interaction between families and their daughters. Visits are limited to two hours and visitors are promptly escorted out when their time has concluded. The strict screening process and structured visits led a group of mothers, following their visit, to question “surely this isn’t a prison or an institution?” (McGregor).

With community isolation and limited contact with family members, how can a student “identify with the real problems of communities when they are no longer apart of them?” (Applegarth 9). Simply stated, it is impossible for students to maintain a connection with their home communities with the strict contact rules. The short visits, coupled with the forbidden use of cell phones and email, magnifies the students’ feelings of isolation and homesickness. This social isolation is so jarring that counselors are available to help students cope with their new environment (Davis). Following the parents earlier criticism reharding the strict policies, Academy officials fired back that they are not considering changing any of the visitation or communication policies. These policies are meant to ensure the “security and well-being of the girls” as their safety is the Academy’s “top priority” (Oprah).

Even with the strict rules, the Academy’s safe haven” is not immune to a string of sexual misconduct incidents and an unplanned pregnancy. The first incident, reported in 2009, details the suspension of three students and the expulsion of four for inappropriate behaviors, including alleged “sexual misconduct” towards other students. This incident was isolated to the student body and only prompted action by local Academy officials. However, another reported sexual misconduct case that concerns a school matron, Virginia Tiny Makopo, molesting students by “trying to kiss and fondle” the girls prompted Winfrey to handle the situation herself. After arriving in South Africa to personally apologize to the parents and students, she proceeded to fire the school’s headmistress, Lerato Nomvuyo Mzamane, who was responsible for overseeing staff members (Hughes). Another incident in 2012 details the finding of a newborn’s dead body in a bag belonging to a 17-year-old student (Newborn). The newborn’s body was only found after the reported mother handed over the bag to hospital staff after being admitted to the hospital for excessive bleeding following the birth. The mother of the dead infant reportedly gave birth at the Academy without any school official being notified, and the subsequent death of the infant is attributed to “foul play.” Behind the locked gates of the Academy lies crimes that no policy or physical structure could prevent.


In conclusion, Winfrey’s Academy was established in Henley-on-Klip through her high involvement in the organization construction, the utilization of personal social connections, and the establishment of curriculum that produces desired results. All of these components are a part of an emerging charity giving model, philanthrocapitalism, that Winfrey supports. Through her philanthrocapitalism, the constructed Academy provides a world-class education for impoverished girls in an excessively luxurious environment. The luxurious environment does not alter the quality of the education, but is instead a result of Winfrey’s vision to be highly involved in the Academy through her decorating, curriculum structuring, and being the primary donor. The excessive amount of money she used to build the academy could have been more thoughtfully applied community wide. The foremost reason it was not used in a community-conscious way was that Winfrey wanted direct control over how her money was spent. Overall, the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy provides an excellent education to impoverished girls, but not without a cost. That cost being strict rules, unfortunate sexual misconduct scandals, and the permanent mark of its creator’s own personal desires.

This post may have been edited by admin for clarity and length.

Works Cited

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McGregor, Sarah. “S.African Parents Complain About Oprah School Rules.” Reuters, 14 Mar.


“Newborn Found Dead at Oprah Winfrey’s School .” The Times of India, Times Internet, 20 Feb.


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Winfrey, Oprah. “Life’s Greatest Work.” Oprah, Harpo Productions.

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