Recalling the highs and lows of her career and personal life, “Good Morning America”co-anchor Robin Roberts hit the ground running Tuesday after her flight into Columbus aboard an Aflac corporate jet was delayed less than hour by weather.
Addressing nearly 600 in attendance at the Bob Wright Symposium on Business Empowerment, Roberts was tucked between an all-female panel of black businesswomen who have succeeded in multiple industries to include motor sports, beauty care, food service, marketing, communications, clean energy and construction.
But Roberts, 57, the headliner for the forum held at the Columbus Convention and Trade Center, garnered moments of laughter, sympathy and triumphant survival as she related how her family, her sports and news careers, and her doctors treating her bouts with cancer have impacted her life and her outlook.
“It was such a blessing to be raised by these two wonderful people who were the first in their families to go to college,” ABC’s morning show co-anchor said of her parents, mother Lucimarian, and father Lawrence Edward, he a retired Air Force colonel and member of the famed Tuskegee Airmen in World War II. The couple urged their four children to focus on discipline, determination and the Lord.
“They just instilled in us this belief that anything is possible, and we have more in common than not. They just made me believe more than anything,” she said of her parents, who settled the family in the small town of Pass Christian, Miss., along the Gulf Coast.
A basketball star in high school and at Southeastern Louisiana University, Roberts had her heart set on becoming a professional athlete. Instead, she landed her first job handling sports at a TV station in Hattiesburg, Miss. That was the precursor to an eventual rise to a sports reporting and anchor job at ESPN in 1990, where she remained until 2005, joining “Good Morning America” with co-anchors Diane Sawyer and Charlie Gibson.
“It was a big deal for me to leave (ESPN),” Roberts said. “I didn’t want anything to do with the news at the time. Then I realized you’ve got to be willing to venture outside your comfort zone … It may not seem like a big deal now, but then I was scared. My knees were knocking. But I didn’t want to limit myself any longer.”
Byron Pitts, co-anchor of ABC’s “Nightline” news program and moderator of Tuesday’s symposium, called Roberts “as good as it gets in my business. Her talent is equal or perhaps exceeded by her spirit. This is a good woman, a God-fearing woman.”
He asked her how her day typically starts, which she said comes with a 3:15 a.m. wake up, followed by a half hour of meditation, then watching overnight news before heading out the door with the same daily prayer, “The Prayer for Protection.”
Pitts also asked the news anchor about Rock’n Robin Productions, the television and digital content company she has launched. Roberts said she just signed a deal with Lifetime cable network to do films on the late American gospel singer Mahalia Jackson and the late Tennessee Volunteers women’s basketball head coach Pat Summit. There’s also a digital series on the way focusing on thriving.
“You don’t go what you go through to survive, you come back to thrive,” she said of the production company and its concept. “It’s just to be creative, it’s to be uplifting, it’s to be enlightening.”
Survive and thrive Roberts has, through two separate bouts with breast cancer, one diagnosed in 2007, followed by a battle in 2012 with myelodysplastic syndrome, or MDS, a disease of the body’s bone marrow. A successful bone marrow transplant came from her sister, Sally-Ann Roberts, a TV news anchor in New Orleans.
“As an African-American woman, I was told that I was least likely to get cancer, but if I did I was more likely to die from cancer,” Roberts said, explaining her physician warned her she had a year to live if a successful transplant did not take place. “What do you do with a piece of information like that?”
Those health lows and subsequent recoveries are part of what prompted Roberts to begin speaking about the subject of dealing with and overcoming horrible diagnoses that can leave those experiencing them fearful and lonely.
“I wanted to educate the public on all fronts, so I did what my mother said. She said make your mess your message,” explained Roberts, who lost her parents more than a decade ago. “She said you’re very fortunate to be with a company that offers good benefits, good health care, you’re not going to lose your job. There’s so many people who go through a health crisis and they don’t have that. So be their voice and be an example to others. So I did that.”
Roberts said the public stage she is on also gives her the chance to preach on issues such as diversity. On Tuesday, she lauded Aflac Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Dan Amos — who was at the forum — for including a high number of women and minorities within his insurance company, some in high-profile positions.
Asked by an audience member about her interview with President Barack Obama just after he took office in 2008, Roberts said it remains one of the highlights of her career. She was summoned to the White House just after having been diagnosed by cancer the second time, she said, but no one knew it yet.
“It was a moment I will never forget, being the first to address him as Mr. President as a journalist,” she said, also recalling the November 2007 election night in Chicago, where Obama resides. “I was weeping because of my father being a Tuskegee Airman, and now we had a commander in chief who looked like my dad. It was a very emotional moment.”
Asked by someone else at the forum what she would like her legacy to be after she is gone, the GMA anchor said she wants people to feel good when they think of her and know that she advocated for everyone living the best possible life they have.
“I just want people to know that they are loved,” she said. “There are so many people who don’t feel the love, they don’t feel encouraged … I just want happiness.”
Bob Wright launched the business empowerment symposium in 2015. He’s a retired optometrist, former Columbus City councilor, businessman and philanthropist who founded a technology and logistics company called Dimensions International in 1985, then sold it to Honeywell for $230 million more than two decades later. The son of a bricklayer and nurse also was very involved in the American Civil Rights Movement.
Tuesday’s symposium lineup included:
▪ Kimberly A. Blackwell, chief executive officer of PMM Agency
▪ Eva Jane Bunkley, inventor of “The Makeup Bullet” and celebrity makeup artist
▪ Stephanie Burnley, co-CEO of Devon Industrial Group
▪ Yukia Harris-Walker, Curvaceous Couture bridal salon owner
▪ Yuneisia Harris, Curvaceous Couture bridal salon owner
▪ Dr. Michele Hoskins, CEO and founder of Michele Foods
▪ Natalie M. King, Esq., CEO of Dunamis Clean Energy Partners
▪ Melissa Harville-Lebron, CEO of W. M. Stone Enterprises, E2 Northeast Motorsports and Coutra Music Group
▪ Rose E. McElrath-Slade, president and CEO of Strategic Resources Inc.
▪ Alexis Davis Smith, president and CEO of PRecise Communications