From Highland Park to Hollywood

Minnesota is still home in the heart of Emmy–nominated Cindy Mori

By Sue Hawkes

Growing up in the Highland Park area of St. Paul, Cindy Mori always knew what she wanted to be when she grew up. In junior high, Mori would watch the local morning news programs before school and fell in love with broadcast journalism. She followed her passion with a tremendous drive. Whether it was moving to Washington, D.C., with no job and barely enough money in her pocket for one month’s rent, or creating a fundraiser as an intern in order to attend the 1988 Democratic National Convention, she was singularly motivated to achieve her goals. 

This determination eventually led to her dream job at “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” and her Emmy nomination for her work on “Oprah Presents: Master Class.” Mori started working for “The Oprah Winfrey Show” in 1999 and has continued working for Oprah’s production company HARPO Productions since “The Oprah Winfrey Show” stopped running in 2011. She is now vice president of talent development and production for the Oprah Winfrey Network and is also an adjunct professor at the University of Southern California (USC). Throughout her success, however, Mori fondly refers to Minnesota as “home.” Her Midwestern values keep her grounded as she enjoys using her talent to impact her work with the Minnesota Vikings and other high-profile events in the Twin Cities. 

Mori: From seventh grade, I knew that I wanted to do something in the world of television. It all started by watching the morning news, and I met a local WCCO reporter, Ann Rubenstein, in eighth grade. WCCO was filming a promo with her going up the escalator, and they had me going down the opposite escalator, so we passed by each other. So for a couple years, I was in the background of this promo for WCCO. 
Hawkes: Foreshadowing!
Mori: Who knew? But I sort of did know. I knew that I had a real interest in this. I studied journalism in college, and the summer before my junior year I did an internship with the WCCO investigative team. I loved every second of it; I was in my element. Then the following summer before my senior year, I went to Washington, D.C., and worked at a news bureau called Cox Broadcasting, covering Capitol Hill as an intern. I even remember being at a Rose Garden ceremony when Ronald Reagan was president.

Hawkes: Wow! Did you feel like you won the lottery?
Mori: I wouldn’t say that I felt like I won the lottery because I really worked for it. I knocked on doors. I worked on my resume. I called everyone I could think of. I opened phone books. I went through Capitol guides to try to find people who would take my call or take a meeting. I was very tenacious. I was clear about what field I wanted to go into, and I think that was a gift.

Hawkes: How did your career start? 
Mori: After graduation, I went back to Washington, D.C., and I knocked on doors and eventually landed a job at CNN. I worked a different job for a news bureau Monday through Friday, and I worked for free at CNN every Saturday. And after about 10 months of working for free, I said, “I can’t work for free anymore, but I really want to work here, will you hire me?” Over the course of a couple of months we worked it out, and I started officially as an associate producer at CNN.

After a few years, I applied for a segment producer job at “Good Morning America Sunday,” which meant I booked high-profile guests for the television segments. I got the job, so I moved to New York City and worked for “Good Morning America”’s weekend edition. Then I went out to Los Angeles to do the entertainment booking for “Good Morning America.” I started by covering the O. J. Simpson trial, and I stayed there booking all kinds of stories and jumping on planes at a moment’s notice to cover breaking news. It was an extraordinary experience, but it became grueling after six years. The last story I did was the Columbine shooting, and it was really heartbreaking. 

Hawkes: What gave you the courage to follow your gut and strive for this career with such perseverance and drive? 
Mori: It wouldn’t have occurred to me not to. Also, the things that normally hold people back from doing that, whether it’s being afraid of leaving home, or lack of resources, or not even having the right clothing to wear on Capitol Hill, didn’t hold me back. I don’t know what I did, but I powered through it. It was like that old-school way when your mom would say, “Well, you’re gonna have to figure it out.” I just figured it out. I followed my intuition, and every day in my work I felt like a kid in a candy store. But I always knew I was supposed to be in the candy store.

Hawkes: I love it. What was your path to “The Oprah Winfrey Show”? 
Mori: In 1995 I had applied for a job for “The Oprah Winfrey Show.” And I got a rejection letter. And I was overjoyed that I got a piece of stationery that said “The Oprah Winfrey Show.” And I kept it. I have it still. In 1999, I decided it was time to do something new. Oprah had always been the crown jewel, and I loved what she was doing on television. I reapplied, feeling like I had four more years of experience under my belt, interviewed and then received an offer to be an associate producer. I had to make the transition to working for Oprah as opposed to just being a fan. I’m still both. If I wasn’t a fan, or if I didn’t believe in the mission, then that job wouldn’t have lasted for me. Believing in the work that I’m doing has been critical to my success.    

Hawkes: What was the mission and how did it drive you? 
Mori: At a certain point during the course of all of those seasons, it became clear that this was bigger than a show, and Oprah asked the staff to write an intention for every show. When we would pitch a show idea, we would start with the intention. A lot of decisions about what we put on the air were made because of that, and we infused intention into everything we did. It made everything make sense. Since the end of “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” I’ve been doing talent relations, guest bookings and special projects, and I still use intention for everything. It’s also gone along with being authentic all the time and being upfront about what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. This goes over well with people; intention and authenticity will win every time. 

Hawkes: So what brings you back to Minnesota, and what keeps you anchored to both places?
Mori: Well, most of my family are still in Minneapolis and St. Paul; it’s my home in my heart.  When I say I’m going home, I mean I’m going to Minnesota. I left Minnesota after high school at 17, and I’ve never lived here again, but the pull of the people and the pull of the place have kept me very grounded. People will say to me, “You’re so down to earth. You’ve worked in entertainment and Hollywood or New York all these years, and you’re so real.” I attribute that 100% to being born and raised in Minnesota. My best friends to this day are from junior high and high school. We call ourselves the St. Pauli girls, and these are friendships I’ve had for up to 35–40 years.  

Hawkes: Can you share about your work with the Vikings? 
Mori: I love the Vikings, and I’m a lifelong fan, and I wanted to use my skills to give back to my hometown team. The new U.S. Bank Stadium was opening, and I wanted to play a small part in what that opening game was going to look like. I reached out to the Vikings through one of my St. Pauli girls, and they took a meeting with me, which was really exciting and flattering. Eventually, I worked with their production team to help them find someone to sing the National Anthem, and we landed Jordin Sparks. She opened U.S. Bank and killed it. It was just a beautiful moment. Jordin sang her heart out, and we beat the Packers! It was a career highlight for me, and I would always welcome the opportunity to work with them. 

 Hawkes: You are also working on a high-profile event leading up to Super Bowl LII, right?
 Mori: I helped do some of the guest bookings for The Abbay, which is an exclusive education event for 25 active and 10 retired CEOs who are primarily part of the Fortune 500. The idea is to bring these thought leaders and their partners together for a day to learn, share and thoughtfully connect on business topics of the day in an intimate setting utilizing the backdrop of each Super Bowl to add unique elements of fun to the experience. My role was to find former NFL legends and current NFL players to join the CEOs for dinner conversation and a program to illustrate the business of football, the NFL and the Super Bowl. It is a bonus that the first event is in my home state featuring the hospitality of the Bold North. 

 Hawkes: What inspires you?
 Mori: Learning inspires me. In my industry, there are always new things I’m learning about it. There are new approaches, new ways to frame things, and new ways to present something. As a booker, it’s not just smiling and dialing, it’s relationship building and connecting. Every day is different. I welcome the curve balls because those are my opportunities to challenge myself and learn from them. I hone this as my craft, and when I’m not learning anymore, I think I’m done.

Hawkes: Who inspires you? 
Mori: My students inspire me. I started co-teaching a class at USC last year called “Host and Produce in Studio A.” It was and continues to be one of the great joys of my life. These students blow me away. They’ve started businesses in college and don’t think twice about interning while taking a full load of coursework. They work jobs. They drive Uber. I just don’t remember being a student and being that smart. To be able to go back to school and act as a mentor to these students was the most unexpected gift. I’d love to do something at the University of Minnesota, too. 

Hawkes: What big changes are happening in your industry?
Mori: Streaming services changed the game for everybody. The cable industry has to figure out how to reinvent itself with the onset of Netflix, Hulu and Crackle. But at the end of the day, I still think this business is built on relationships and great content. If you have both of those, you will be successful regardless of what platform you’re using. 

Hawkes: How about for you personally? 
Mori: I’ve learned to really live in the moment. Every single twist and turn has taken me to a place I am supposed to be, even if I didn’t know I wanted to be there. I don’t have a long-term plan or goal; I just keep doing what I love doing. I have complete trust. I’m doing the work, but I also believe the universe is working for me and is a catalyst to take me to the next place. I’m at a point in my life where I am open and excited about not knowing what’s next. 

Hawkes: What’s one piece of advice that you’d give to women or people in general?
Mori: Everything changes, so the more flexible and open you can be to the change, the easier it’s going to be and the more successful you will become. Change is happening around you, and you can either be stagnant in the middle and be left behind, or you can figure out how to change with it.