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At the University of Illinois, Orman majored in social work and worked as a dishwasher and a waitress. At 22, she moved to Berkeley and got a job at the Buttercup Bakery, where she worked as a waitress for the better part of a decade.
Then, at 30, Orman pulled together $50,000 from friends and customers to start her own restaurant, but she parked the money with a broker at Merrill Lynch who put it all into oil futures. In three months, she was wiped out. Today, Orman calls losing the money “the best thing that ever happened to me.”
Her hopes of opening a restaurant dashed, she decided to apply for a spot in a training program at Merrill Lynch. “I didn’t know what else to do,” she says. “I owed all these people money. I was never going to be able to pay back $50,000 on $400 a month.”
Though she made it through the training program and earned a spot as a broker, her superiors at Merrill were hardly encouraging about her prospects at the firm: “I was told that I’d be out of there in six months because women didn’t belong.”
Instead, Orman lasted three years before going on to Prudential, where she sold insurance to retirees. From there, she started her own financial services firm and nearly wound up penniless at the beginning when an underling who left Prudential with her walked away with Orman's client list.
During all of this, Orman turned to Siddha Yoga, a meditation practice which involves chanting and self-help tapes. “The mantra is ‘God dwells within you as you’ and that you need to see God in every other person,” Orman says. “So the basic thing is that you are perfect like you are. It was a tremendous thing for me to learn.”
After her business took off, Orman was introduced to the book agent Linda Mead at a cocktail party. Orman suggested she write a book of advice regarding the dreary subject of long-term care insurance. “It wasn’t a book,” says Mead, who was nevertheless impressed by Orman’s effervescence. “So I sat in her office and I said, ‘Tell me what some of the things are that you do with your clients.’” Eventually, they came up with the idea to gear the book toward older Baby Boomers and sold it to Newmarket Press for $10,000.
“I later found out that it had been turned down by over 30 publishers,” says the company’s president, Esther Margolis.
Prior to starting Newmarket, Margolis was the publicist behind Jacqueline Susann, an author who (like Orman) had a promotional savvy second only to her preternatural affinity for the tastes of middle-American women. When Orman’s book, “You’ve Earned It, Don’t Lose It,” came out in 1994, Margolis put her on a never-ending book tour. After a year, they hit the mother lode with a half-hour special on the now-defunct Q2, the sister channel of QVC. There, Orman’s dual approach of plain talk and self-empowerment resonated with the station’s largely female viewership, and the book went on to sell over 700,000 copies.
One day, at a friend’s suggestion, Orman went to see Binky Urban, ICM’s legendary book agent. “I didn’t want to see her and she didn’t want to see me,” says Orman. “She didn’t need a financial author and I didn’t see why I needed a [new] book agent. Especially with a name like Binky. So I go into Binky’s office in jeans because I didn’t care about it. She had her back turned and was talking to somebody on the phone and she said, ‘Well, you can just go tell that person to go f--k themselves.’ And I thought, ‘That is a great woman.’ Then she turned around, looked at me, and said, ‘Kid, those eyes of yours will make us millions of dollars but you’ve gotta lose 30 pounds.’ And I said, ‘OK. Done.’”