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Yahoo exec and Survivor contestant: “I made my first million at 25”

May 22, 2015, 3:01 PM UTC
Survivor: Worlds Apart
SAN JUAN DEL SUR - APRIL 20: "Survivor Russian Roulette" - Shirin Oskooi competes during the eleventh episode of SURVIVOR on the 30th season, Wednesday, April 29 (8:00-9:00 PM, ET/PT) on the CBS Television Network. Photo is a screen grab. (Photo by CBS via Getty Images)
Photograph by CBS via Getty Images

On Wednesday’s season finale of Survivor: Worlds Apart, a senior Yahoo executive got up and took a stand.

Shirin Oskooi, a senior director of product management at Yahoo, was a member of the “white collar” tribe. (This season of the show divided people up based on their careers. There groups were white collar, blue collar, and “no collar.”) A 32-year-old graduate of Brown University, Oskooi went to work at Google after college. There, she led the development of Google Calendar. In 2013, she took a job at Yahoo.

During the show, she told some of her fellow castaways that she had grown up with a physically abusive father, and that her mother was ill. She occasionally faced social difficulties on the island; some of her tribe-mates found her annoying and badmouthed her.

But the worst moment for Oskooi was a dramatic confrontation with fellow castaway Will Sims, which came to define the season. Calling her “Miss Greedy Ass,” Sims told her, in front of the entire group, “We all have loved ones who love and care for us… You have nothing. You have no family. Nobody even likes you. There’s nobody home in the United States right now that is missing you.”

After she was voted off the show, she spoke to Entertainment Weekly Radio about the showdown with Sims, saying, “He spoke to me exactly the way my dad used to speak to me before my dad would then beat me up.” She added that at one point, Sims said of her, “I don’t talk that way to women, but she’s not a woman.”

Sims was not the only man to say shocking things to or about Oskooi—although Oskooi did say on the radio later, “I forgot about a lot of the horrible stuff that happened to me because everything was eclipsed by the big Will event.” A different castaway, Dan Foley, twice told the cameras that he hoped someone would “slap” Oskooi to “shut her up.” And Oskooi wasn’t the only woman who faced harsh criticism. Castaway Lindsey Cascaddan was belittled and shouted at by competitor Rodney Lavoie, who mocked her tattoos.

There was so much negativity toward women, in fact, that while the season was airing, Oskooi tweeted that she planned to donate $100 to the non-profit National Network to End Domestic Violence, “for every act of misogyny this season.” During Wednesday’s finale, she tweeted that she would donate $2,500.

The Web, too, took notice of what happened to some of the women this season. “There was far more verbal abuse on Survivor than we saw,” read a headline at the site Reality Blurred. Another site, Beamly, commented that Sims “crossed the line” with Oskooi. Stephen Fishbach, a former Survivor contestant who blogs about the show for People, praised Oskooi’s performance, calling her “the outcast who upended the game.”

She also upended the final tribal council. Oskooi had been voted off the island 11th out of 18 people, which meant she lasted long enough to be on the “jury” that selects the ultimate $1 million winner of the show. At that final tribal council, each jury member gets the chance to address the final three contestants and ask them a question or make a comment. Oskooi used the opportunity to take a stand on behalf of herself and, in a sense, the other women. Through tears, she addressed Sims, who had made it to the final three, saying:

You gave me a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to go back to a deep, dark place in my childhood, realize that I still had an open wound, and no longer be the victim that I was as a child. And I stood up for myself against you and I stood up for myself against every observer. And I didn’t need a protector. But the truly magical thing that happened was that I did have a protector… Mike, like a real human being, ran into camp to save me. And that was a million-dollar moment for me. And what you guys don’t know about me is that I made my first million by the time I was 25 years old.

That casual mention of her early wealth raised some eyebrows among the jury. But Oskooi brought her speech back to the three remaining castaways and compared each one of them to an animal. “I see a huge parallel between a ton of animals that we lived out here with day to day, and each of these players,” she said. She compared Mike Holloway (who went on to win the $1 million prize) to a howler money—loud and aggressive. Carolyn Rivera she compared to a stingray (“hidden” but deadly). As for Will Sims, who had so insulted her? “Will is the dead fish that we dragged in with our nets.”

On Wednesday, CBS revealed that Oskooi earned enough fans this season to put her among the 20 people who will immediately compete again on a “second chance” season. That means Oskooi is already back on the island as you read this. Perhaps Yahoo has given her ample vacation time.

For more business lessons from the show, see: 5 leadership lessons from Survivor