Last fall, Steve and I went back to Boston for our 25th HBS reunion. We had an incredible turnout and great fun reconnecting with old friends from literally around the world. In addition, I just happily celebrated a milestone (50th) birthday. Both of those events, I suppose, leads me to become more thoughtful on the topic of age and work stage.
It was interesting to see the broad range of stages people were at in their careers. A few of our friends that were in semi or complete retirement mode. At the same time many, particularly women, were just gearing up. Several of our female friends were going back to work after some time focused on children with a few starting brand new enterprises. For example it was great to reconnect with MaryAnne Gucciardi and discuss ecommerce strategies for her cool new startup DragonWingGirl. Others hadn’t left the working world to parent but were clearly putting the pedal to the metal now that they are becoming “free birds” (a.k.a. empty nesters). I could certainly resonate with that pattern. While I have been continually intense in my career focus, the jump to entrepreneurship was a better fit for me when my kids were past the baby stage.
I am seeing a similar pattern outside of my alumnae network. Since selling Catch.com as I have been exploring new startup ideas I have worked with, advised or met several 40’s and 50’s women embarking on an intense entrepreneurship journey. Examples include Sarah Frisken of MadeWithMischief to Trish Costello of Portfolia and my former employees Tanya Roberts starting SheByShe and Melinda Byerly, founding Vendorsi.
I am thrilled to see such accomplished women as Janet Yellen (67) and Christine LaGarde (58) in literally two of the most powerful positions in the world. While I cannot deny the uncanny abilities of Mark Zuckerberg in creating a multibillion dollar company in his 20’s, I must say that I’m glad that the leaders of the free-world’s financial system have a bit more experience under their belt!
Sadly, closer to home, another accomplished female economist, my cousin Pearl Kamer passed away at 74 during the height of her career. The obituaries and eulogies, noted her impressive accomplishments as the foremost economist for the Long Island region. They also remarked on what she was recently in the process of doing and what she could have still accomplished. She clearly had more to contribute. Her insights were astute – forecasting the real estate bubble and other key economic trends.
I get a thrill every time I see my former professor and thesis adviser Madeline Albright lecturing or on the talk show circuit making mincemeat of tricky questions or difficult presenters on the other side and I hope to have the opportunity to support Hillary Clinton running for and achieving the Presidency of the US. The supreme court of our country includes among its three women an impressive octogenarian. Ruth Bader Ginsburg must be one of the toughest human beings on the planet. Not only has she survived two bouts with cancer she was back hearing oral arguments 12 days after pancreatic cancer surgery and didn’t miss a day of work when battling colon cancer. While in law school and right after the birth of her daughter, Ginsburg’s husband was diagnosed with cancer. She attended class and took notes for both of them; typed her husband’s papers from his dictation; and cared for their daughter and her sick husband – all while making the Harvard Law Review.
I am fortunate to have role models in my family for prioritizing continued work and contribution. My great-uncle Frank Kamer (father of Pearl) practiced as an attorney until age 98. Both of my parents, and my father-in-law, all in their 70’s, are actively practicing as physicians. In fact, just a few months ago, my mother who worked as medical director of the North Shore Hospital Drug Rehabilitation program for more than 30 years was offered a promotion to lead an even larger program at a neighboring hospital
I aspire to follow in their footsteps. While able to leverage my years of experience, I believe that I still have much to learn and contribute. With each new technology, market or situation I find myself on a steep learning curve which is what makes work so exciting. For this reason, I find biases such as the ones described here and here to be so distressing and damaging.
This article provides a more nuanced and explanatory view and explores solutions. As bad as the biases may be in real life, the fact that the media portrays them as completely pervasive makes their impact even worse. In fact, the reality of startup land is much, much more diverse than the media portrayal. This was clear to me even at the recent Launch festival here in San Francisco.
There are many great startups being founded and managed by 40 and 50 somethings. In February, I visited Paula Long, my former board member at SugarSync, cofounder of Equallogic and now cofounder of the hot startup DataGravity. DataGravity raised a $30million series B led by Andressen Horowitz – they are innovating at the intersection of storage and big data – exciting and critical fields today. I didn’t see a single hoodie or masseuse at their office in Nashua.
Of course, in addition to startups being founded and led by this demographic, there are impressive members leading some of the biggest and most important companies in tech – HP, IBM, Xerox and beyond – eg GM to name a few.
Lets be sure to get the story of these women as publicized as the male 20 something story. Half the battle towards ending these biases is awareness and information. I believe that seeing these role models frequently and in a fair and reasonable light would encourage young women to stick it out in their careers during the challenging baby stage or maintain their skills part time or even simply dive back in later. This pool of talent has so much potential and our society and they have so much to gain