7 Inspiring Women On How They've Become Better Leaders With Age

Seven of this year's Forty Over 40 Women to Watch honorees share how innovation improves with age.

Red wine. Cheese. Innovation. Yes, these are all things that get better with age. Don’t believe it? Science offers some pretty compelling evidence that wunderkinds are the exception, rather than the rule.

One researcher found that Nobel Prize winners’ age around a significant breakthrough is about 38 (and not recognized until they're 60) and another posits that a lifetime of learning leads to greater breakthroughs between ages 55-65. Data from the Kauffmann Foundation bears this out as findings indicate people over 55 are almost twice as likely to found successful companies than those between 20 and 34.

These statistics are seldom recognized, much less celebrated, in a youth obsessed culture, according to Whitney Johnson, author and cofounder of investment firm Rose Park Advisors. That’s why she and Christina Vuleta, founder of Women's career advice forum 40:20 Vision, took matters into their own hands.

They started an initiative, dubbed Forty Over 40 in 2013 to change the idea that mid-life means you’re on the down side of over-the-hill. This year’s honorees range from 40 to over 60 and come from a variety of industries including the arts, law, retail, health care, and tech. Each has an impressive resume, not limited to an accumulation of greater titles and industry accolades.

As Johnson writes, “At age 40 we’re just getting to the best part. After spending years on the low end of the S-curve of experience, we are now ready to accelerate into a sweet spot of competence and contribution.”

With that in mind, we asked several of this year’s honorees to share their thoughts on aging, disruption, and transitions. Here’s what they told us.

Naama Bloom

CEO HelloFlo

Naama Bloom’s name may not be instantly recognizable, but the video that launched her subscription box service HelloFlo went viral--and in the process disrupted the conversation about periods.

Bloom says “it didn’t seem courageous” to leave a high-paying job and reinvent herself as an entrepreneur. It did take years of lessons to get her to this place. “One of my earliest jobs after college was working for a Hollywood producer,” she recalls.

At the time, Bloom fell prey to the comparison game. “I was constantly measuring my progress against the other more successful young people I met.” Eventually, her boss reminded her work wasn’t a horse race. “I remember thinking he was wrong, that's exactly what it was--a race and I wasn't running fast enough.”

Now, Bloom says she feels liberated from that race. “Now that I'm past 40, I no longer have to worry if I'll ever make a 30 under 30 or a 40 under 40 list. I have my whole life ahead of me to do things I love.” Her startup is one, says Bloom, even though she likens building the business to childbirth.

Before you do it you convince yourself that you have a higher pain threshold and are tougher than all the other women who came before you. You tell yourself it can't possibly be as bad as people describe. Once you're in the throws of labor you realize they weren't exaggerating or wimpy. All those women who had babies before you are tough as nails. It's hard and painful in ways that you didn't anticipate. It's also really incredible and teaches you how strong you are. But the most important similarity is that once you've begun, the only way through is to push as hard as you possibly can.”

Even in the face of transitions that don’t go quite as expected. “If you find that you don't like where you've ended up, you always have permission to make another change or reinvent,” says Bloom. “No one will judge you for it or think you failed. They'll all be impressed that you were badass enough to give it a go.”

Dr. Alissa Johnson

Deputy CIO, Executive Office of the President

Alissa Johnson, or Dr. J. as she calls herself, didn’t have a clear cut path to the White House. For many in the political arena, it took years of networking and building connections to land in their jobs. For Johnson, who started her career as a cryptologic engineer for the NSA and has held positions as CTO at Lockheed Martin and faculty at several universities, it took intestinal fortitude to apply for the White House job.

“My courage came from me wanting to serve our country in a nonmilitary manner,” she says, but it also came from a desire to disprove the theory that you had to know someone to get your foot in the door. “I read lots of bios, whether it was in a conference brochure, online, or in a book,” she explains. “I looked at the job that I wanted and compared my skills to that of the person holding the title. Many times if you do that, you will find that the only thing standing between the two is--opportunity.”

For making the transition, it took a combination of “rip the Band-aid off” and that more methodical approach. “Aging in terms of my career is a process of growth and maturity. I have added more depth and breadth to my skill set just through "aging.”  

She has had to work to learn to enjoy every moment, says Johnson. With traveling, for instance, Johnson says she was very much a "nose to the ground geek that didn't buy the crystal when I visited Prague, didn't buy the beautiful necklace that I saw in Thailand and the list goes on.” As she’s matured she’s added work/life balance to her focus on the mission or success of the moment. “I am now enjoying every age,” she exclaims.  

Kimberly Bryant

Founder Black Girls Code

Kimberly Bryant was all set to launch her own tech startup after a long career as a biotech engineer. An a-ha moment set her on the path to changing the ratio of ethnic and gender diversity in the homogenous tech industry instead.

“If I understood the great opportunities that are available to women and underrepresented minorities in the field of tech I would have made the transition from traditional engineering to the technology field much earlier in my career,” Bryant observes.

Black Girls Code, an educational outreach program has served 3,000 girls so far, teaching them the skills and giving them confidence to pursue careers in robotics, game design, and app development. But it takes more than a few workshops to make a lasting impact--much less reach 1 million girls and become the “girl scouts” of tech.
Bryant says the organization is focused on cultivating a community of supporters and advocates. “These advocates may be fiscal sponsors, parents, former students, or simply allies who support our cause of diversifying the tech industry, and drive the work that we do,” she says.

“I believe my age and experience definitely gives me an edge on some of my competition since it allows me to employ both resilience and solutions to challenges that many younger entrepreneurs have not yet experienced,” Bryant adds. “When you've already experienced great challenges in your career it gives minor setbacks a different perspective.”

Farah Mohamed

Founder and CEO G(irls)20

Farah Mohamed has been a political strategist, brand manager, and government spokesperson in her career, but it wasn’t until she reached her forties that she became a social entrepreneur working on behalf of young girls. Mohamed says this decade has brought a perfect storm of entrepreneurial skills, passion, and global impact. “I am grateful that at this point in my life I know what I want in my professional life, and perhaps as crucial, what I don’t want. I feel equipped to take the risks needed to obtain the former,” she says.

To that end Mohamed began curating summits in major cities all over the world to connect young girls in a global mentorship program to help start their own entrepreneurial initiatives. To make a real impact, the G(irls)20 Summits work with the likes of Google, Caterpillar, Jones New York, and Nike Foundation among others with host governments to challenge traditional thinking and reset world economic policies.

It’s a huge project, but one Mohamed says is best served by listening and staying flexible to changes. “My life lesson is best captured with the phrase, pick your battles,” recalls Mohamed. “There were many occasions when I wasted time and energy on things that in the long term, weren’t important, but at the time, I thought they were."

That said, Mohamed thrives on making connections. “It’s addictive so like everything in life, you have to manage it,” she says. To do that, she doesn’t ever recommend anyone she’d not met herself. “If you are going to ask people in your network to make time for this person you need to be willing to do it yourself and know if it is really a good fit. Making the right connection between people is rewarding; making the wrong connection can be disastrous.”

Joanne C. Bamberger

Founder/Editor The Broad Side, PunditMom

Joanne Bamberger’s book, Mothers of Intention, shone a light on the power of women using social media could create a stronger female voice in American politics. Accomplished and outspoken (“Having an opinion never goes out of style,” she wrote), Bamberger gives the appearance that she’s sailed through career transitions without a hiccup.

But she admits that there were tough moments. “For me the hardest part of transition is how my personal identity is tied to my professional identity,” Bamberger explains.

Earlier in her career, Bamberger also learned the hard way that colleagues who viewed her as competition and threat to their success triggered an “every man for himself” scenario. Bamberger says, “There's no place for zero sum game thinking in the world of entrepreneurship.”

She’s learned to stay focused on her own route to success and steer clear of negative critics. “Learning how to tell the difference between people who give constructive criticism vs. those who use critique to diminish the work of others in order to advance themselves has been a crucial for me,” she says.

To stay the course, Bamberger relies on peer support and the goal of setting an example for her teenage daughter. “I've talked with her about the dangers of echo chambers, and we've discussed the bravery of many women in history who have voiced opinions that were unpopular at the time, but who have subsequently proven to be right,” says Bamberger. “If she becomes a young woman who can voice her own opinions without fear, I think that will have been my greatest accomplishment.”

June Sugiyama

Director, Vodafone Americas Foundation

As the brains behind Vodafone’s Wireless Innovation Project for the past 11 years, June Sugiyama is granting $600,000 per year to fund wireless technology projects that address global social issues. She also mentors the finalists and winners to see their projects scale for maximum impact.

Sugiyama believes culture and family traditions play a big role in anyone’s career. “For me, the Asian tradition has always been a major part of my work ethic--to be diligent and demonstrate dedication, so I learned early on to show up early and work hard,” she says. Sugiyama didn’t subscribe to the tenet that family time takes a back seat to work. “For my own life, I put family first. As a single mom it was difficult though, but it was worth it,” she says.

As she’s moved through her career, Sugiyama’s learned to take the time to do big picture thinking. “Only sweat over things you can do something about and do it,” she says. “In my career, I view “aging” as “seasoned.” There’s nothing like experience to help you in your career, but I’m still learning new things every day and I still have a lot more to learn.”

Ellen Galinsky

Cofounder and President of Families and Work Institute

Ellen Galinsky helped establish the field of work and family life at Bank Street College of Education, where she was on the faculty for twenty-five years. Her more than forty books and reports include Ask the Children, The Six Stages of Parenthood, and Mind in the Making.

Her own children changed her views on family and career significantly. “For many, time stretches out, seeming limitless, full of possibilities. That was certainly the picture of my youth,” she recalls. “Having children crushed that image and focused me much more intentionally on what I wanted to do in my career. If I was going to be away from my children to work (and that was a given--I needed to and wanted to work), what was most important for me to accomplish? Where did I want to spend my time and energy?"

In a similar way, Galinsky says aging has her focused on accomplishments. She’s currently working on a book to help adults work on purpose and create work environments that support them. That’s not to say she hasn’t had her doubts during these pursuits. Galinsky admits she suffered from impostor syndrom when she wrote The Six Stages of Parenthood in the 1980s.

“What I didn’t know at the time was that whenever many of us take on major challenge, there can be feelings of self-doubt and serious self questioning,” she says. “The important lesson is to recognize that ‘doubting expert-itis’ can be a stage in taking on a challenge and not to let these feelings stop you from doing something you really want to do.”

Galinsky says the way she stays inspired is to keep learning. “To ask new questions and to seek new information that leads me to new approaches,” she says.

[Image: bikeriderlondon via Shutterstock]

Add New Comment

3 Comments

  • My dream: For lists like "Forty over 40" to become obsolete because there will be just too many women like these leading the way in the workforce. We have a long way to go, but what a great article! Cheers to all!

    Some day soon: Some day soon, I hope to see massive group photos, and then so many that there's no need to comment about it. Just part of life. But until then, one in 10 women over the age of 65 lives below the poverty level, and we need to figure out how to provide older women with the option to keep working at good jobs when they want that option.

    As more women age into leadership roles, I hope they will open up the conversation about full participation to include all ages.

  • farah.mohamed

    Thanks Lydia, it is an honour to be on this list with these incredible women. Farah