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Why I Couldn’t Have Achieved This Success In My 20s

Seven successful women entrepreneurs over 40 share what age has taught them.

Why I Couldn’t Have Achieved This Success In My 20s
[Photo: Flickr user Petras Gagilas]

The most innovative and entrepreneurial people are probably older than you think.

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Despite the headlines touting the latest college dropout founding a mega tech company, science says that more great achievements have been produced by older innovators than there were a century ago, in part because productivity increases with age. According to the Kauffmann Foundation, the majority of startup founders are between 45 and 64 years old (from just 38.3% in 1996 to 52.4% in 2014).

Unfortunately, the rate of female founders declined during that same period, and most data measuring health, employment, and other factors impacting women doesn’t include information on those over the age of 49, according to an expert panel at the U.N. 59th Commission on the Status of Women.

To remove the cloak of invisibility that threatens to hide the achievements of women of a certain age, Christina Vuleta and Whitney Johnson started an initiative they call Forty Over 40.

The idea was to raise awareness about women who “are reinventing, leaning in, and creating momentum that will be felt by those beyond their community and field of work.” Vuleta, creator of the cross-generational mentoring platform 40:20 Vision, and Johnson, former Wall Street analyst and author of Disrupt Yourself, both believe that women over 40 are just beginning to hit their stride with confidence, creativity, and clarity. “This list will give a voice to these women who have more in front of them than they have behind them,” they write.

This year’s honorees span a variety of industries and their achievements—which are considerable—are as unique as they are. Unfortunately, Vuleta asserts, they were disappointed by the lack of African American women on this year’s list, but the overall mix was diverse.

We talked to a few of this year’s honorees to find out what they are doing now that they could not possibly have accomplished when they were 25 years old.

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“My Worldview Was Too Limited In My 20s”

Christine Garde, Founder and CEO of CouldYou?

As the head of an organization working to end poverty in Africa, she mentors and teaches women about purpose and impact. The ability to connect with people and built trust, regardless of their socio-economic background is rooted in the beginnings of her career when she started a gang diversion program on the border of Tijuana and San Ysidro.

I believe the work I’m doing currently in Africa is very much based on relationships and trust that needed years to cultivate. At 25, I was incredibly idealistic and perhaps even a little arrogant and my worldview was limited. I am grateful I wasn’t given this opportunity at 25 as I believe my good intentions and passion could very well have done a lot of damage.  

At 45, I have a sturdy hope and deep passion to make the world a better place, but because of the African leaders I have had the privilege of journeying with, I no longer want to take a lead role but rather a supportive role alongside African solutions to African problems.

A dear friend of mine in Mozambique once asked me if I’d be willing to work the next 40 years towards the transformation of Mozambique if in my lifetime I never saw the fruit?  My first reaction was ‘no’ to which he said: ‘Then it was never about the transformation of my nation but about you.’ At 25, I think those words would have terrified and perhaps even paralyzed me.

Spoken to me at 45, those words challenge me and now drive me to not give up when the task at hand is hard and progress seems slow. Having the opportunity now to connect international educators, oil and business investors and agricultural leaders in food security, to visionary leadership in Mozambique would never have been possible 20 years ago.

“I understand how work works, from many angles.”

Nilofer Merchant, Author of the forthcoming Onlyness: Make Your Ideas Powerful Enough To Dent The World

Photo: via Twitter

The “Jane Bond of Innovation” worked for the likes of Apple and Autodesk before writing two books, giving TED talks, and receiving a Thinkers50 Award for “Future Thinker” among other accolades. Given a recent relocation from Silicon Valley to Paris while still maintaining a demanding speaking schedule, writing a book, and being a wife and mother, it’s no surprise that she still has change on her mind.

Quite often we describe “change agents”—those people who challenge the status quo—as if they were Joan of Arc, outside the walls of the castle and ready to invade and burn down what is there.

Yet, any student of history knows that the most effective change agents have to know enough about how the current system works, to design a new way. To reinvent something you have to know it. You have to be both a rebel, and a leader.

Today, I’m working on how ideas become big enough to dent the world, even if they come from traditionally “powerless” people, so that all new ideas count. To do that, I have to understand the levers of power today—at the individual, interpersonal, and group levels.

The fact that I started as an administrative assistant, and ultimately served as a corporate director of a publicly traded company means I understand how work works, from many angles. Without those 25 years of lived experience, and deep respect born of having shipped 100 products and creating $18bn of revenue, I couldn’t know what levers need to be changed so that we unlock the inherent talent of all our people.

“Decades of practice has made me more confident”

Charlene Li, Founder and CEO, Altimeter Group

When Charlene Li (named one of Fast Company’s Most Creative People in 2010) created Altimeter Group at the start of the recession, she gave away valuable research that other companies were charging tens of thousands of dollars. This helped establish the firm as a competitor to Gartner and Forrester. Li has also written five books on leadership and works to make sure that women are fairly represented in them as well as in senior positions at Altimeter Group.

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When I was 25, I lacked the confidence and presence of mind to express myself verbally. I decided to go to Harvard Business School because I knew the program would force me to formulate ideas quickly and express them in front of 90 hard-charging fellow classmates—day in, day out, for two years.

I hated doing it and to some degree, still have to force myself to speak up in a group. But I’m much better at it now. I now give speeches and run workshops, ranging from a few people from an executive team, to 5,000 people in Radio City Music Hall. I still get a flutter of anxiety, but nothing like that first time when I had to raise my hand in class. Practice definitely led to—if not perfect—at least something approximating confidence. 

I can now lead with wisdom as well as with my heart, and my brain. When I was 25, I relied much more on my brain and audacious ideas of how we could change the world. Now I also lead with wisdom, letting my experiences—both good and bad —guide my actions. A wise mentor once told me, “Experience is what you get when you don’t get what you want.” And age brings with it many, many disappointments that have prepared me well for success. 

“I’ve learned to get comfortable with being uncomfortable.”

Diana Verde Nieto, CEO and cofounder, Positive Luxury

Photo: via Positive Luxury

Growing up surrounded by armed soldiers in her native Argentina spurred Diana Verde Nieto’s initial ambition to be a human rights lawyer, but she feared the consequences. So she studied business instead, and at 22 moved to London with her boyfriend. Though she didn’t speak English, Nieto had only £500 in her pocket and no boyfriend when they broke up after three weeks. Undaunted, she walked dogs until she landed a job at BBC Worldwide. Attending the Harvard Kennedy School of Global Leadership and Public Policy and training with Al Gore at the Alliance of Climate Protection gave her the building blocks to launch Positive Luxury, a sustainability ratings platform.

At 25, I was still working out how to build a career from what I love doing. Of course, running a startup is tough but I do agree with my grandmother who would say, ‘Nothing in life worth doing is easy.’ 

My favorite thing about growing older is that I can share my experience, and at times can empower others to be the best they can be. I’ve learned to get comfortable with being uncomfortable and that there is no such a thing as failure—it’s all a part of the journey. 

“I was Hiding Myself At 25”

Didem Gürcüoğlu Tekay, Managing Partner, Management Centre Turkey

Tekay grew up in southeast Turkey, a volatile region that experienced ethnic clashes and terrorism and where educational opportunities and strong female voices are limited. Tekay persevered and earned her masters degree two years ago from Middlesex University, UK and has since been mentoring young women in Turkey. Her work with MCT is introducing the Turkish and Middle Eastern HR community to what it means to lead and learn in organizational settings.

I’m showing presence and stepping up now. I was not capable of this at 25 because I was hiding myself. I was not aware that speaking up about my ideas, emotions and opinions may create new possibilities and impact results. I had prejudices, I was much more concerned about others’ opinions, needs, and wants. 

Learning to reveal more of my emotions, sharing rather than ignoring my needs and wants with others—all these helped me embrace my authority as a senior leader.

“I have more perspective now”

Lisa Congdon, Artist, Illustrator, Author

Photo: via Lisa Congdon

An accomplished artist whose worked for a variety of clients including the Museum of Modern Art to Harvard and Martha Stewart, Congdon wasn’t really thinking about how old she was until a friend asked her to be part of a project profiling women over 40. When she saw her photo, complete with gray hair and laugh lines, Congdon had a moment of realizing that she had aged. But then she writes: “As with many of the hard realizations we make in life, we can either fall into a deep depression about the things over which we have no control or we can embrace them. And at that very moment, I took a deep breath and said, I am going to own this.”

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I think almost everything I do now I was not capable of at 25. And it’s not just because I have more knowledge or savvy now about how to run a successful business or that I know more about the power of discipline. Those things are important, sure. But the most essential and beautiful thing about getting older is that you also acquire this thing called perspective.

Every day, the stuff that used to send me into a tailspin of worry or regret, I deal with in a far more relaxed way. That’s because I know now that eventually, even when the inevitable hard stuff happens, it always works out somehow. As my mother would say, “This too shall pass.” I get that now in a really tangible way, because I’ve lived it over and over and over.

That more relaxed perspective is really liberating. It allows me to take risks that I wouldn’t have taken when I was 25 or 35, because I was afraid of failing or looking like an idiot. I have embraced messiness and vulnerability as opportunities for change or growth or a good joke instead of rallying against them like I used to. That perspective allows me to live and work in bigger and more daring ways. And that is the best way to live.

“I don’t take myself so seriously”

Diane Hessan, CEO, Startup Institute

Hessan founded Communispace in 2000, disrupting the market research space through the use of online communities to help major brands stay continuously connected to their consumers. Communispace was sold to Omnicom in 2011 and Hessan then launched Startup Institute to change post-graduate education by helping students find careers through an 8-week program that teaches practical skills.

She wrote us a little verse about her transformation from 25 to now:

I am:
 
Not sweating the small stuff
Laughing at my wrinkles
Hobnobbing with good friends who are CEOs and world-changers
Not afraid of a big adventure or of failing
Investing money in promising companies
Not taking myself so seriously.
Playing golf.
Confident in my ability to start and grow a sizable business
Admiring my daughters.
Struck by how long life is. We have so many chapters.

Related: Seven Inspiring Women on How They’ve Become Better Leaders With Age

About the author

Lydia Dishman is a business journalist writing about the intersection of tech, leadership, commerce, and innovation. She is a regular contributor to Fast Company and has written for CBS Moneywatch, Fortune, The Guardian, Popular Science, and the New York Times, among others.

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