40 over 40
Nov 24, 2016
40 women to watch over 40 is a list that celebrates women who are upending the perception that 40 is past your prime. The winners – selected from more than 1,000 nominees around the world – span a multitude of sectors, from arts and sciences to corporate change makers. The overwhelming response to the inaugural list highlights a cultural shift towards innovation and lifetime learning that inspired co-creators Christina Vuleta and Whitney Johnson to start this initiative.
Global Innovation Magazine talked to Christina about the list.
Particularly in the tech industry/start-up sector, it all seems to be about bright young things launching apps and innovative products, but there are a lot of men and women really just finding their way in their 40s. It can be a great time in life to really make an impact don’t you think?
Yes. I have become fascinated with the subject in the past few years as I built a cross-generational mentoring resource in 40:20 Vision (a resource to start conversations, share experiences and facilitate mentoring between generations). I noticed a fervour for change in the over 40 cohort that goes beyond the need to achieve a genuine vision for making a positive impact in the world and in our communities. These women are impatient to make things that matter happen.
In the process of interviewing hundreds of 40-something women, I have seen first hand that the more you know yourself, the more you are open and ready to give to others. It’s self-actualisation.
You also get increasingly better at applying your insights. In looking at innovators from both the arts and sciences, we see there is often a breakthrough idea that occurs in your early life… But the impact of that idea or concept increases as you continue to develop it and apply it to greater impact. Marie Curie’s early discovery of radium grew in impact when she created the Curie Institute in later years and continues to have meaningful applications in healthcare today. Steve Jobs credits the work he did in his 20s with the Apple technology renaissance of his 40s.
As it turns out, it’s a developmental truism. On her Harvard Business Review blog, my partner in the 40 Women To Watch Over 40 list, Whitney Johnson explains that the developmental stage that occurs between the ages of 40 and 65 is one that strives for generativity over stagnation. People in this stage are driven to generate value for others beyond themselves.
Where did the spark come from to do the list?
It was a bit of an evolution. About three years ago I quit my job in strategic insights and futures to start Vision. Along the journey, I found incredible energy and thirst for reinvention amongst the over 40 crowds.
Through this work, I got involved in a community of women in technology, media and entrepreneurialism, and met Whitney Johnson. She was in the final stages of writing Dare, Dream, Do, a manual to encourage women to act on their dreams. I had seen her Ted Talk on Disrupt Yourself, where she applies the disruptive innovation principles she practised as co-founder of Clayton Christiansen’s Rose Park Advisors (investment firm) to individuals. I sensed a kindred spirit.
I told her that I wanted to create a list that would be an antidote to all the 30 under 30 lists out there, raising awareness of the significant achievements of women over 40. Whitney shared my passion for the idea. After reconnecting earlier this year we decided to do it! We started working on it in March 2013, got more than 1,000 applications in April and announced the list in June.
What were the criteria for being included? And did you receive any backlash for not including certain individuals who had applied?
We spent a lot of time thinking about the criteria. We didn’t want it to be another list of the same power women. As inspiring as they are, we wanted the ‘to watch’ factor to mean something. We wanted women who have more in front of them than they have behind them. They are playing on the edges of something that is tapping into a greater need. Our goal was to motivate them to persist while also providing new role models for younger women. The specific criteria were:
1. Is this person entering a period of creating high growth in their field of work, whether in business, tech, media, entrepreneurship, social good, science, academics, creative arts or politics?
2. Is this person a positive role model, bringing other women along and up, and innovating around work/life issues or promoting women for leadership, whether in business, board rooms or building diverse communities?
3. Is this woman a disruptive innovator, instinctively understanding personal disruption, and harnessing the power of successive learning cycles?
I don’t think we saw any backlash but it was a tough exercise. There are so many amazing women out there and sometimes we had to say no to people who actually had achieved too much to be on a ‘to watch’ list. There were a few people who thought we only were looking at women in their 40s but it is for women at any age over 40. We had two women on the list in their late 60s and early 70s this year. We look forward to seeing the 80s and 90s represented in the future!
Are there any surprises in the list, people who perhaps didn’t think it was about them in some way, or didn’t view themselves in such a manner?
There were some interesting anecdotes of women who decided to ‘come out’ with their application – to openly admit they are over 40. Many women, particularly in the technology field, had kept their age a secret for fear of how people would react to them, not just as a woman in a male-dominated field, but also as an older woman. It has been a liberating process and hopefully the beginning of a movement that will breakage stereotypes.
You must have interviewed some amazing people, what for you were some of the commonalities between them, apart from age of course?
Aside from the commonality that they exemplify our criteria around disruption and role models, I noticed they all possess a real sense of adventure and zest for life. They are jumping in feet first, from competing in judo to playing in a rock band…from motorcycle riding to travelling everywhere (suborbital flight up next!).
What traits, skills and attitudes make an innovator for you?
To me, innovators are seekers and doers. They are restless, but not just for the sake of curiosity or being in on the next thing. They have a hunger for a better way… a better life. It’s not about being right because there is no one right answer. You have to believe the answer doesn’t exist yet and be willing to make leaps without knowing if you are entirely correct.
I would also say it is helpful to be a good observer of culture and judge of human character because you have to connect what you can see on the fringe to what people are ready to embrace and use and do.
I also think there is a little bit of a sixth sense. After years of helping big companies understand and apply emerging trends to product development, I realise you have to have the vision to see the possibilities and then be able to engage others in seeing your vision and making it happen. Entrepreneurs do this naturally. They have an innate skill in taking what is bubbling up in technology, science or the environment and envision how it can fulfil age-old needs in new ways. They often just want to experience something better and different and they make it happen in a way that is accessible to others through their persistence and passion.
They may not be on the list, but who inspires you in a business sense?
Amanda Hesser, CEO and co-creator of Food52. She was doing farm to table 20 years ago and now has created a modern cooking-centred community, with her co-founder Merrill Stubbs that allows foodies and fans alike to interact with food in a more collaborative, creative way. It was genius in that she took a year-long project to make a crowdsourced cookbook and turned it into a thriving online platform and e-commerce marketplace.
Sally Krawcheck, (from Wall Street to 85 Broads women’s network), she’s putting money and business acumen behind the belief that women are the key to our economic future.
Nick Law, global CCO of R/GA creative agency for knowing that advertising is not the answer and is willing to take leaps as to what advertising will become.
Jill Beraud, CEO of Living Proof hair care products, for being able to take a real innovation in haircare and make it beautiful. She did not fall prey to hitting customers over the head with the science and had the patience to let the hair speak for itself, proving that premium price is worth it.
The women on the list are arguably role models to a younger generation. Have you had any feedback for younger women as to how it’s inspired them?
They are just so excited to see a different future than is often served up in the media. It’s easy to get overwhelmed when comparing yourself to the extremes – the 25-year-old startup rockstar or the woman who is CEO of a leading Fortune 500 global organisation. The list has shown them that life isn’t over if neither is their path. Molly Ford, a 20-something on our hosting committee, has said the list gives her inspiration to find more “role models and mentors in her own life, as well as to champion women in all stages of their career“.
We also partnered with PushPage, a startup out of Harvard that allows for curated Q&A between fans and influencers. They created a page for each of the winners that bring to life the context of their lives both professionally and personally. This was a great way for younger women to relate to these women and discover they actually have a lot in common with 40+ women. It gives them a sense that doors are opening, not closing, as they get older.
It must be great to be included on the list from a personal point of view, but more than that what is its legacy as you see it, any plans to continue with it?
Absolutely. This is just year one. We will do the list every year and will have some sort of award/event next year to celebrate winners past and future. It will be something interactive and that brings to life the spirit of the list.
What advice would you give to a young female innovator taking her first steps into the world of business?
Don’t set out to be right. Do ask questions. Never think your idea is stupid. Revel in the fact that you are not boxed in by ‘the way things are done’. Surround yourself with the diversity of thought and the support of amazing people. Consider each failure a pivot and take stock of each success. Each is a chance to reassess and move forward.
Christina Vuelta is founder of 40:20 Vision, a platform to start conversations and facilitate mentorship between generations. She spent many years as a strategy/consumer insight specialist with both advertising agencies and global consultancies. Christina also serves as a managing director at Perks Consulting, a digital consultancy focused on transferring digital and entrepreneurial competence. You can follow her on twitter at @4020vision.
Whitney Johnson is a co-founder of Rose Park Advisors, Clayton Christensen’s investment firm, and the author of Dare-Dream-Do: Remarkable Things Happen When You Dare to Dream (Bibliomotion, 2012). Whitney is available for speaking and consulting. Follow her on twitter at @johnsonwhitney
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