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The Innovation for the Ages event held last week brought up some important issues with the modern workplace. Ageism is typically defined as discrimination on the basis of a person’s age. In the business world, we see this prejudice manifest in the belief that people over the age of 60 are generally less fluent in technology or too stuck in the past to be valuable assets to the workforce. This is completely untrue. 

The years of experience, perspective, and social fluency these workers have gained during their time in the field are actually hugely helpful. Innovation for the Ages’ panel discussion was a frank and honest discussion about ways in which these older workers could leverage their unique assets to re-invent their companies, jobs, or selves.

Setting the Scene

My ears popped as the elevator rose steadily, the electronic display tracked its progress towards my eventual destination, the Metropolitan Club. In the warmth of the Willis Tower, it became clear that I no longer needed my winter jacket and I made quick work of shedding it before the doors opened.

Upon entering the Metropolitan it became clear that this event was going to be classy. The luxurious interior was composed of modern furnishings, an impressive bar, and a spectacular view of the city. I went through the coat check and sign in almost absentmindedly because I was so distracted by the glittering display sprawled out below.

A New Perspective

In the falling darkness of the evening, the city lights looked like exquisite embroidery in the most beautiful of fabrics. The circulating movement of cars almost reminded me of a living organism as one of the oldest cities in the country glowed with life.

It had been a long time since I had a view like this, and in those moments I saw the city with new eyes. Chicago has always been seen as a city of progress, but when you look up from street level it can be hard to understand the exact scale of it. But there, looking over the city that so often towered over me, I could see the layers of history and innovation. The old and new fused together in a symphony of lights so unique that it could only belong to Chicago.

The Line-Up

As the night got truly underway and the socializing by the elegant bar ended, people filed into a larger room for the main event. The featured speakers that night were a coterie of highly accomplished people. Each panel member had decades of experience not only in business but in re-invention as well.

Howard Tullman is the ex-CEO of 1871 and the General Managing Partner of G2T3V. He is also the Executive Director of the Ed Kaplan Family Institute for Innovation and Tech Entrepreneurship. All this is really a drop in the bucket, his actual resume is probably 3 miles long, but the fact that he’s founded more than a dozen high tech companies tends to speak for itself.

Kristin Fox has actually re-invented her career multiple times. First, she successfully transitioned from her work as an award-winning journalist to the world of hedge funds. Later she would go on to establish a reputation as a serial entrepreneur, brand builder, and vocal advocate for the presence of a woman in the finance and business sectors. As the former president of Hedge Fund Research Inc., former Director of News and Research/ Executive Editor for Hedge World, Co-Founder of FiFoundHer, and founding board member of 100 Women in Finance it’s pretty clear she likes to be busy.

Nena Ivon is infamous for having worked as Saks 5th Avenue for 53 Years where she held the position of Special Events /Publicity /Fashion Director and organized over 150 fashion shows. In her retirement, she’s started the website Nena’s Notes where she catalogs her thoughts and experiences as one of Chicago’s most glamorous women. She’s also in the process of writing a book about her life that sounds like it’ll be a real page-turner.

Tonise Paul is both the President and CEO of Energy BBDO and a Director of BBDO Worldwide. On top of that, she is a vocal advocate for woman and children’s interests as evidenced by her seat on the boards for both Fund for UNICEF and the Off the Street Club. She’s also a founding member of Times Up/Advertising. She has been recognized as “Advertising Woman of the Year” and Business Insider listed her as “One of the 30 most powerful women in advertising.” Overall she’s an accomplished woman with a variety of interests and ventures that show she is no stranger to re-invention.

Let’s Get Down to Business

These days age-based prejudices tend to be more unconscious bias instead of outright maliciousness. But combating this behavior can still be difficult. If the person whose mind you’re trying to change is unaware there’s even a problem it can be hard to convince them of its existence.

The Innovation for the Ages panel framed the idea of re-invention as a way of circumventing these prejudices. If you can re-create the job or company in a new way, then you, in turn, hold the power. But where do you start?

Time for Some Self-Reflection

Well, it’s important to know what you’re good at. What can you do that others have trouble with? Where can you outdo the competition?

“I really learned to leverage my skills. At my heart, I’m a journalist, I’m nosy.”

Kristin Fox

“Figure out what you care about most and what you’re exceptionally good at. Leverage your capabilities to accomplish what you want to.”

Tonise Paul

Find an Opening

It’s also important to remember that your years of experience can give you insight that people around you may not have. You may be able to see an opening for innovation that people without your level of skill may be blind to. Kristin Fox remarked on this:

“I was raised by hedgefund wolves . . . What hedge funds do well is look for opportunities and fill them. For example, I noticed that I was often the only woman in the room and got tired of it, so I started 100 Women in Finance.”

Kristin Fox

Who Has Your Back?

Simply being great at your job isn’t always enough. You need to know who to go to with your ideas. Figure out who you trust to advocate for you when you aren’t in the room.

“It’s important to figure out who your constituents are. Life is also about relationships.”

Tonise Paul

“You have to network whether you want to or not. Smile whether you want to or not”

Nena Ivon

Speaking up can be hard and it’s not everybody’s initial inclination. Ivon also discussed her own initial challenges with being vocal about her personal brand after her retirement from Saks 5th Avenue.

“I worked for a major corporation. My biggest challenge was that I didn’t realize that I would have to promote myself. I could ask for anything on behalf of the company, but asking on behalf of myself took work. So, I started a blog and began writing a book. That has evolved.”

Nena Ivon

This is a great example of seeing something you can personally improve on and moving directly into re-invention. Sometimes we need to put ourselves in a situation where personal progress is mandatory in order to succeed. Learning to talk to people is a skill that can’t be underestimated, especially if you’re looking to become an entrepreneur. You need to know how to ask for what it is you need and convince people to give it to you.

“I got involved with the entrepreneurship scene in Chicago and realized that women weren’t getting money. It wasn’t because of sexism, rather they just didn’t know how to ask for it.”

Kristin Fox

Once you can convince someone you’re worth their time, money, or resources, you’ve turned them into an advocate. They’ve become personally invested in your success and they’ll be more inclined to have your back and promote for you.

Always Have a Plan

Once you have an idea and people to back you up you need a plan of action. You can’t just charge ahead with blind ambition, use your industry smarts and the people around you to advance your goals steadily. Howard Tullman’s experience working with multiple entrepreneurs and start-ups has given him special insight on this situation:

“First have a reverse roadmap that has a goal for yourself in 5 years. Second, have a plan. Have it in stages where you have a day job before growing out of it. Third, don’t bet the ranch. You shouldn’t jeopardize family obligations and funds, find investors and connections instead. Fourth, once you decide to do it, make it the most important thing you do.”

Howard Tullman

This makes a lot of sense. Planning backward from your end goal can highlight all the little things you’ll need to do to be able to make something happen.

“Begin with the end in mind. If we all did that in business and our personal lives, life would be better”

Tonise Paul

The Right Disposition

There are certain traits you should exude to give people confidence in you. Think about conversations you’ve had with people you remember as impressive. What was their body language like? How loud was their voice? What about them actually impacted you? These are all questions that can help guide you towards a more stand out version of yourself.

When asked what qualities people needed for successful re-invention, the panelists weighed in.

“Passion, thick skin, confidence, willingness to work hard, an interest in things beyond yourself”

Howard Tullman

“Be open to what’s new and be willing to take a chance”

Nena Ivon

Who Advises the Advisors?

Mentorship is key to a lot of people’s success. It’s important to remember that there will always be more to learn, and finding someone willing to teach you is important. When the panelists were asked about their own experiences with mentorship, we got some great insights into their personal journeys of growth.

“When I was a young lawyer I met the fanciest lawyer in New York. He taught me that there are basically 3 buckets: Family, Relaxation, and Work. But when you’re focused on the success you can really only have Family and Work”

Howard Tullman

“First there was my parents who were artists who worked in advertising. They never told me I couldn’t do anything, they were very free living and free loving. I was allowed to be me. Later when I worked at Saks, my first manager was a mentor. They allowed someone as young as me to do what I did.”

Nena Ivon

“I looked up to Muriel Siebert as a mentor. She was the first woman to buy a seat on the New York Stock Exchange. She always told me to keep your head down and charge.”

Kristin Fox

Having someone who can act as a guide, support system, or advisor is important. No undertaking is possible alone so finding people who take an interest in your growth is big. Whether it’s coming from family members, seasoned industry professionals, or a man on the street, guidance can come from anyone. Even you.

Finding a New Role

Maybe the answer to re-invention is to become a mentor yourself. Who do you know with great ideas? What can you do to help advance them? No journey is undertaken alone, it could be that your next one is as the master instead of as the apprentice.

Just look at these panelists, their latest successes have been as investors, incubators, and advocates. They have adopted the mantle of mentorship and, in turn, re-invented themselves. Sometimes the key to greatness is in seeing the potential for it in others.

Closing Thoughts

The Innovation for the Ages event was illuminating in both its acknowledgment of ageism in the workplace and its proposal of re-invention as a solution. Re-creating your job, your company, or yourself can be hard, but I hope that the advice from these industry experts has helped you a little. I walked away with a new perspective and at the very least I hope you did too.

What did you think if this advice? Was it helpful? Have you encountered ageism in the office? Let us know in the comments below or on social media.