Reject self-imposed limitations

Stela Lupushor.jpg

A sizeable segment of our population - women over 50 - goes untapped, underutilized, underpaid, or unemployed. If nothing changes, these talents will be pushed into poverty

Stela Lupushor, founder and chair person

In a world of talkers, Stela Lupushor listens. In our conversation, I felt overwhelmed by a wave of attention. I believe she tapped also into this ability when she decided to give up the security of a corporate job - she led the HR Strategy and Social Analytics functions at IBM - to reimagine herself, her future and the future of work.  

The result of what she labelled as a “dive into the unknown” is, a NYC based nonprofit organization that helps women to re-enter, pivot or remain in the workforce by expanding their professional horizons. 

A year after its launch, has catalyzed a network of over 700 people that have access to a pool of workshops and ideas to address contemporary, but under-covered topics such as aging and body image, the physiology of careers (aka: pivots, transitions and continuous learning) and the right to inclusion.

Here’s is her story and what she discovered during her journey. 

How did you come up with the idea of

The future of work and the need for independence have been at the center of my attention for more than ten years, but it was only an academic exploration; I didn’t look at it from a personal standpoint. That was the case until I took the decision to experience this future first hand, to understand what it’ll be like and what opportunities it will create. was not a fully formed idea from the beginning, but an image that began to emerge from this exploration.

Can you tell us about the process that brought it about?

I immersed myself in research, had conversations and periods of quiet introspection. Little by little, a few themes become very clear at the intersection between being a woman and the corporate world. 

Most of us get to points in our lives when we realize we outgrew what we had before, and want to focus on something that will have an impact on more than just the next quarterly report. Because of the nature of their lives, women tend to reinvent themselves more frequently and profoundly. We tend to have kids, and we usually step in to take care of our ailing parents. These are all transitions that may drive different lifestyle and career changes. The result is that when re-entering the workforce, women have more difficulties in sustaining their income level, let alone growing it. 

In this regard, the most shocking statistic for me was that half of the long-term unemployment in the US is found in women between 55 and 65. Although we made all the right choices, in the long term we risk to face financial insecurity because we will most likely outlive our spouses, marriages, and savings. 

If nothing changes, a huge part of the US population will be pushed into poverty. Despite the tight labor market, women over 50 go un-tapped, underutilized, underpaid, or unemployed. 

What actionable changes can be introduced to counteract this trend?

Organizations should shift their focus from diversity to inclusion, because by focusing only on diversity they run the risk of creating solutions that are by definition serving just one group and excluding the rest. 

When it comes to applying analytics to human resources, companies must question the possibility of introducing, maybe inadvertently, bias into the hiring process. Algorithms and models created to rapidly sift through thousands of résumés are built to look at what has made people successful in the past, but this doesn’t mean that the same characteristics can propel companies into the future.

Then, there’s a third element that calls women directly into the question.

What is it?

Women tend to self-exclude. Many of us are keen to find a new or better paying job, or learn a new skill, or join a new community, but there are so many other things that we will prioritize over what we want.

We will more likely choose the safety of the current job vs the unknown of seeking a new one. We will blame ourselves for our inability to successfully land a new job (“I am too old”, “I can’t learn new skills”). We will use all sorts of reasons why we are not even going to apply (“I am not a 100% match to the job description”, “They are looking for a Millennial”). We will accept borderline or sometimes real ageist job rejections (“You are overqualified”, “We can’t pay you what you might be expecting”). 

We don’t show up for training or networking events, even if we know it might lead us to a different (and hopefully better) path. 

We choose to believe in self-imposed limitations. We choose to think we are less than. We choose to feel not worthy. Organizations have a very long way to go but we, women, have to step into the conversation, include ourselves, show up. 

What is the single most important aspect of age related discrimination that the women should address and why?

We create self-limiting beliefs that shrink our world and the perception of what we can or can’t do. Women feel compelled to comply with societal norms that define how we are supposed to behave and look, and negotiate, and ask and and - the list can go on and on. 

We don’t necessarily challenge those norms and what’s more surprising, we will judge others who choose to challenge them. We need to give ourselves permission to stand up against the societal expectations of what “good” means and better yet - drive the change ourselves.

What would it take for women to action these changes?

There are three elements at play here: the willingness, the trigger and the ability. When we don’t have to deal with a laid off, the passing of the time is generally a trigger: We begin to question the meaning of our choices and look around. But we also need the desire to move outside of our comfort zone and pull out or pull together the resources to tackle new challenges.

If the answer is yes - we take a first small step, then the next, a bigger one and on and on. You can learn a new skill, or practice enough to be comfortable in front of an audience, or negotiate with your partner the evening care-taking so you can invest in yourself and take a class or attend a networking event. 

Most importantly it is to stay in action and not let any other chatter or excuses or reasons (as valid as they may be) to stop us and distract us from the goals we set for ourselves. 

How have the women you met through changed your approach to aging? 

Being part of the turned my world upside down. I learned to accept and embrace the natural process of physical changes that happen to your body as you age. I “see” the world in many more colors now.  There are no longer binary choices when it comes to gender, age, race, religion, to our dis- or rather just -ability, to live experiences. We are truly unique and should not left anyone make us feel otherwise.

Talking about yourself, how do you feel about aging?

Surprisingly, my feeling towards aging didn’t change much. We age from the moment we are born and aging is the most natural process that happens to us. Furthermore, it is the most unifying experience for all humans.

Thinking about what might happen and how the aging might occur is not something I am too preoccupied with. Instead I am focusing on what difference can I make today for those who are facing age discrimination, who are not given opportunities to be part of the ever-expanding and full-of-promise “future of work”.

How do you approach this process physically and mentally?

I do yoga. When I can, I choose to walk instead of taking the subway or taxi. I take the stairs, not the elevator. I worry less about things I didn’t get around to do. Actually, I worry less in general. I invest more in connecting with people and spending quality time with them. I learn and stay curious. I say “yes” to unexpected events and invitations, there is always something interesting that comes out of the experience. 

I make a point to learn from my kids and I use every opportunity to teach them about aging and how much respect and appreciation they need to give to it. After all - they will also get old at some point. I am teaching them selfishness - it is in their best interest to make decisions that make the world more inclusive for everyone. Cross-generational discussions might be the most powerful change technique we have! 

On the other hand, how is aging enriching you?

I “get” all the jokes about aging and instead of getting upset at the insensitivities of people, I can now laugh at it all. There is a sense of lightness and liberation that comes when you realize that aging is not something to avoid or a problem to solve, but rather a natural process and we now have the wisdom to embrace the experience and thoroughly enjoy it.