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In the 2015 film The Intern, Robert De Niro portrays a seventy-year-old, former executive widower, who accepts a junior “Returnship” role in order to expand his social contacts and share the wisdom of his business experiences. Turns out, the premise of the film is closer to fact, than fiction.
It’s no secret that America’s workforce is transforming, as Millenials assume senior levels of responsibility. What is less obvious is the existence of a modern generation gap, in which managers in their thirties are recruiting, hiring and supervising employees who are literally as old as their parents.
Diane Flynn Co-founded ReBoot Accel to address this gender gap and provide “returners” (primarily women over forty who have taken an extended hiatus from work) with the proper skills and mindset to succeed in the modern workplace.
I recently caught up with Diane, who graciously shared her time with me, despite being in the midst of planning a conference for Silicon Valley HR leaders, entitled TechOver40: Building a Workplace that Values Experienced Workers.
John Greathouse: Hello Diane. Thanks again for taking the time to connect, especially given your upcoming conference.
Sorry, but I’ve got to begin by asking your thoughts regarding the Robert De Niro film, The Intern. Not Oscar material, but entertaining. I especially liked the message that older folks don’t have to run the show to make a meaningful impact, especially at a venture populated by young people.
Diane Flynn: I loved that film, except when he’s seated on her bed and she’s in her bathrobe, wouldn’t fly today! I often cite De Niro’s energy and engagement returning to work. People have an unconscious bias that those over forty, and especially those who’ve paused careers, lack energy and commitment. But what I’ve observed is the opposite.
Staying home with kids for a period of time has created a renewed passion for getting out of the house, working with professionals, and using their brain in stimulating ways. These women are generally highly energized and love their new work lives, often more so than those who’ve worked continuously for years and are feeling burned out. The movie also highlights the wisdom and mentorship many of these individuals bring. I love that Phizer has created their own “Intern” program, bringing back an older worker to work side-by-side with young college grads.
Greathouse: Yea, De Niro’s character was a bit too familiar with his female boss, but I guess they were trying to cast him as a benign uncle. I agree that they missed the mark. Anyway, thanks for indulging me, as the movie immediately came to mind when I learned what you are up to.
Now that we got that out of the way, please share ReBoot Accel’s origin story. With all the areas you could have focused your talents, what prompted you to co-found ReBoot Accel?
Flynn: I loved my decade-long career at Electronic Arts coming out of business school. I was energized, focused, and highly engaged. But I also had two toddlers at home, a husband who traveled for work, and enough stress to result in some health challenges.
I finally decided something had to give, and my family came first. I did what I never thought I’d do. I paused my career. That pause turned into sixteen years and a third child. To clarify, I paused my paycheck, not my work. I continued to serve in volunteer roles, on non-profit boards and as an advisor at Stanford Children’s Hospital. I had a great deal of flexibility and could make it to all of my kid’s activities and games.
In 2014, I had the chance to return to the workplace. While I wasn’t sure about returning full-time, I was excited about reengaging in professional tasks and strategic challenges. I initially committed to twenty-five hours per week, so I could continue with my volunteer activities. But after a month, I realized how charged up I was about getting dressed, leaving the house, and having meaningful work issues to contemplate. I also enjoyed working with younger people who kept me current, expanded my network, and convinced me I was still relevant. As a lifelong learner, I found my workplace tech skills flourished, and I enjoyed the paycheck.
In returning, I had three observations. First, I was woefully unprepared for today’s workplace. Despite having both a background and strong interest in tech, I felt ill-equipped with current workplace technologies that didn’t exist when I paused my career – LinkedIn, Social Media, Collaborative Tools like Google Suite, Presentation Graphics, Video Technologies like Zoom and commonly used communication tools like Slack.
Secondly, I was encouraged by how quickly I was able to get up to speed. A growth mindset, weekends spent watching YouTube tutorials, and asking many dumb questions of my millennial children helped.
Lastly, I sensed an overwhelming interest from peers in my community to return to paid work, either because of financial need, intellectual stimulation, or social connections. I also realized how much talent companies are missing out on by ignoring this demographic.
It occurred to me, ‘I can help.’ I approached our CEO and asked if he’d mind if I ran a program for women interested in resuming careers. He loved the idea and was supportive from the start. Thankfully, I rallied a team of four equally passionate women, and we began developing a series of classes we called the ReBoot Accelerator.
We taught all the workplace technologies we felt women needed to become current, connected, and confident to return to the workforce. This little grass-roots effort took hold, and we soon had people calling from all over the country to take our classes.
Over the past four years, we’ve developed a free online program, ReBoot Kickstart, to provide greater access to our curriculum for women worldwide. After Visa called for assistance with their annual Return to Work program, we now spend most of our time working with companies interested in improving gender equity and supporting women through hiring and advancement.
Greathouse: Wow, that’s a great story. I can relate, as my wife and I were fortunate enough for her to take a bit of time off, yet she spent most of it volunteering, running committees, fundraisers, etc. – all things that kept her business skills sharp.
Let’s talk about your conference for a bit. What do you want participants to walk away knowing, that they didn’t know walking in? Maybe better said, in what ways do you want to impact the attendees?
Flynn: What we’ve realized in helping women ReBoot Accel careers in their forties, fifties, and beyond is that ageism is a prominent bias, especially here in Silicon Valley.
The event we’re co-hosting with Udemy and TechOver40 is designed to address these issues of unconscious bias, and to help companies think through ways they can adapt programs and policies to support the multigenerational workplace.
About twenty percent of companies view older workers as a competitive disadvantage, yet research shows that they typically provide emotional stability, complex problem-solving skills, nuanced thinking, pattern recognition, strong professional networks, and institutional know-how. They tend to bring a strong work ethic, loyalty, and are often more concerned about meaningful contributions than self-promotion. Our goal is to help companies see the older worker as an opportunity, not a detriment.
Not only this, but demographic trends suggest addressing the older worker is a must. Seventy-five percent of Americans now plan to work past retirement age, and workers over fifty-five will be twenty-five percent of the workforce by 2024 – up from ten percent in 1994.
With five generations working side-by-side today, a promising workforce lies in intergenerational collaboration. We need to combine the digital acumen and quick thinking of youth with the wisdom and experience of age. This will require new thinking and new practices. For instance, companies need to rethink compensation and benefits. Many older workers would trade high salaries for flexibility and remote work. Caregiving is not just for young parents. The sandwich generation faces caregiving of elderly parents, yet few companies consider this in their benefits packages.
The goal of our event is to unite HR leaders from Silicon Valley to rethink how they can support the workforce of tomorrow, which will include many more individuals over fifty. Chip Conley, best-selling author and TED speaker, will share his experience joining Airbnb at age fifty-two in a senior capacity, yet facing challenges working for people half his age.
He has tremendous wisdom about opportunities that companies should consider, many of which are featured in his new book Wisdom@Work. We will also showcase pioneering companies who are adopting new approaches — employee resource groups for those over forty, reverse mentorship, and lifelong upskilling. By bringing this community together, we hope to forge new ideas, partnerships, and creative solutions.
Greathouse: How many folks have you helped so far and do you have any favorite success stories?
Flynn: We’ve had over 2,500 women go through our in-person and online programs, and I have repeatedly seen that those who have kept themselves “in the game,” have a much easier chance reentering. They’ve kept their skills current and their professional networks intact, despite not earning paychecks.
Getting women back in legal, financial, or strategic roles is easy as these skill sets don’t diminish during a pause. But I’m particularly proud of the many women who’ve updated their technical skill sets and launched careers in their fifties at major companies here in Silicon Valley. During a meeting at Facebook last week, we ran into a woman from our earlier class who’s now enjoying a successful career there. We’ve also helped women launch roles at Udemy, Stanford, JetBlue Technology Ventures, Airbnb, Visa, and other leading companies, and continue to track their success. Many have been promoted, and often hire other returners.
I advise anyone considering pausing their career to volunteer strategically during their time away from work. For instance, during my sixteen years out of the paid workforce, I chaired marketing committees for non-profit boards I served on. This allowed me to keep my marketing acumen fresh, and to stay abreast of new developments in digital marketing. It also let me network with leaders who were currently in the workforce, so when I did reenter full-time, I didn’t feel irrelevant and disconnected.
That being said, many women don’t do this and need to improve their tech skills, networks, and confidence. The goal of our programs at ReBoot Accel is to provide upskilling, community, and support for these women. It’s amazing how many come back years later and say they couldn’t have done it without our program. These words of affirmation keep our team going.
Greathouse: When you went back to work, you initially worked part time. Once you realized it was still fun for you, you shifted to full time. I’ve seen this pattern at a couple of my startups as well. Is this an approach you recommend or do most of the folks you work with return to work full time?
Flynn: We often suggest this path, part-time to full-time, for those resuming careers. It’s beneficial for several reasons. It allows you to “freshen” your skillset and build much-needed confidence. It buys time and experience since many women don’t know what exactly they want to do next. We consider this a great chance to test the waters and develop greater self-awareness of what’s next. Also, many women aren’t sure if they’re ready for full-time. This gives them the chance to try it out and determine what’s right for them.
I believe this is one of the reasons “Returnships” are so successful. These are essentially internships for “returners” who’ve taken a two plus year career pause. Many companies offer them now, including Cisco, Apple, PayPal, Facebook and Walmart because it’s a, “try before you buy” approach for both parties. Typically, sixty-to-ninety percent of individuals in these programs convert to full-time employees, which I’d consider a great success rate. Many companies do this to recruit female technical talent, and they’re often surprised by the soft skills the returner brings resulting from life experience.
Greathouse: When we briefly spoke before this interview, I was surprised to learn how many mature workers rejoin the workforce out of necessity. I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I was. What is the scope of this contingent that ReBoot Accel works with and what are some of the reasons folks find themselves back at work?
Flynn: Sometimes we think of resuming careers as a luxury. But the reality is that over twenty-five percent of those going through ReBoot Accel NEED to resume work. This is often because of a life transition, like divorce or widowhood, and they need paychecks, benefits, or both.
In addition, now that we’re living well into our eighties, many don’t have the financial resources to support themselves another thirty-to-forty years. They didn’t expect to find themselves in this position at forty-five or fifty-five, but this is their reality.
Coaching women in this position often takes on a different tact. Rather than explore “dream careers,” we focus on real needs, which often include pay, flexibility and benefits. I’ve helped many highly successful women, from earlier careers, relaunch as executive assistants or office managers. They’re immensely qualified for these roles because they bring wisdom, maturity, resourcefulness, and gravitas to the role. They’re often overqualified, but relish the role because it offers the structure, they need to still be present in their kids’ lives.
Our main goal in coaching women resuming careers is to align their values with their job. Values change over time — I often refer to this as “seasons of life.” If you don’t start with your values, it will be hard to find a career match that provides fulfillment.
Greathouse: One of the key issues your team is addressing is ageism, which obviously transcends gender. I know what it’s like to sit in a room as the only person with grey hair. In the tech world especially, one can feel “old” long before one’s ability to add value diminishes.
Flynn: Living here in Silicon Valley, I’m always surprised to talk to thirty-six-year-old men who feel “aged out.” As a fifty-six-year-old woman, it’s hard to muster sympathy!
Imagine being over fifty, a woman, AND not having worked in fifteen-to-twenty years. These challenges are real. When one of these women does get the interview, it’s often with a boss who’s twenty-eight.
These dynamics can be challenging and is the primary reason we’re hosting this TechOver40 event. Our goal is to increase empathy for this demographic while showcasing the skills and values they bring to the table. As a side note, ReBoot Accel is also conducting research with NBC and Mika Brzezinski to understand ageism by gender, geography, and industry. We hope to have results in the next few weeks.
Greathouse: Where do you want ReBoot Accel to be in 2025? If you take donations, how can people contribute to your cause?
Flynn: My main goal for ReBoot Accel is to continue to change the climate for women and work. By 2025, I’d like every woman to have options, whether they’re twenty-five or seventy. I dream of flexible and fluid workplaces where women never have to totally pause careers, but where they can continue to contribute in ways that support with their current life stage. With technology making most jobs 24/7, I see no reason many roles can’t be part-time and time-shifted.
If I had a magic wand, I’d remove age and gender bias, and dynamically match skillsets with organizational needs. Many women in our programs would never have paused careers if there had been more flexible options.
Greathouse: How can folks who are reading this learn more about your conference and about becoming involved with ReBoot Accel?
Flynn: While the focus is on HR leaders, it’s open to anyone, space allowing. Here’s the Eventbrite if your readers would like to register.
March 8, 2019 at 12:17PM
Forbes – Entrepreneurs