It seems that women over 60 are having a moment — particularly in politics, where Nancy Pelosi, 78, is once again dominating in D.C., and in entertainment, where Glenn Close, 71, made headlines in January for her inspiring Golden Globes speech. But when it comes to the corporate world, women of a certain age are still fighting some tough battles. And the reality is that if you’re a woman who’s fired from her job when she’s over 40, opportunities may not be as flush as they once were.
Industries are constantly shifting, workers have to prove their relevance, and the truth is, reinvention is difficult for everyone, but especially women of a certain age. Data shows that it’s more difficult for older women to find jobs than older men, and that there is evidence of age discrimination in hiring older women. A 2018 AARP survey of adults over 45 found that 61% of respondents have seen or experienced age discrimination in the workplace and that older women, African-Americans, Hispanics, and people who are unemployed are likelier to feel discriminated against.
If you are fired after 40, though, you’re not alone — there’s a growing crowd of prominent former execs from entertainment, retail, publishing, and other industries who have not only adjusted after losing a big job but found the strength and confidence to disrupt their industries. Take Sallie Krawcheck, the CEO and cofounder of Ellevest, the digital financial adviser for women. Krawcheck was let go from not one, but two high-profile CEO positions in finance, first at Citi Wealth Management in 2008, and then at Merrill Lynch Management and Trust in 2011. At that point, she did “a deep dive into [her] soul” to figure out what to do next.
Krawcheck spoke to Refinery29 by phone about the mistakes she made and the lessons learned. At the end of the day, she says, “it’s all about impact.”
Can you tell us about the circumstances of your being fired?
And the second time?
“ I was working at Merrill Lynch/Bank of America. I was brought in to turn around the business after the financial crisis. We turned it around. The boss who hired me retired, we got a new boss, and we as a team delivered fantastic results: growing, gaining share, beating plan. Then I was reorg’ed out. It was ‘Thank you for your work, we are going in a different direction.’
“It felt so unfair the second time. How can you get reorg’ed out when your business results are so much better than others’? In the meeting, when my boss said we are going to reorg, I think I laughed! And said, ‘You mean me?’”
Why did that happen?
“I wasn’t pals with the boss. It was cultural issues that drove it. I have learned from conversations with folks through the years that I wasn’t a culture fit.”
What does that mean, cultural issues? Personality? Gender?
“All of it. I tried to deliver results and be respectful. The message I got in reviews was, ‘Your profile is too high.’ My profile is high because the business is doing well! And when you’re a senior woman in business, good luck trying to hide!
“The second piece of feedback I got was that I was working too hard. And I thought, I need to work this hard because the business is in poor shape! The message was, ‘Don’t email people on the weekend, save it for Monday morning.’
“I felt I owed it to the 30,000 people who worked for me to get the business on stable footing. I owed it to them, and to their families, and their clients’ families. Today, we sit here and know that things got better, but at the time there was great volatility, great unease. It was a scary time.”
What were the days/weeks/months like following your departure?
“ They reorg’ed me out the day after Labor Day. It was such an insult to injury! What?! My children went back to school the very next day. This thing was in the works, but you didn’t want to interrupt your delightful August to tell me? You could have given me the gift of the summer off with my kids, but you chose to do this instead.
“They also didn’t give me the respect of telling me in advance. They gave me 20 minutes from when I left my office to when my father saw the announcement on CNBC.”
And then what?
How did the firings affect your identity?
“ I tried to learn lessons from both experiences. Maybe the first time, I didn’t listen hard enough, or maybe karma was trying to redirect me. I wasn’t ready to leave big banks. I didn’t feel I had accomplished everything I wanted to accomplish. So I ran headlong into the next job. It was basically the same job at a different company. That was my first mistake.”
And the second?
“The second time I got let go, I tried to sit back, not make big decisions, not take the next job that came up at a big company. I was very thoughtful about what I wanted to accomplish in my career.”
What did you decide?
“I was in the fortunate position to be able to sit and work through what had been a dramatic few years. The next job offers came fast. And I was like, No, I’m not going to jump yet. I spent a lot of time trying to be introspective and tried on a few outfits professionally.”
“I almost went to the Obama administration. I thought about becoming an entrepreneur. I thought about financial services. I joined a couple of boards. I advised some firms. I had a lot of lunches with people.
“My biggest thought was, ‘All right, Sallie, what do we want to do? We have X number of years left on this earth, how do we want to spend them? Is being at a big company important? Is money important? Is the mission important? Is the impact important?’ It was a deep dive into my soul.
“Then I asked myself: Okay, if this is what’s important, how do I get there? Do I have the skill set to do it? I talked with my friend Nilofer Merchant [who would later publish the book The Power of Onlyness] about this concept of what is the only thing you can do. And I worked through it. I don’t need a jet. I don’t need all the trappings. It’s all about impact. I want to leave some impact on this earth. I have the background. I have the money.”
So you decided to tackle the issue of why women don’t invest as much as men do. What were some early hurdles?
“First, getting over my own biases. People said you should start an investment firm for women. I thought that was dumb! ‘Women don’t need their own thing!’ But the ones out there are patronizing. Having grown up in the investing industry, which has failed to engage women, I had an old-school way of looking at it. I needed to look at the facts. There is a huge impact potential here.”
Two years later, you launched Ellevest.
“It took me two years because I made so many mistakes. The problems we were trying to solve were hard. Why don’t women invest? What keeps them from investing? What is the product we can build?”
“Raising money, hiring people who are different from me, figuring out what the product is, building the product, all the hustle. It’s been the hardest thing I have ever done. It is so much harder than running Smith Barney or Merrill. At a big bank, you have a bad day, you lose millions of dollars. In a startup, every day is crucial. You make mistakes, and then you run out of capital. We lost time last year trying to improve a product, and then rolling it out and having it tank. When that happens in a startup, it is really painful.”
But worth it?
“The results are great. When you look at us versus other digital-first advisers, we were the first to $100 million. We now have $250 million in assets.”
Do you have plans to do something else next?
“I never have had a plan, like Then I’m going to do this, then that. You can’t plan it out. I will not give you ‘I wish I had done this years ago,’ because I think you can have different callings in life. I can say I am 1,000% fully engaged in this. When I wake up at 3 a.m., Ellevest is what I worry about. This is it.”
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