Getting older= Better, Wiser or just Invisible?

Hey YOU!!! You know Who! Stop Pretending and Look at me…

That’s right. Thank you. I’m talking to you about seniors. No, not those seniors in high school! I know those. I was one too. Surprised? Don’t be. I am talking about people like me, whom you pretend to not see.

What? You think I’m not an entrepreneur? Well I am. I’m here, just like everyone else to pitch an idea. A very good idea, I might add. But you keep looking around my edges, expecting some strapping lad or lass to stride in any moment and leap on stage, so grandma here can watch in wide eyed wonder.

Well, you got it wrong. As soon as you get around to calling my name, I’m ready. My presentation deck is potent. I’m excited. You’ll see great possibilities in my pitch. It’s a toothbrush really — something every one needs every day, at least once, if not more, and therein lies the key to a great ROI. Scalability, my friend, and universal demand…

Of course I worked as an engineer in the early days. A mechanical engineer actually — a rounding error in terms of numbers, but still we were in the corporate world. Punctual like clocks for the 8–5 workday, solving engineering mechanics problems, using top of the line technology with finite element analysis, writing Fortran programs and submitting card decks to the computer room for processing and printing results. I computed precise ‘snubber’ locations to absorb seismic shocks on piping configurations in nuclear power plants.

Not small beans. No sir. I took my work very seriously from 8–5 every week day. You think that’s funny? Let me tell you more jokes then.

A woman, a person of color, a young mother, an immigrant, a pregnant woman — they all faced unique problems in the professional workplace, which was essentially a man’s world. I am not aiming for bragging rights, but I was all of those things several times. Man, here’s a joke for you. I had to write my own maternity leave rules, since there was no other ‘professional engineer’ of my gender in my company of 7000 employees at that time, and the need never arose until I came along. All the women in the company were secretaries or administrators, governed by different rules and regulations, but thankfully we did have a lovely ladies room on every floor.

When you are different, the urge to prove yourself is very strong. You know that. You see it in sports. You see it amongst entrepreneurs. You see it everywhere. Well, it was true for me too. I worked with great diligence, had focus and tenacity of purpose, and went to night school twice a week to get advanced degrees in engineering and computer science — a very fledgling field at the time. My company paid for night classes, and that was the heady driving factor. It is no trifling matter to pursue two, 4-credit courses every semester, towards a graduate degree at night school, especially with a growing family of four small children and a full time job.

It was a dogged exercise in perseverance. But I did it, and with flying colors. It mattered a lot to me, and gave a huge boost of confidence. We stayed together as a family through all those arduous times, and it was that rock solid foundation which eventually launched each of us into our chosen pursuits of excellence.

No need to look so serious. Every generation faces difficulties. I see yours. It’s no longer 8–5 but 24 hours for corporate workers now, with China calling while America sleeps. A seamlessly connected global workplace means no rest for the weary from cell phones and virtual meetings all day, and all night. I get it. For us, it was tools down at 5pm, and work did not interfere with home — either in the evening or on weekends. Unbelievable, eh?

Many events occurred during my work life that would now be considered outrageous in any workplace, but they happened nevertheless.

When I was promoted to project manager in the corporate job, one of the partners summoned me into his corner office for a talk. I was shaking in my shoes, sure that I would be given the pink slip of termination, but why with such fanfare? After some humming and hawing, the good man suggested that I dress more appropriately for my position — meaning what, exactly? I nodded, but the confusion on my face must have been so apparent that he kindly offered his secretary to assist me on my shopping spree, if I wished.

I did not wish, and murmured my thanks. I muddled through the shopping assignment, unsure of whether I should be upset by the message or flattered for being noticed by a high-ranking officer in the company. Should I seek counsel? Yes, but from who? I shopped, doing my best to meld my conservative upbringing with the new demands of the corporate lifestyle. I ended somewhere in the middle, but thankfully I did not receive any further summons. I must have met the bar, just barely maybe.

A couple of years later, when I returned to work after maternity, I still had a job, but not my earlier title or responsibility. In the few weeks that I was absent, everything I had worked for over 9.5 years vanished, and I was back at the beginning. I was perplexed. My attempts to understand were rebuffed. So, I left, hurt and upset. In retrospect, it was an unwise move, for I gave up my retirement benefits that would have kicked in at the end of ten years of employment. Perhaps I should have toughed it out. It is difficult and unequal for women in the workplace even today, so why was I so stirred and shaken?

I moved job focus from nuclear industry to IT, and worked in the premier technology company of that era. My new workplace was the forerunner of flextime, and participation in Affirmative action workshops, Diversity awareness, Leadership training, Teamwork exercises, etc. was mandatory for all. It was an emerging workplace in an emerging world. I could not even imagine such a wonderful workplace. Even so, mere training did not fully eradicate biases, but they were well hidden, except when they were not.

The R&D labs was pushing for a comfortable work environment, which meant no mandatory suits. Hooray! But here too, I discovered extremes, though they were not immediately apparent. There was the pristine workplace, where we worked on system designs, programming and testing, amidst team camaraderie. There was another kind of environment within the machine shops and fabrication centers on the same campus. Here, I had reason to go one day as part of my business, and was rendered speechless by the full size pinups and playboy centerfolds plastered profusely in employee cubicles and open spaces. Work was humming along efficiently; no one behaved as though there was anything untoward — perhaps it had been thus for decades, but it was a spectacle beyond bizarre. I did not venture there again. But my eyes are witness to their existence, despite the employee ethics booklets that we were are all bound to read and sign each year.

I will not bother you with the whole other ball game of managing work and family, especially when assigned to software stability runs over long graveyard shifts, with little children at home. Baby care and after-school care for children of working women was still a novel concept; the struggles to manage sick children and a corporate job is a nightmare that cannot be camouflaged to sound humorous. Vacation time, sick leave and unpaid time were fully consumed; it simply meant that parents did not have the luxury to fall sick, nor could we afford time for family vacations.

In the end, was it worth it, you ask? Of course it was. That’s a resounding yes. How else could we have kept our minds sharp? Or built the emotional strength to deal with the unexpected? Or have sons grow into supportive colleagues and helpful spouses?

These were not hunger games, true, but they were survival games for sure. Give up, and you’re history. Hold on, and you will surely grow strong, but perhaps scarred too, in the process.

Funny, eh? A reality show we never bargained for.

Mine is but one story. Every senior has a story. You have a story. Everyone has a story.

You are young now. That’s both a blessing and a privilege. Be mindful. If you listen, you will inherit a rich tapestry of experience, merely by keeping your ears and your heart open. Remember this. Every senior was young once. They lived through their times, doing the best they could. As you are doing now… As will others after you. And the world will keep changing too.

To complete my story, I retooled after 15 years at the labs, and went to Wharton for an MBA, with classmates who were probably not born when I was married. It was an awesome experience — inspiring and insistent upon creating new ways to think. I started companies. I have ideas. I need nothing special. I just like to be treated like every one else. This is all I ask.

Share respect, share wonder, share humor, share thoughts, share… but do not judge. The mind can be sharp even when the body rusts. Vice versa too.

Look at me. I am here.

Do not pretend that I am not here.

Do not look around me, as though I am not enough.

Do not look through me like I do not exist.

Go on. Call me when my turn comes up. I am ready to pitch my idea.

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