Growing up, Sheila experienced poverty and saw racism first-hand. She became the first in her family to attend college then worked in pharmaceutical healthcare. After taking a career break to launch her four sons, she smacked into age bias when seeking renewed employment. She has partnered with internationally acclaimed speaker, author, and anti-ageism activist Ashton Applewhite to build a grassroots alliance focused on identifying age-friendly employers.
Tell us a little about your background.
I was born in Atlanta, Georgia, to fresh high school graduates from North Alabama who had moved to the big city to find work. After a decade of city living, they returned to Alabama to be closer to their extended families and to help my paternal grandfather who had health issues.
Throughout their lives, my parents picked up different jobs wherever they could. My dad worked a number of years in an aluminum production facility. After he was laid off, he worked as a carpenter and even on an offshore oil rig. My mom worked part-time as a server, clerk, and later a cook in an assisted living facility.
When my parents moved my two younger siblings and me back to Alabama, we lived in Scottsboro, where I stayed until graduating from high school. Scottsboro was a small town, best known for the Scottsboro Boys, nine African American teenagers, ages 13 to 20, falsely accused of raping two white women on a train in 1931.
When I was in the fourth and fifth grade, I would ride with my parents every Saturday morning into town for groceries. To get to the store, we had to pass through a part of town known as Five Points. That’s where the railroad track separated the white side from the other side. On many Saturdays, the KKK would stand in the intersection, fully robed and hooded, offering pamphlets. I would crawl into the floorboard to hide.
One Saturday I heard my father’s voice sternly instruct me to get back into my seat. When I whimpered from my hiding place that I was afraid, he told me I needed to have the courage to face the things (and people) I fear—that I needed to be willing to stand up for what I believed in, even if it went against the grain.
While I was growing up, my parents were often unemployed and on food stamps, which taught me how economic disparity holds too many people back. I didn’t want to have to struggle like my parents. Battling the odds, I became the first from either side of my family to go to college. Not stopping there, I continued on until I had obtained an advanced degree and found work in both the public and private sectors.
Because I know what it’s like to struggle, I empathize with those who think they will never get ahead, that the challenges are too overwhelming to conquer. My goal is to inspire those people to never give up!
Even as a child, observing prejudice and bias felt wrong to me. In hindsight, it’s no surprise that I spent 12 of my 15 years at a global pharmaceutical healthcare company influencing leaders across a matrixed business on matters of diversity, inclusion, engagement, and people strategies.
When did you start to think about making a change?
The first big change I made was to resign my corporate job to be home full time with my family. My four sons were growing up too fast and I knew that if I didn’t step away, I might never have the courage to do it. Bottom line, I didn’t want to regret NOT having that time with my boys. I’m so grateful for the quality time I’ve had for them and I know it’s made a huge difference in their lives because they’ve told me so.
After resigning, I focused on creative endeavors and motivational coaching. Eight years and six books later (plus, contributions to six best-selling anthologies), my boys are grown. Having loved the hustle and bustle of stretch goals, combined with team collaboration, I began looking for what’s next.
What is your next act?
I am a social activist focused on ending ageism.
Every activist needs a platform and, after pitching a senior editor at Forbes and then going through a lengthy vetting process, I was invited to join Forbes.com as a contributor for the Diversity and Inclusion Channel. I independently source, research and write articles that drive approximately 10,000 clicks per month on a million+ platform with more than 400 writers.
I also volunteer as a consultant for a virtual reality startup that creates training videos addressing inequities in the workplace. What I love most about raising awareness about ageism is collaborating with other people who are as passionate and energetic as I am. Working with a small start-up that leverages virtual reality to train employees about the pain of exclusion allows me to use my learned skills for good. I consult and script training, which is fun.
And I’m super excited about my latest collaboration with Ashton Applewhite, the leading global spokesperson battling ageism. I’m partnering with her team to assemble an alliance to create a scorecard to measure and certify “age-friendly” companies. Moving the needle to raise awareness about systemic ageism and to create systems that will facilitate change is definitely a worthy cause. But I would never have jumped on the activist train had I not been gob smacked in the face with the reality of ageism in the workplace. It’s one of the most frustrating experiences I’ve ever had, and I am committed to helping facilitate change. Otherwise, three out of every four people who has the good fortune of living past 40 is going to feel the pain of being discarded–regardless of the skill set and experience.
I was already a diehard fan of Ashton Applewhite before we connected. She was reading my work on Forbes.com and I was reading all the press on her prior and post the publication of her book, This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism, watching every video I could find and, of course, reading her book. From the get-go, I pegged her as the “poster child” for ageism.
When I saw what I thought was an opportunity for collaboration, I pitched her. I was writing at my desk one afternoon when the phone rang. I didn’t recognize the number, so I let it go to voicemail. It was Ashton telling me to pick up the phone!
The work we are doing together has the potential to create a huge shift in the workplace. Our goal is to help companies know how to shift their respective cultures to make them age aware. While some of the issues around ageism are due to unconscious bias, much of it is deliberate. I’ve talked to too many recruiters who have told me that management directs them to seek younger candidates. That’s illegal and they know it. But, because the legal protections are loose and ageism is difficult to prove, they do it anyway.
It has taken big lawsuits like IBM, Facebook, and Google to draw attention to ageism. Now companies are looking for ways to fix systemic issues–from recruiting to development. My work with Ashton and her team aims to help companies do this.
Want to help? Sign up for Old School @ Work Alliance, a collaboration between Ashton’s team and me. And take the survey, only a few questions that take less than five minutes to complete. We are hoping to build the largest grassroots alliance dedicated to creating a more age-inclusive society, beginning with the workplace.
How supportive were your family and friends?
My family knows how restless I am and how important it has been for me to “find a place” in the new world order. They’ve all been very encouraging and believe that only good will come from my work in this space.
My husband is retired and helps me with data analytics and research. My oldest son is a software engineer and advocate for diversity of thought. He has volunteered to be a part of the grassroots initiative and to help move the needle in the tech industry.
What challenges are you encountering?
The more I do, the more opportunities I have to do more. My biggest challenge is that I’m a perfectionist and I invest a lot of time in my work. If I could replicate myself a few times, I’d be grooving all over the place!
What did you learn about yourself through this process?
I’ve known for a long time that I’m the kind of person who can take on long-term projects that will probably take years before I see the kind of change that will feel like real success. Not everyone can do that, and even I have to do other things (like publish on Forbes.com) to feel like I’m progressing in my work.
Because I’ve worked in the diversity and inclusion space, I already know that shifting mindset takes time. It takes strategy. It takes perseverance. LOTS of perseverance. And that’s another thing I’ve learned about myself. I’m really good at sticking to my goals, in spite of frustration with the systemic issues I see, the double standards, and the ease at which people cover their eyes and ears and pretend that everything is okay when, clearly, it’s not.
Going back to what my dad taught me all those years ago when he made me climb out of hiding and face my fears, I’m still doing that every day. I will say, it’s much easier when collaborating with others because I never feel alone in the fight. My goal is to bring collaborators together, to pool resources, and push against the grain to influence policies, regulations, laws, and the people who make them.
Looking back, is there anything you’d have done differently?
If someone looked into a crystal ball and told me that I would face age discrimination when trying to relaunch my career after an eight-year hiatus, given my education and experience, I would never have believed them. In this way, perhaps I’ve been naïve and egotistical.
That said, I would never trade my time at home with my boys for anything in the world–even a sexy career, making bank!
What I want to see now is generations coming together to address a number of pressing topics, to include ageism. I see a lot of opportunity for achieving this, because there are so many synergies between us, whether it’s addressing the environment, education, medical coverage, or social security.
What advice do you have for women seeking reinvention in midlife?
The best advice I can give is to be flexible in what reinvention looks like. In my case, I thought I’d hop right back into the corporate world and pick up my career where I left off. When that didn’t happen, I had to rethink how I could authentically engage in the world around me, how I could contribute in a way that might make a positive difference. If I’d been more flexible from the beginning, I might not have invested so much time and energy trying to convince recruiters and hiring managers that a woman in her 50s was the best person for their vacancy.
I’ve taught myself that to think for a while before I say no. For example, I’ve had a recruiter tell me to go back to school so that I can leverage internships. I already have a master’s degree and more than 20 years experience, but okay! I recently published an article on Forbes.com about a woman in her 50s who’s getting a master’s degree in human resources. Her reasoning? She wants to be in a better position to address and correct ageist systems, such as the online applicant tracking system.
I’ve also been told that no company will ever hire me and that if I want to work I need to start my own business. I’ve been freelancing for eight years and I was really looking forward to stepping back into a team environment so I’ve pushed back. Given the work I’m doing in the ageism space, I talk to lots of people and read tons of research. I know that change takes time so entrepreneurship might make sense.
Finally, I would advise that women take time to really consider what they enjoy doing before they make any big decisions. Take the time to talk to others who have done what you want to do, to strategize and reflect before you act. Then, take a deep breath, put on your suit of courage, and go for it!
What advice do you have for those interested in social activism?
There are so many opportunities to advocate for changes that will create a more inclusive culture, both at work and in the communities where we live. Ageism is just one worthwhile cause, and there are so many more.
All of our voices matter; and they work better when they join together to make a chorus. In that way, the chance of being heard increases.
What’s important to you? What could be made better? Find others who believe as you do and ask how you can help. Or, do like I did and pitch your ideas to people and platforms that give you a platform from which to advocate.
What resources do you recommend?
For those interested in ageism in the workplace, I’d recommend they follow me at Forbes.com. The best collection of online resources for ageism can be found at OldSchool.info founded by Ashton Applewhite, who is the leading spokesperson against ageism, and wrote the book This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism.
For women looking for a mid-career pivot, I recommend following Career Contessa, a site just for women that includes articles, webinars, interviews, downloads and so much more. And join up with iRelaunch, a site dedicated to connecting companies with women looking to relaunch their careers after a break.
Love inspiration? Try Creative Mornings to find a local group to enjoy coffee, friendly people, and an international array of breakfast foods. Volunteer hosts and their team members organize local chapters that not only celebrate a city’s creative talent, but also promote an open space to connect with like-minded individuals. The growing archive of past breakfast talks is humbling. From design legends to hometown heroes, speakers are selected by each chapter based on a global theme. Attendance is free but you do have to register.
Ellevate Network is a global network of professional women committed to elevating each other through education, inspiration, and opportunity. Their mission is to close the gender-based achievement gap in business by providing women with a community to lean on and learn from. It’s fee based, but they do offer scholarships. Find a network close to you and meet other inspiring women.
What’s next for you?
I’m now in new a transition period, with my youngest son headed to college soon. Being a “momma” was always my “real job.” My sons are now grown and building their own lives. It’s the case of working myself out of a job–but in a good way.
As a result, I’m looking for the next thing I can sink my teeth into. Something that needs the curiosity, passion, and collaboration that comes naturally for me.
One thing I know about myself is that I want my work to matter. So if I were to ever rejoin a company, it would have to be one that I believed in and whose mission and values were sympathetic to mine.
I’m excited to think about my next act, and the act after that. Truth is, I never want to stop learning and doing and contributing. So, I’m following my advice and keeping my mind open and my courage up!
Connect with Sheila Callaham:
365 Life Shifts: Pivotal Moments That Changed Everything
365 Moments of Grace
Unleash Your Inner Magnificence
The Power of Living Joyfully: Your Guide to Setting and Achieving Goals that Enrich Your Life