For Janet Donovan, the big switch came after reaching the rank of two-star Admiral in the U.S. Navy. At one time the sole female officer among 46,000 sailors in her amphibious group and one of the Navy’s top lawyers, she started over in midlife as President and CEO of Girl Scouts in the Heart of Pennsylvania, helping to prepare future female leaders. For former San Francisco Mayor and California Assembly speaker Willie Brown, change came when voters passed term limits, ending his long career in elected office and prompting him to take on new roles as a newspaper columnist, radio host and founder of a public policy think tank.
Brown and Donovan shared their reinvention stories during the inaugural event of the Longevity Transitions Salon, which was made possible by a gift from the Kabiller family in memory of Elaine (Ahe) Kabiller, and moderated by Laura L. Carstensen, Stanford professor of Psychology and founder of the Stanford Center on Longevity. As people live longer, Carstensen told the audience at the GSB’s Schwab Residential Center on May 5, transitions in the second half of life, once rare, will become more common and have greater impact on society and on individuals. “We need to envision what a thriving, purposeful life of 100 years looks like,” said Carstensen. “Then we need to create social norms and build institutions to make these transitions an expected part of a long life.”
Sharing stories is one way to start the cultural shift. The idea for the series came about when financial executive and philanthropist David Kabiller, prompted by conversations with his mother when she was in her late 80s about how to stay engaged in a world that celebrates youth, discovered Carstensen’s work with the Stanford Center on Longevity. “We can reject inertia and focus instead on ways to create engagement in the second half of life,” Kabiller said.
One goal of The Longevity Transition Salons is to look at the ways that engagement in the second half of life benefits not only those who reinvent themselves, but also the communities that gain their wisdom and experience. Donovan, an attorney who was promoted to rear admiral while serving as U.S. Navy’s reserve Judge Advocate General Corps, initially thought she would join corporate boards after retiring. She found though that the corporations she approached could not readily translate the relevance of her 30-year military career to the boardroom. “This is after I commanded 5,000 sailors at sea, which is basically like running a small city,” Donovan noted dryly.
Then a friend told Donovan that the Girl Scouts were looking for a new leader, and she quickly recognized the alignment with her own values, especially after years of being the first or only woman in her position in the U.S. Navy – and as the mother of three daughters she raised with her husband, also a U.S. Navy officer. “My purpose was to empower young women to make choices that value their worth,” said Donovan, who was also a Girl Scout. “Here was an organization that gets 10-year-olds to stand in their own power and that is what it takes to move through male-dominated professions.” Donovan regaled the audience with stories of how her Girl Scout entrepreneurs pivoted to digital marketing and touchless delivery when the COVID-19 shutdown happened at the outset of Girl Scout cookie season, weeks into her tenure as CEO.
Despite his fame as a politician, Willie Brown also had to figure out how to persuade potential employers –rather than voters– to recognize his abilities. When California voters approved a 1990 ballot measure imposing term limits starting in 1996, Brown, then serving as Speaker of the California Assembly, realized he would need a backup plan. “I had the skills to make laws,” said Brown. “But no one hires you to make laws, except the legislature.” Unable to continue serving in the California legislature, Brown ran –and won– the race to become Mayor of San Francisco. But there too, terms limits loomed. “It dawned on me that at best I had only eight years as Mayor,” Brown said to laughter from the audience. “I had to figure out what to do with this remarkable set of skills.”
In 1996, finally out of public office for the first time in over 30 years, Brown became co-host of a San Francisco radio show and a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle (a gig, he noted, that ended later in a buyout.) He also established the Willie L. Brown, Jr., Institute on Politics and Public Service to train and mentor future public servants in California. Brown also picked up acting roles, following his cameo while mayor in “The Godfather,” directed by his friend Frances Ford Coppola.
Throughout his career, Brown, the highest ranking African-American elected official in California and one of the most influential in the nation, also experienced what it meant to be “the first” and “the only” Black person in places of power. Brown, 88, graduated from a segregated high school in Mineola, Texas in 1951, three years before the U.S. Supreme Court ordered an end to “separate but equal” public accommodations in Brown v. Board of Education. Brown aspired to attend Stanford, but unable to afford the tuition or persuade the admissions office that his high school preparation was sufficient, he enrolled at San Francisco State University, later becoming a master of public policy through his work in the legislature.
Donovan and Brown both credited resilience, self-confidence and creativity for their successful transitions, traits Carstensen noted are vital for continued purpose and engagement throughout longer lives. As SCL reported in its New Map of Life project, examining the ways society can transform itself to accommodate 100-year lives, “It’s expected that people will reset the GPS often.” Following the launch event on reinvention for public servants, the Longevity Transitions Salon series will feature leaders in other fields who create new career paths and continue their contributions to society.