Ceri Wheeldon is the driving force behind what is fast becoming one of the most influential on line magazines for women today. Her site Fab After Fifty is dedicated to changing our perceptions of being a women over 50 in the 21st century; it’s really hit the Zeitgeist meaning Ceri is a very sought after woman. So I am very pleased to have grabbed some of her precious time to bring you this interview with her.
Jane: Ceri, you are the creator and owner of the enormously successful Fab After Fifty online magazine. It has really hit the Zeitgeist hasn’t it? And very well deserved as it’s a great resource for women. What gave you the idea?
Ceri: A number of things came together at once! I was 49 when I first had the idea. As a headhunter I could see that women over 50 were finding it increasingly difficult to be considered for senior roles, I had friends and family members affected by ‘empty nest’ syndrome, and there appeared to be a lot of ageism in the media. It was reading a letter to an agony aunt (while sitting on a delayed flight) that I had my ‘lightbulb’ moment.
A women was finding her 50s difficult- expecting a positive, supportive response I was horrified to see the agony aunt tell her her life was effectively over and she should buy a rocking chair and knit! She suggested a couple of over 50s websites to her. I checked them out when we landed and saw that the sites really didn’t inspire, and I felt didn’t reflect women over 50 as we see ourselves. 50 is not old, and women over 50 are vibrant, intelligent and in their prime!
I decided to create a positive, supportive site which offer a forum for women over 50 to come together to learn, inspire and support each other. I was very lucky to gain the support of several ‘experts’ who have been happy to give their time and expertise to help inform and inspire us the make the best of our lives.
Do you remember what your very first job was and how much you got paid?
I can remember my first job was to work on Saturday afternoons demonstrating the Stylophone (made famous by Rolf Harris) in the run up to Christmas in one of the stores my father managed. I wasn’t officially old enough to work so I got pain in doughnuts and extra pocket money! I remember being disappointed that a every last one was sold- I didn’t even get one myself for Christmas!
You obviously have a great entrepreneurial spirit. Where does that come from? Was there anything in your childhood to give an indication of your future career?
I do remember being involved in a fundraising project when I was in the brownies- we were each given 2 shillings and 2 weeks. While everyone else washed cars I set up a conveyor belt at home and got the whole family involved in making ‘gonks’ out of bits of felt, cardboard, stuffing and buttons. I sold them at school, buying more supplies from my first sales and took pre-orders to make sure I could sell them. I also made in extra colours so people would buy more than one each. I made more money for our ‘pack’ than the rest of the brownies put together. Plus my ‘project’ wasn’t dependent on good weather!
Did you start out with a career plan? How did you manage your career?
I had no career plan. As I chose not to go to university I was under pressure from family to at least be involved in a profession- so I became a trainee accountant- I hated it! I was always expected to be the wife of an executive rather than be an executive myself! It was when I was living in Canada in my twenties (I went there with husband number one’s job) that I was interviewed by recruitment company for a role with one of their clients. It just so happened that the group CEO sat in my session and decided he wanted me to work for them- I was offered a role as a researcher- even though I hadn’t applied for it! Within 2 months I was promoted to consultant and in less than a year promoted to manage the company’s executive search division- despite being a woman and far younger with less experience than anyone else in the organisation.
Before deciding to return to the UK my role had grown to manage all of their permanent recruitment operations across Canada. I was headhunted for a role back in London- not the best move – but subsequently set up my own business, initially as part of a partnership ( I sold my interest in this) and then on my own. There was no plan- it just evolved. I always said that I would do something different when I turned 50 – I had no idea that it would be ‘Fabafterfifty’!
Research shows that women often suffer from a lack of confidence and self esteem in world of work. Have you encountered that in your head hunting role? In your experience do you think it’s an issue more prevalent amongst older women than their younger counterparts?
This is a difficult one for me to answer as the industries I have recruited in and the roles I have focussed on have tended to be heavily male dominated. One of the issues being that the types of roles I have filled- Programme Directors and CTOs for multi-billion pound international outsourcing programmes- have typically required extensive travel- which has not been easy for women to manage with family life.
The women I have encountered, mostly in the area of Change Management, however, have all been confident professionals where their ability to multi-task and use their ‘softer’ skills have been seen as advantageous. I think where older women are at a disadvantage is where younger people in HR have a perception of 50 being old – they still have outdated views. Also, as 60 was seen until recently as the retirement age for women, there was a perception of women in their 50s winding down and preparing for retirement- obviously this is not the case and a perception we have to change!
What do you think is one of the biggest obstacles for older women in employment?
One of the biggest obstacles is perception! We must make employers see that 50 is virtually mid career and not the end of working life! Women themselves do need to make sure that they are employable by ensuring that their skills are up to date and they look after their health and fitness. They can’t compete in the youth stakes but they can still show they have energy and vitality. They have to stress their ability to multi-task and fewer distractions in terms of demands on their time.
I’ve recently been involved as a careers expert for a project with the Times newspaper looking at employment issues for the over 50s looking for work. A big issue was they hadn’t fully appreciated their own skills and how they might be of benefit to a prospective employer! Their best attributes were absent on their CVs.
Have you ever experienced femageism in your professional career? By which I mean not just ageism but that particular form of discrimination particularly prevalent in the media whereby older women are put to grass backstage.
That started when I was in my mid 30s! One of the reasons I set up on my own! I can remember my then MD telling me I was no longer a ‘spring chicken’ and so my options within the company would be limited.
What is the best piece of advice you have ever received, personally and professionally?
I think one of the best pieces of advice I was given was very early in my career by my then CEO – he told me not to afraid to make decisions. He said he would back me 100% in any decision I made- right or wrong- but not if I sat on the fence. Its a premise I’ve lived by- not that all decisions have been the right ones!
Ceri, knowing you even for a short while it’s clear that you are a very hard working woman (as all successful women are). Who supports you? Where do you get a shot of injection and enthusiasm when you need it, or a supportive shoulder, or a swift dig in the ribs – choose whatever applies!
My husband is incredibly supportive, together with a small number of close friends who have known me for decades. There are one or 2 special ‘twitter’ friends who are always quick to give me a quick prod if they can see I need one!
Who or what has been your biggest source of inspiration professionally?
I’m not sure that I can name a single source of inspiration- I always been driven to be the best I could be in whatever I did – I probably got this from my father. He always stressed that in business you had to act with integrity and deliver good customer service – and that there was always a newer and better way of doing things – if you didn’t find it someone else would!
What has been your best career moment to date?
I think being offered roles in Sydney and New York- both of which I declined- but it was flattering to be asked! I’m hoping my best career moment is yet to come!
How do you relax and unwind?
There are those who know me who would probably say that I never relax and unwind! I’m only happy if I’m busy!! I do enjoy spending time with friends but probably only truly relax when I disappear off to the South of France and potter around Antibes.
Which woman in the public eye do you most admire and why?
Margaret Thatcher- for succeeding in a man’s world. Also the Queen for her exemplary commitment to this country and seemingly boundless energy with no retirement in sight!
Do you have a favourite saying or motto to share?
Don’t put of till tomorrow what you can do today!
What advice would you give to women about ageing (gracefully or otherwise!)
Age is just a number! Don’t be complacent or afraid to try new things. Constantly learning and being open minded will keep you young at heart! Have friends from different generations and see life from their perspectives. At 50 one in 7 of us may live to be 100- make sure you celebrate the best half!
Ceri, thank you so much! I’ve really enjoyed talking to you- your enthusiasm is infectious and certainly inspiring!
Posted on June 30th, 2011 by Jane