Photo courtesy of The Denver Post
Friends, co-workers launch their SecondAct with startup aimed at women making mid-life changes.
Barbara Brooks and Guadalupe Hirt worked in solo careers and then with each other before trying to return to the corporate world. When that didn’t pan out, the friends teamed up again, this time to start what they hope will be a movement for people like them — SecondAct/Women.
For Brooks, the venture was “an idea that had been sitting on the shelf” for a while. For Hirt, organizing a women’s business event was something she agreed to help her friend with.
“I said, ‘I’ll give you 20% of my time. That’s all I got.’ It wasn’t a passion for me at the time,” Hirt said.
And then it was.
Co-founders Brooks and Hirt officially started SecondAct in July 2018 to provide women 40 years and older with support, resources and programs to help them to switch careers, start their own businesses or make the changes they want to make in their jobs and lives. Their first big event, “BizLifeCon,” drew 125 women in Denver Nov. 1.
Brooks, who had worked on her own and with Hirt in marketing, pursued her idea for a woman-focused business conference after getting turned down for corporate jobs. She chalked up her situation to ageism; she was 51.
“It’s not anything you can put your finger on. It’s the actions. It’s the tone of the voice on the phone,” said Brooks, now 53. “You’re either too experienced or you don’t have enough experience when you know that you have the experience.”
It’s not getting called back for the second or third interview when you always used to get those calls. Brooks grew determined to overcome the “isms,” including sexism and ageism, by building a network of women.
Hirt, who is 46, was running into the same walls when she wanted to re-enter the corporate world. She had worked by herself and with Brooks in marketing and public relations. She then shifted to her “passion project”: a short-subject documentary on being a child of immigrants and a workbook based on the documentary to use in the classroom.
“I started to second guess myself and I was like, ‘Wow.’ I’m actually experiencing what (Brooks) is trying to address with the community she’s trying to build, to help these women recognize that it’s not them. They’re not broken,” Hirt said.
Hirt jumped on board and became a co-founder of SecondAct/Women. The organization had a showcase session during Denver Startup Week in September. Among the women speaking at the standing-room-only gathering were Audrey Walters, 44, and Jenny Gilbert, 48. The friends combined their experience in public speaking, communications and education to start a business that organizes movie-making and video classes for after-school activities and summer camps for children. Talk to the Camera, which the two have started to franchise, is aimed at boosting children’s communication skills and confidence.
Gilbert and Walters, who’ve known each other since their children were in grade school, joke about how they’re beyond their second acts.
“It’s actually like our third or fourth act, but this is the one that’s for keeps,” said Walters, an actor who has worked as a media coach and kids’ talent agent.
Gilbert has been an educator and public speaking coach for professionals and executives. She and Walter explored starting a business after talking about how kids are buried in their phones and other devices so much of the time.
“We both had taken time off and really wanted to be home with our kids. I think we each had many different hats,” Gilbert said. “All of those different pieces together helped us realize we have passion and wanted to give passion back. And everything kept leading us back to kids.”
Walters and Gilbert have contracts with public school districts, private schools and community centers. They have piloted the program in Albuquerque, N.M., San Antonio and Orlando, Fla. They teamed up with SecondAct at the recent conference to work with women on videos.
“A lot of women our age are a little lost, having to do conference calls on Zoom, interviewing for jobs on camera,” Walters said.
Caroline Lofts , a London native, met Brooks and Hirt at one of the brainstorming sessions before SecondAct was launched.
“I’m not big on events at all. In fact, I hate them,” said Lofts, who remembers attendees exclaiming things like “Yay, ageless!”
“I’m British, so anything that’s kind of beyond just, ‘Yes, I exist,’ ” is uncomfortable, Lofts said.
However, she ended up inviting Brooks and Hirt to locate SecondAct/Women in one of the WorkAbility co-working sites she and her family owns and runs. She said she could see the startup wasn’t just about “We are women, hear us roar!”
“It’s about we are a really great resource for women. We come with years and years of experience from all walks of life, from all different industries, from all different aspects of business and we’re not going to tear you down. We’re not in a situation where there’s room for just one success and therefore everyone else must be stepped on to get there,” added Lofts, CEO of WorkAbility.
Lofts is in her own second act. The 42-year-old was in the music and entertainment business before, as she described it, becoming “irrelevant and unseen and invisible” as she got older and became a mother. Brooks, Hirt and others involved in SecondAct have constantly pushed her out of her shell, Lofts said.
Hirt said she and Brooks acknowledge that men face some of the same challenges and that ageism is a societal problem.
“We don’t know when it became a social norm for age to define a person’s abilities,” Hirt said. “We don’t know when the period of time came when all of a sudden you hit a certain age and you’re no longer valuable.”
However, as challenging as it can be for men, Hirt believes it is “two to three times more intense for women.”
“You just look at pay equity, look at the number of women that sit on the boards. You look at the women who lead Fortune 500 companies and we pale in comparison to our male counterparts,” Hirt said.
Katica Roy, founder and CEO of Denver-based Pipeline Equity, wrote in a March 17 article in the magazine Fast Company that the number of female CEOs of Fortune 500 companies has dropped by 14% since 2017. At this rate, it will take seven years to achieve gender equity in North America and 47 years globally, wrote Roy, an economist whose technology company works with businesses on closing the gender gap.
Closing the pay gap between men and women could add $2 trillion to the U.S. Domestic Gross Product, according to Roy’s article.
Brooks and Hirt want to take the Denver-based SecondAct/Women national in 2020. They want to tackle ageism as well as the lack of funding for startup companies.
“The company is all about events and education, providing workshops, masterminding sessions, consulting, providing experts to help women stay relevant, become relevant, get hired, get promoted, pivot careers, if they’re looking to do that, and start or grow their business,” Brooks said.
In the end, Hirt said the goal is for SecondAct to do its own kind of pivot. “We hope to one day have our mission change because ageism is no longer an issue.