November 2, 2021

I Wish I Knew Then

When we partnered with AARP and created “The Unfiltered Life” to bridge together wisdom from the older to the younger, I started thinking about my own experiences with my career, money, and family. I will turn 42 in a few months, squarely in the middle of my working years and perhaps my life. My mother asked me the other day when we were talking about my four young daughters and what their lives might look like: If you could go back and give advice to your 22 year old self, what would you say? And here is my answer. 

Failure means you’re going in the right direction. I spent decades afraid to fail. I can still remember sitting in my childhood bedroom when my mother told me that I had received an “incomplete” on my Sixth Grade progress report because I was not finished with a project. I was working on a magical paper-mache castle and it was taking longer than I had planned. I cried. I thought I was the worst student ever and quickly rushed to finish the project, making it far less magical and much more boring. This is pretty much how I lived the first 36 years of my life: Be good, choose the safe path so you can earn a good mark, even if you trade the magical for the mundane. 

Something happened to me when I was in my mid-thirties. I don’t know if it was watching Hillary Clinton be torn down by America one too many times for her great crime of being ambitious or if it happened when I became the mother of girls who I didn’t want to deal with the same fears and insecurities that had stunted my life, but I finally took off my shiny “perfect suit” and dove headfirst into the deep end of a raging river. I started a company even though 70% of new businesses fail; set out to raise venture capital even though only 2% of dollars go to women; stood up to speak on stages to speak about The Riveter at Fortune’s Most Powerful Women and SXSW even though my right leg visibility shook when I spoke in front of people (until it didn’t); and launched a podcast with no background in interviewing on any level. 

It wasn’t that my fear of failure just went away. (And, trust me, I have failed. Spectacularly, publicly, and multiple times.) It was that I realized I didn’t have to be perfect – and that if I failed once, it wasn’t the end. Of anything. Boys learn these lessons from birth; it took me decades. I wonder what I might have done if I’d realized this lesson when I was 22 instead of 37? What ideas could I have brought to life? What companies could I have built? I’m a firm believer that it’s never too late to pivot. Many might see my biggest pivot as leaving the law and starting The Riveter, but in my heart I know my biggest pivot was from seeking perfection to seeking the lessons of risk and failure. 

Invest money even if you aren’t an expert. Maybe this is simply a subset of the first lesson, maybe a different lesson altogether. But I didn’t invest in my 20s because I didn’t think I should since I didn’t “know what to do.” But, like, at one point I didn’t know how to walk or swim or ride a bicycle – and yet I still endeavored to learn. I moved forward. With investing, I just sort of shrugged my shoulders, stuck my salary earnings into a savings account (not even a high yield one!) and kept on keeping on. Investing just didn’t seem interesting to me. Facepalm. 

Study after study tells us that women simply don’t invest – enough or at all. In fact, only ¼ of women in America have any money in the stock market. The reasons are obvious. For example, we make less money than men because of the neverending pay gap and so we have less money to invest. We’re also responsible for the vast majority of unpaid labor – the children and the laundry and all of that – and so we don’t earn anything for many of the hours we work. We also carry more student debt. It really does pile on. 

Young one, I would say if I could, invest your money. You don’t need to be an expert. You don’t really need to know anything. There’s this thing called the internet and you can LOOK STUFF UP there! It’s wild. If you want to be safe (and you did at 22, 30 and 36, as discussed above), just do something simple like a money market fund or a corporate bond. But, do SOMETHING. You are going to (hopefully) live a very long life and you need to save up because it is unlikely you’ll have a steady pension to carry you through. (Because: America!) So take a few, easy steps to put your money into some sort of vehicle to make more money. And, newsflash, you don’t have to be a millionaire to do this. You need like $50. There are also amazing women teaching us all how to do this. My personal favorites are Carrie Schwab, Farnoosh Torabi, Tori Dunlop, and Bobbi Rebell. 

You can do this. And you should. 

Ask your employers all of the questions about compensation – and who gets the most.  I was raised in Ohio, where we were taught not to talk about money and politics. I never got the memo on the political stuff and fought with my grandfather at the Thanksgiving table about reproductive freedom. But, I did listen on the money part. For me, that meant that in my 20s I never even debated or really discussed my salary with my employers. I took what I was offered and did my work. (Well. I always did it very well and worked very hard.) I know many women who took the same approach – and who still do. 

But here’s the thing: Women are consistently paid less than their male counterparts for similar jobs requiring similar experience, and this devastating wage gap impacts women of color far more. You might have the best manager in the world, but decades of systemic inequality have led to a state where women are paid less even by corporations that don’t intend for this to be the outcome. Given this, I would tell my younger self the following: 

  • Always negotiate a salary because the opening offer is just that, an offer. No one starts a negotiation at their highest limit. 
  • Ask if the company has pay bands and where your salary will fall within the band. Ask directly if anyone at the same level is paid outside of the pay band. 
  • Remember that compensation can – and should – include far more than salary. Negotiate for a signing bonus, equity, and an annual bonus. With equity, ask for immediate vesting. With a bonus, make sure to understand if the bonus is dependent on corporate or individual performance and ask what percentage of eligible employees received the full bonus in the prior calendar year. 

Before I go, one last thing. The reason I wish I could truly answer my mother’s question and go back to impart some wisdom on my younger self is this: I’ve been a longtime fan of AARP because they help older Americans make smart choices about things that matter – healthcare, finances, insurance and more. And the choices we make about money and life in our 20s will impact us in our 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s. So maybe we need an American Association of Young Persons (AAYP) to join on the other end of careers. I definitely could have used it.