October 19, 2021

Meet The Women Over 50 Shaping The Future Of Science, Technology And Art

In 2011, billionaire venture capitalist Vinod Khosla, then 56, told an audience in Bangalore that...

In 2011, billionaire venture capitalist Vinod Khosla, then 56, told an audience in Bangalore that “people under 35 are the people who make change happen. People over 45 basically die in terms of new ideas.”

Khosla defied his own stereotype when, six years later, he became a seed investor in Metawave, a radar company founded by then-54-year-old Maha Achour. The longtime entrepreneur and MIT-trained physicist is using advanced aerial imaging and technology to help self-driving cars operate smoothly through every weather condition.

“Experience is everything,” she says of how her age has helped her start and grow her company. “I had to build the brain behind the radar, because all the previous radars were not as effective and didn’t have enough power.”

That’s the kind of bold thinking that put Achour on our 50 Over 50: Vision list. Produced in partnership with Mika Brzezinski’s Know Your Value initiative, this list highlights women over the age of 50 who are bringing breakthrough technologies and creative thinking to science, art, technology and healthcare. It’s the second of three subject-focused lists that expand on our inaugural 50 Over 50 list launched in June, a project meant to draw attention to women achieving their greatest accomplishments at ages when some parts of society are all too quick to write them off. Last month, we launched the 50 Over 50: Impact to spotlight women over 50 who are changing their communities through social entrepreneurship, advocacy, and education.

To establish the final list of 50 visionaries, we were guided by the scores and insight provided to us from our three judges: Grameen CEO Andrea Jung; fashion icon Diane von Furstenberg; and Janice Bryant Howroyd, founder of Act One and one of America’s richest self-made women. Forbes editors helped refine the list, weighing a multiplicity of factors, from a nominee’s unique scientific or artistic vision to the impact they’re having in fields like health, robotics, music, dance, and much more.

The resulting list includes three MacArthur Foundation fellowship recipients—roboticist Daniela Rus, architect Jeanne Gang and palliative care expert Dr. Diane Meier each have a coveted “genius” grant to their name (a prize whose female awardees, incidentally, have a mean age over 45).

It also includes women who are singularly focused on one discipline grounded in either art or science. For Lillian Colón, 66, that discipline is dance. In 1987, she became the first Latina Radio City Rockette, but she didn’t stop dancing once she retired from the New York City dance company in 2002. Instead, Colón kept taking classes, and in 2019, walked into an audition for the film adaptation of Lin Manuel Miranda’s “In the Heights” musical. Colón was not just the only dancer over 50 who performed in the movie, but she was the only dancer over 50 who even auditioned. 

“It was intimidating,” she recalls. “I looked around to see if there was somebody my age, and there was nobody. And then I thought, ‘maybe I’m in a wrong room,’ but I wasn’t in the wrong room. I said to myself, ‘this is it, let’s go for it.’ And I went for it.”

Now, Colón is working on a book and a one-woman show about her life—a tale that starts in a Bronx orphanage—all while continuing to take dance classes to improve on her craft.

“Don’t stop dancing,” she says. “You get old because you stop dancing, not because you keep dancing.”

Other visionary leaders on the list bring a blend of art and science to their work. Take 71-year-old fashion designer Eileen Fisher: Inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright’s “form follows function” design principle while studying interior design in college, she decided to put her own twist on the phrase—a twist that would lay the foundation for her eponymous brand.

“I was always very interested in the feeling of things… How does the fabric feel? So I added form, function and feeling to my design criteria,” she says.

Fisher founded her company in 1984 with $350 in the bank and a vague back-up plan to waitress if things went awry. But her simple, streamlined clothes began to sell—and never stopped. Today, Eileen Fisher (the company) does $350 million in annual revenue, and she’s implemented her most forward-thinking ideas for the brand all within the last twelve years.

In 2009, she launched “Green Eileen” (now called Renew), a buyback program for Eileen Fisher customers looking to streamline their closets. Six years later, she promised that her company’s sourcing would come from 100{8a27014bcb7e26651630aaac013b08cb740444db397c7ebd7041955bf8eed5b9} sustainable materials by 2020 (a goal she has largely delivered on). And last year, she gave herself an even more ambitious goal: not simply limiting her company’s impact on the environment, but leaving the world better than she found it. 

“How can we clean the water as we go?” she says. “When we’re buying wool, how can we make sure that the farms are regenerating the land?”

Carlotta Flores, a 74-year-old restaurateur in Tucson, Arizona, lives by a similar ethos. She has turned her family’s century-old El Charro Café into a restaurant empire complete with a catering business, eight airport cafes and seven free-standing restaurants. Like Fisher, she wants to give back to her community—which means, in part, retaining the 400 Arizonans she employs while also rebuilding that headcount closer to 500 (where it stood before the Covid-19 shutdowns).

And like so many of the women on the 50 Over 50: Vision list, Flores is on the hunt for her next entrepreneurial exploit.

“I want to see where we can do more,” she says. “I see empty buildings and I have ideas for what I want to put in them.”


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