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5 Women Who Reached Success Later in Life


It’s a fact that the internet is inundated with articles, blog posts and advice columns about the struggles of adulthood that plague new grads. The pressure is on almost immediately to live up to those honor cords you wore proudly as you strutted across the stage at your commencement ceremony. But more and more college-educated millennials are finding their doe-eyed expectations of life in the real world crushed by prolonged unemployment, or the promise of one too many unpaid internships with companies who aren’t willing to hire them full-time.

It’s easy to feel discouraged, to wonder if you’ll ever be successful or if the only people who really believe you’re destined for greatness are your parents. 

We’re here to tell you that you’re not alone. But instead of boring you with age-old clichés about the long and winding road to success, we thought we would share very real stories from five women about how they achieved success later in life and what they learned along the way.

“I always reminded myself of my long-term goals…” – Kelley Kitley, psychotherapist and author of My Self, An Autobiography of Survival

Kelley Kitley knew what she wanted to do professionally at a very young age, but her journey to success was far from short or easy. Kitley admits, “I knew at age 16 I wanted to be a psychotherapist, [but] I also knew I had a long road ahead of me in school and training. I did my best to embrace every opportunity, as a way to get closer to my goals of owning a private practice.” She earned her undergraduate degree in social work, which, she says, allowed her to work in the non-profit industry—a noble and useful start that presented new challenges.

“[Working with] non-profits didn’t provide a livable salary for me,” so Kitley did what most college students do to earn extra money. She explains proudly, “I worked in the restaurant and bar industry on the weekends to supplement my income and always reminded myself of my long-term goals, which made the ride well worth it.”

With hard work and a positive outlook on life, Kitley persevered and, in the end, walked away with a few extremely valuable life lessons. “Each experience was a stepping stone, although not always recognizably so in the moment. Over the course of 20 years, I’ve worked for a dozen agencies—some I liked better than others. [But] today, I own my own practice—creating hours that are a good balance with four children. I’m a published author and speak nationally on women’s mental health issues.”

If ambition is your driving force, it’s easy to be overwhelmed when positive results aren’t always immediate. But, like Kitley realized with time, “[success] truly is a process.""That lesson has taught me patience and to enjoy where I’m at in the moment. Even in the least attractive work situations, I tried to focus on the gratitude and benefit. When that stopped working, I took a risk to find a better fit. So can you!” she says. Kitley reminds us to never give up on our dreams; if it’s important enough to land on your vision board, it’s worth pursuing relentlessly!

“Success is a moving target…” Anna Colibri, digital marketing entrepreneur

Unlike Kitley, Colibri didn’t always know where she saw herself professionally. Instead, she found her motivation in the midst of a difficult time in her life. “In my late 30s, I went through a divorce. I’d say traumatizing, but aren’t they all? In order to support two young boys in San Francisco, I had to create a career after 10 years of staying at home taking care of babies and teaching yoga part-time. To meet the challenge, I started my own marketing firm and haven’t looked back since.” Talk about girl power!

But Colibri admits that even a girl boss like herself doesn’t always start out that way. “When I was in my 20s, I was seeing a therapist who predicted I would be a late bloomer. I felt upset! We all want instant success, but the truth is none of us are going to get it. Why?” she asks. Because “success is a moving target that changes with your age, stage in life and other unique experiences.” Be patient with yourself as you go through each of these transitions and understand that, at each stage, you may very well define success differently than you did before.

For Colibri, the real reward is the sense of self-satisfaction and validation that comes with personal success. “It’s been difficult at times running my own company—can you say 15-hour day? [But] I have never been happier or prouder of myself. I think achieving success later in life is great.” If you’re worried that your time hasn’t come yet, Colibri says encouragingly, “Why peak early? Keep setting new goals for every area of your life and you’ll be amazed at what little ol’ you can achieve!” And that’s a lesson we can all use from time to time.

Related: Is It Ever Too Late for You to Change Career Paths?

“I started exploring…” –Jodi Adler, TV personality and author of How Dare You: Helpful hints for staying sane in an insane world

TV personality Jodi Adler went to college to become something very different from what she's doing now. “I wanted to be a financial analyst,” she says. “I kept plugging away for months and months, applying for all sorts of jobs in areas that I thought I’d get hired. Eventually, after about a year of hunting, I was hired in finance, what I thought was my chosen field.” But, as fate would have it, Adler decided that the position wasn’t a good fit for her, so she started pursuing other related options.

She began with a little exploration, identifying her strengths and ways that she could monetize them. “As a financial analyst, I would read The Wall Street Journal every day and I thought, ‘I can write, I’m going to be a financial reporter,’ [so] I set a goal of being on-air in a major city before I was 30—and I did it! I did do some financial reporting and I think that background helped me get hired at some radio stations. But guess what? The environment at the last major city newsroom I worked at completely changed my mind. So I started exploring…again…and I found acting, voice over and writing”—a far cry from where she first started out.

The benefit of being as professionally and creatively diverse as Adler was prepared to be is that it allowed her to be more self-sufficient. “It’s rare for someone in my field to have an understanding of numbers and finance. Plus, there are every day references that I just get because of my finance background.” And, as for her degree in finance, she says, “it was important in the ‘big picture’ of life. It’s something I accomplished.”

Sometimes, it’s okay to make what seems like a drastic career move as long as it’s for the right reasons. Adler explains, “I’ve changed careers because I wanted fulfillment in my life. I’d suggest that when starting a career, you never give up your dreams because they do become reality, and then life changes. You change. Jump in and try even if the job you get is not what you thought you wanted. It’s an adventure! What you think you want to do may one day surprise you.”

“I was on the six-year plan…”—Kimberley Wallace, renewable energy expert and entrepreneur

Kimberley Wallace’s secret to success has always been investing in her personal development—intellectually and professionally. But her journey, like the others, has not been without turbulence along the way. “I worked my way up, putting myself through college. I thought I wanted to be a doctor. I spent years accumulating my biology, chemistry and anatomy classes only to sit in Organic Chem II and not understand a thing my professor was talking about. Not having the confidence in myself to switch up professors, I completely changed my career direction to communication and psychology.”

Even in the face of uncertainty, Wallace’s commitment to success never wavered. She says, “I was on the six-year plan because I would work one semester and go to college the next. I took every entry-level role I could, learning the ins and outs of marketing and public relations.” She got her start in the energy efficiency industry when she moved to San Diego in her 20s, but it wasn’t easy.

Her six-year college plan may have been over, but her professional journey would go on to span almost two decades. “I self-taught and took every opportunity to work with senior engineers who had the patience to teach me what they knew. I’m not an engineer even to this day, but now in my 40s, there’s no one in the energy industry who can tell me I don’t know what I’m talking about because I paid my dues.”

Wallace’s challenges—and, more specifically, the barriers that she faced as a woman in a male-dominated field—encouraged her to do what she does now. “I provide a platform to help bridge the information gap within an industry that can be very intimidating. Kill-a-watt Kimmie (Wallace’s online personality) is a superhero designed to ignite interest in energy efficiency for people of all ages. “Given my career path, my legacy is to teach others, to give them the information it took me decades to understand and if I can help one person, that's my gage of success,” she explains. The best part about knowing that you’ve achieved success is knowing that you are finally in a position to help others do the same.

Success is not always instantaneous nor is it guaranteed. Circumstances change. And people change. It’s important to know when to be patient and when to seize a new opportunity. Sometimes, the time to jump is sooner than you think—maybe even just a few years after graduating from college, for example.

“I am filled with so much passion and excitement…”—Heather DeSantis, 27-year-old freelance publicist

Heather DeSantis worked as a publicist at an advertising agency for approximately three years, where she dealt with national food brands, nutritionists and even NFL players. “I was and am extremely results-driven and would secure 35 segments per week for all of my clients. [But] in my heart and soul, I knew I wanted to do more,” she says. “I have so much gratitude for everything I learned from my time at the agency, but I felt cornered," she says. DeSantis was faced with a tough decision, but in the end she vowed to pursue her dream of being an entrepreneur.

“I decided to become a freelance publicist for female entrepreneurs and health coaches. I wanted to work really hard, help a lot of people and build my business around what was most important to me,” DeSantis, a self-proclaimed fitness fanatic, explains. But, like most young entrepreneurs, she immediately encountered a roadblock. Because she no longer had a steady source of income, DeSantis decided it was more financially responsible to move back home with her mom—a life change that the young businesswoman says was a blessing in disguise. “My mom has always supported me but, after my dad died in my senior year of high school and I went to college, it was a huge struggle. Moving home has given me time to deepen my relationship with my mom,” she says.

DeSantis knows, from personal experience, that life doesn’t always go as planned. But she hasn’t let that get in the way of her professional dreams. “Every day, I wake up and get to work on my business. I am filled with so much passion and excitement. Nothing excites me more than hearing back from a producer that they want to have my client on air. I am eager to build a life first and to build a business around that.”

Related: 5 Things Millennials Want Their Employers to Know

If you’ve recently graduated from college and are feeling uninspired or under-accomplished, remember that your journey is just beginning. No one expects you to have it all figured it out by now, and you shouldn’t either. Take this time to explore your professional interests and learn more about the things you’re really good at. Everything else will fall into place eventually.

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