14 Female Leaders Who Found Success Later in Life
Is there a set age you should expect success to happen in life? At what time do we stop trying and realise the dream is over? Never. Just like there isn’t a one-size-fits-all doctrine for the right age to start a business, there is no set timeline for when success will strike. For most of us, our 20s are a blur of job-hopping and career mistakes, and while it certainly doesn’t feel like it at the time, these are crucial career building blocks.
Just because your career doesn’t happen by the time you’re 35 doesn’t mean it’s over; quite the contrary. There are many wildly successful women who found their calling later in life and are living proof that success has nothing to do with age; it’s all about hard work, timing, and a little bit of magic. So don’t stress if you didn’t make the Forbes 30 Under 30 list this year, because your time is coming, and it will be worth the wait. To prove it, we highlighted 14 incredibly talented ladies who hit their career strides later in life and demonstrate how hard work, passion, and grit go a long way in making your dreams come true.
You might think that “coming from nowhere with no connections” might stack against you, but you could say it worked Jessica Chastain’s favor. While she wasn’t sure how to get there or what the path would look like along the way, she always knew where it would lead. Why? From a young age, Chastain recognized she wanted to be an actress. “I always knew. As soon as I knew it was a profession, I knew that it was mine,” she told Off Camera with Sam Jones. “Like I didn’t ever have to decide what I wanted to be when I grew up. … For me, I just knew I wanted to be an actor.” At age 31, the theater actress had still never been in a film, and after countless rejections, she was finally cast in the widely successful Tree of Life and The Help, both of which earned her Oscar nominations. It didn’t happen for the now 37-year-old actress overnight, but she wouldn’t have it any other way. “I would have been a disaster,” she told Glamour. “If I was 19 and I had the attention that I’m getting now, I would have just said stupid things. I would have partied more. All these expensive dinners and people giving me champagne? All these stupid things that we criticise 19-year-olds for doing when they’re famous, I would have done.”
Then, just as her career was starting to take off, Chastain famously turned down Iron Man 3 (and the big paycheck) for her Broadway debut as the lead in The Heiress. “What’s really rare here is to have an actress at the peak of her career say, ‘Stop, I’m going to do Broadway.’ The rigors of that—,” veteran Hollywood producer Paula Wagner told Vanity Fair. Now Chastain has no shortage of Hollywood scripts being sent her way, not to mention the luxury beauty campaign offers. She is currently the face of new Yves Saint Laurent fragrance Manifesto, and we imagine there will be more endorsements in the future.
Our Takeaway: Everything happens for a reason. Don’t force something to be when it’s not ready. If you will it and work hard for it, it will happen—when the time is right.
Some of you might remember Kerry Washington in The Last King of Scotland or Save the Last Dance, but for most of us, the Hollywood ingénue wasn’t even on our radar until she exploded onto our screens as the powerful Olivia Pope in Scandal. Kerry landed the lead role in the hit TV show at 35, and, now 39, she admits she’s still blooming and not about to rest on her laurels either. Her patience, grit, and determination have been key to her success. “I don’t think I’m even close to fulfilling my potential,” she told AskMen.com. “And I think also that, unlike a pianist or a flutist, an actor has an instrument that is constantly changing.”
Our Takeaway: Every day is an opportunity to learn something new. Even when fame and success arrive, know that there is always more to master.
Before she was one of the world’s most coveted bridal and fashion designers, Vera Wang was a competitive figure skater (she was even inducted into the U.S. Figure Skating Hall of Fame) and a journalist. After graduating with an art history degree from Sarah Lawrence College, she worked at Vogue, where she became senior fashion editor at 23, and this is where she remained for the next 15 years, spending a short time as accessories design director at Ralph Lauren. Frustrated by the lack of bridal options during the planning of her own wedding, Wang, 40, entertained the idea of becoming a designer. Now she is globally renowned as a leading fashion and bridal designer.
Our Takeaway: Don’t be afraid to switch up your career. Gone are the days of staying in one job for the rest of your life. Be flexible and take new opportunities as they come.
David M. Benett/Getty
Despite playing almost every leading female Shakespeare role during her 30-year stint at the Royal Shakespeare Company, Judi Dench didn’t star in a leading theater role until she was 34. Her career in the UK continued to take off on screen and on stage, with 26 BAFTA nominations to prove it. But it wasn’'t until her 60s that she graced our screens in the United States as James Bond’s boss in the 1995 film GoldenEye. At 64, Judi later won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her performance as Queen Elizabeth I in Shakespeare in Love.
Our Takeaway: Take the time to really hone your craft so you’re ready for the opportunity when it comes.
After directing a few small and fairly successful action movies (hello, Point Break), Kathryn Bigelow didn’t really start gaining widespread recognition until she made The Hurt Locker. At 57, Bigelow became known as one of America’s most iconic female directors, thanks to the film’s major Academy Award lineup, including Best Picture and Best Director. As one of the few female directors, she’s since become a spokeswoman for gender discrimination in Hollywood. “I have always firmly believed that every director should be judged solely by their work, and not by their work based on their gender,” she told Time. “Hollywood is supposedly a community of forward-thinking and progressive people, yet this horrific situation for women directors persists. Gender discrimination stigmatises our entire industry. Change is essential. Gender neutral hiring is essential.”
Our Takeaway: Believe in yourself. Don’t take no for an answer.
Jan Welters/Trunk Archive
Viola Davis is one of the hardest-working, most talented actresses of our generation. After graduating from the prestigious Juilliard School in New York City, Davis made her Broadway debut with a starring role in Seven Guitars, received a Tony Award for her performance in the drama King Hedley II, and had some smaller roles in City of Angels and Law & Order. But it wasn’t until she landed a role opposite Meryl Streep in the film Doubt at age 43 that the world really started to take notice. Davis received an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress for the film, followed shortly by a Best Actress title for The Help. At 49, she is now a household name thanks to her lead role in ABC’s How to Get Away With Murder, which led her to become the first African-American actress to win an Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series.
Davis’s childhood explains a lot about her work ethic today. Growing up in poverty, she was always hungry, even digging through dumpsters to find something to eat. But this didn’t crush her; quite the opposite, in fact—it fueled her. “I tell my daughter every morning, ‘Now, what are the two most important parts of you?’ And she says, ‘My head and my heart.’ Because that’s what I’ve learned in the foxhole: What gets you through life is strength of character and strength of spirit and love,” she told Glamour. We can’t wait to see what Davis does next.
Our Takeaway: Never take anything for granted. Perseverance, passion, and love will make it happen if you really want it.
If you have your sights set on being Vogue’s next editor in chief, let Anna Wintour’s career trajectory be your guide. It wasn’t until her late 20s that she secured a fashion editor role at the erotic women’s magazine Viva. Despite being published under the same umbrella as Penthouse, the raunchy title was the perfect breeding ground for Wintour’s experimentation, including expensive, large-scale photo shoots. Wintour moved around through various magazines roles, including the fashion editor of Savvy and New York Magazine, before she was promoted to British Vogue’s editor in chief in 1985. It wasn’t until she was 39 that she assumed her current role at Vogue.
Our Takeaway: Everybody starts somewhere, and no matter how small or insignificant it feels at the time, every job counts on your way to the top. Even the most iconic, reputable, and lauded female leaders worked their way from the bottom up. It’s character-building and skill-defining.
After a stint as a White House intern at George Washington University, Huma Abedin went on to become associate editor of The Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs at 28. She then became the staff assistant to then First Lady Hillary Clinton’s chief of staff, Maggie Williams, before Clinton took her on as her traveling chief of staff. She was 31. In a 2007 interview, Vogue called the now 37-year-old “Hillary’s secret weapon,” who progressed from a young college graduate to a "Chanel-wearing, deeply confident 32-year-old woman whose BlackBerry contains some of the most famous names in America.” In the same article, Clinton said, “Huma Abedin has the energy of a woman in her 20s, the confidence of a woman in her 30s, the experience of a woman in her 40s, and the grace of a woman in her 50s. … I am lucky to have had her on my team for a decade now.”
Our Takeaway: Take that internship during your college years. You just never know what opportunities it will open up for you.
When Vivienne Westwood’s partner, Malcolm McLaren, started managing one of the biggest punk bands, The Sex Pistols, she did what anyone would do and started dressing the band. She was 30. Later, in the ’80s, her career picked up when she and McLaren started showing their collections, but it wasn’t until her 50th birthday that the world really took notice and credited her with creating the iconic mini-crini skirt of the 1980s. Now in her 70s, Westwood is "the fairy godmother of the British fashion industry," according to the Independent.
Our Takeaway: When you discover your passion, stick with it. Don’t give up on your dreams.
Christina Hendricks is proof that your 20s are the building blocks to a great career and, in her case, the time when you develop a thick skin. “I’ve been to a million auditions and have been rejected a million times,” she told Flare. “It’s something that I’m used to. You’re either right for it, or you’re not right for it. You could leave thinking you had the best audition in the world, and they say you don’t look like the person I imagined. It has nothing to do with your talent. Someone could have just broken up with a redhead the other day and not want to hire me.” Someone did eventually hire Hendricks, casting her in the “life-changing” role of Joan Harris in the award-winning television drama Mad Men. Now, at 39, her life has “pretty much changed in every single way,” she told People. “Except for my friends and my family.”
Our Takeaway: Don’t let other people’s opinions about your appearance or performance drag you down. Learn how to develop a thick skin. Shrug it off and keep your chin up, with your eyes firmly on the prize.
Jane Lynch certainly wasn’t a stranger to the screen before her big break, but her role as Sue Sylvester in Glee definitely cemented her place in Hollywood. She was 51 at the time it premiered. Lynch had several memorable roles leading up to this, including in Best in Show and The 40-Year-Old Virgin, but all of these were in her 40s, and she’s very happy about the timing too. “If you were to tell me five years ago that this would have happened for me, I would have told you you were lying. But it just feels so right and so wonderful,” she told USA Today. “I think if this had happened for me younger, I would be so unstable in my energy, fearful that it would all be taken away.”
Our Takeaway: Trust the process, and when you finally get to touch your dreams, hold on tight and don’t let go.
You might remember Connie Britton from her small recurring roles on The West Wing and Spin City, but it wasn’t until Friday Night Lights that she really lit up our TV screens. She was 39. Britton is all too familiar with the “heartbreak” from the part that got away, something she experienced when she just missed out on the female lead to Renée Zellweger in Jerry Maguire. But with her “everything happens for a reason” attitude, Britton signed on as the football coach’s wife in a new network series at the time, Friday Night Lights. Britton thought it would just be another “nondescript role that would take her nowhere,” but it quickly turned her into a “40-something sex symbol and role model” and redefined what it means to be an actress in her prime. We agree with The New York Times: “Jerry Maguire may have been the best thing that never happened to her.”
Our Takeaway: In reality, everything always goes your way, because even when it doesn’t, there’s a reason. Be open and embrace change.
It’s hard to believe that one of America’s most iconic TV chefs and authors didn’t even learn to cook until she was 36. In fact, Child originally had plans to be a novelist and reportedly wrote plays and short stories, which she submitted to The New Yorker but were never published. After moving to France in 1948, she adapted the country’s sophisticated cuisine for the American palate in her book Mastering the Art of French Cooking, which was a best seller for the next five years. At 40 years old, Child became a TV icon on The French Chef, which aired on WGBH and was then syndicated to 96 stations.
Our Takeaway: Stay curious. Your new passion might just become your new career.
Despite a notable career as a stylist in New York, it wasn’t until Patricia Field opened her Greenwich Village boutique that doors started opening for her in television and film. In 1995, at age 54, she met Sarah Jessica Parker during the filming of Miami Rhapsody, and Field’s career really took off. The creative duo worked together on outfits for Parker’s character in Sex and the City, which went on to become one of the most iconic television shows of the late ’90s. The stylist was nominated for five Emmys (one of which she won) and six Costume Designers Guild Awards and worked on numerous shows and films, including Ugly Betty and The Devil Wears Prada.
Our Takeaway: Never stop networking. Put yourself out there because you just never know who you will meet.
Did you come into your own later in life, do you know someone else who was a late bloomer? Share your experience with us below.