Daniela Florea.

How reinvention challenges midlife ageism

8 March 2024

The article at a glance

Daniela Florea (MPhil Management Studies 1994) talks about challenging the status quo and giving visibility to women in midlife.

A successful entrepreneur in her twenties and with an innovative, multidisciplinary career now spanning more than 3 decades, Daniela Florea has experienced gender discrimination at both ends of the ageism spectrum. As a young woman, in 1993, she co-founded Geo Strategies SA, the very first independent digital mapping organisation in post-communist CE Europe. Geo Strategies was based on successful technology transfer from Cambridge and generated the first, integrated geographic information infrastructure for 25 countries in CE Europe.

Originally from Transylvania, Daniela says, “at the time, it was very unusual to have a young woman – especially one from a different culture and with diversity of thought and a different type of determination – ­­ to disrupt the status quo in technology. I wasn’t seen as having either the experience or the expertise to start and run a successful company.”

Years later, in her fifties, Daniela again met with incredulity when she founded Image Ability, a company that provides a framework for mentoring and coaching professional women about thinking, learning, and acting on matters of personal image management. Daniela says, “there’s a sense of déjà vu: in midlife, people tend to not take my research at an intersection of domains seriously. History is repeating itself and, whilst I’m sometimes amused by it, I’m also concerned that, if this phenomenon is not addressed, not only will teams and organisations suffer, but whole economies as well. And there will be a deeper cultural impact beyond our immediate borders.”

The rising importance of older workers

According to a study by Bain & Company, in the Group of Seven advanced countries, workers aged 55 and older will exceed 25% of the workforce by 2031; this is nearly 10 percentage points higher than in 2011. Globally, approximately 150 million jobs will shift to workers 55 and older by the end of the decade. Daniela comments, “not everyone is staying longer in work for economic reasons, but because it’s what keeps them interested, connected and fit, and it’s precisely because they are in this age group that they have so much to contribute”.

Daniela continues that organisations don’t always include or give credit to older workers. Not knowing how to acknowledge and recognise the aged 50+ workforce, and failing to understand how they can add value, has serious ramifications at both an economic and cultural level. This age group presents a huge opportunity for organisations, as well as for executive education. “As educators and business leaders, we can focus on this opportunity to help organisations attract, retain and upscale the 50+ age group”.

According to Daniela, midlife ageism affects women in particular. “All women, but especially those aged 50+, have it tough. And they always will because that’s a universal truth. However, the most important thing is for women not to see themselves differently because, if you start down the ‘victim slope’, then you’re lost!”

It’s never too late to reinvent yourself

Daniela continues, “It’s important to instil a more entrepreneurial way of doing things in ‘stiffer’, or less flexible organisations to encourage women to reinvent themselves.”

Daniela’s own reinvention was triggered when, in her fifties, “some lights began to flash” and she decided it was time for a new challenge. Reflecting on her career thus far, she realised that well over 80% of her professional contacts were men. Furthermore, having worked on many major international projects with women involved at executive level, and having signed numerous high-level contracts, only twice in more than 30 years had her signature appeared alongside that of another woman. Intrigued as to why these highly competent female executives were hidden from view, Daniela has made it her mission to make them more visible. Realising that she could profile and equip women with meaningful data and tools in the same way as she was profiling customers and their portfolios, Daniela founded Image Ability.

Image Ability focuses on women who are mid-career: some are at a crossroads or beginning to explore their next step towards effecting change. Image is central to this, and Daniela corrects the general misconception that image is about appearance and how we dress. This only makes up for a part of our image. Although our clothes are the first things people see – thus contributing to that valuable first impression – she continues, “Image is 3 things: it is behaviour, communication, and appearance in an integrated manner”.

The importance of the integration of body and mind as a proportioned function

Daniela compares her work with Image Ability with the image of Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man: it’s a guide, a process, or a catalyst about proportion. She says, “My work (coaching, mentoring and consulting) is to define the proportioned life as a function of personal, social habits and self-expression. The main outcome we’re aiming for is strength, relevance, and beauty – from the inside out. This unique blend of personal and social power sums up our social capital.”

Daniela helps her clients to understand themselves; to identify their resources within, to find their unique ‘nugget of strength’. Some people live their lives and never find it, but those who do will be empowered. She continues, “I think every woman should spend that extra time on self-reflection and self-awareness. It’s not about makeup or appearance or anything like that, rather it’s about understanding yourself. Identify your own data and build your uniqueness; everything else can be learned!”

Daniela believes in the “need (for high-flyers) to engage in their personal growth before it becomes too late. High-performance people (especially women) do not always give themselves the time and the grace to review and re-design their image for their new goals. The ‘automatic pilot’ syndrome prevails in many cultures and industries, with consequences in the board room, in innovation, in academia and in the investment space.

“Change is what each of us defines it to be”

Change and success mean different things to different people. As individuals, we are responsible for making the changes we would like to see. Daniela continues, “we must start living change to expand other people’s horizons of the possibilities, and the change will then catch up. It will communicate the same to others, because we will project the change we want to achieve.”

Daniela’s advice to midlifers is:

Think out of the box; sing your heart out like an entrepreneur; keep your body and mind agile; most importantly, act like your true self with no fear of failure, but with an appetite for opening new doors for others coming after you. And don’t leave it too late!