Sylvia Beckerman of Life Apres: “People don’t commit to anything in advance”

Whenever anyone would ask what industry I wanted to work in, the first thing I would make clear was the fact that insurance would definitely not be a choice. That changed by accident in 1988 when I started a career in the insurance industry. I accepted a job that was close to where I was […]

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Whenever anyone would ask what industry I wanted to work in, the first thing I would make clear was the fact that insurance would definitely not be a choice. That changed by accident in 1988 when I started a career in the insurance industry. I accepted a job that was close to where I was living and would allow me the freedom to take care of my children. That job turned into a 20+ year career.

Many successful people reinvented themselves in a later period in their life. Jeff Bezos worked in Wall Street before he reinvented himself and started Amazon. Sara Blakely sold office supplies before she started Spanx. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson was a WWE wrestler before he became a successful actor and filmmaker. Arnold Schwarzenegger went from a bodybuilder, to an actor to a Governor. McDonald’s founder Ray Croc was a milkshake-device salesman before starting the McDonalds franchise in his 50’s.

How does one reinvent themselves? What hurdles have to be overcome to take life in a new direction? How do you overcome those challenges? How do you ignore the naysayers? How do you push through the paralyzing fear?

In this series called “Second Chapters; How I Reinvented Myself In The Second Chapter Of My Life “ we are interviewing successful people who reinvented themselves in a second chapter in life, to share their story and help empower others.

As a part of this interview series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sylvia Beckerman.

Sylvia is the Founder and CEO of Life Apres® and host of the podcast series ‘Sylvia & Me’. If I had one word to describe Sylvia it would have to be resilient. A single mother since 1988, Sylvia has experienced the void when it comes to women and community. She has taken that experience and is now using her platform to help empower women empower themselves through all life events, good and bad.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we start, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?

I’m the oldest of five having grown up in New York — first Queens then Long Island. Out of the five, I am the only one not born with red hair. That set the course of my determination not to meld into the crowd. At the ripe age of 12 we had moved from Queens to Long Island. Moving to Long Island was a shock to my system. Although the neighborhood was new, the girls at the school had already formed cliques. Being extremely shy, I found myself immersed in reading everything I could get my hands on. Mysteries and romance were my go-to.

The summer before my senior year of high school was spent on a youth group trip to Israel in 1968. Upon my return, I applied and was accepted to the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Although there were only a handful of freshmen among the nearly two hundred and fifty American students that I joined, it was a turning point for me and a great experience.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

‘It took me a long time to develop a voice, and now that I have it, I am not going to be silent.’ — Madeleine Albright

I didn’t develop my voice until my late 40’s. Twenty years later and I’m still using it. In April of 2004, I left a job after eighteen years. I was told that I would regret it. I’d spoken up about what I deserved and saw the inequities that were taking place. I was the COO, and ran the business, but the gender inequality that was rising made it impossible for me to enjoy the work any longer. Seventeen years later and I haven’t regretted one minute.

As women we’re not supposed to use our voice the way that men do. We need to orchestrate how we speak so as not to sound shrill or stubborn or too aggressive or can I say ‘bitchy’? It’s a balancing act that I’ve mastered over the years. I’ve learned to use my voice in a way to advocate for what I believe, decisions that I’ve made, things that I care about, with the goal of giving other women the knowledge that they too have a voice.

You have been blessed with much success. In your opinion, what are the top three qualities that you possess that have helped you accomplish so much? If you can, please share a story or example for each.

The first that comes to mind is perseverance. I’ve been a single mom since 1988 at a time when women were still not looked on as being reliable and steady. When I moved to New England from Denver with my two boys, I had to fight to get the lease for the home I wanted to rent. I was up against a family that consisted of mom, dad, boy, girl and a dog. The owners didn’t think that a single mother would be a responsible tenant. I stuck it out, didn’t back down and they ended up begging me to stay.

Second I would say is empathy. A few years ago when I was going through my second divorce, I met a woman who was going through a very rough patch. What she was experiencing was the exact opposite of what I was experiencing. For me divorcing was a freeing experience, for her it felt like life was ending. Empathy let me connect with her in a way that has led to a friendship that has lasted many years. And it is what led to the start of Après Divorce and the expansion to Life Après, bringing women together.

Third is my not being afraid to take risk. I’ve taken risk both in my personal and professional life. One story that comes to mind is on a personal level. (I already talked about the risk I took leaving a position after 18 years). My children were 18 months and 4 years old when I made the decision to file for divorce. We flew from Denver where we were living, to New York where we lived with my parents for a few months. I had the children, a few suitcases and 200 dollars. Within 3 weeks I had a job, bought a used car and set the boys up in day care. That May my parents moved to Florida and I moved with the boys to New England. It was a risk that I needed to take. It took a number of years to make a life in New England as a single mom, but I’ve never regretted taking the risk.

Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion about ‘Second Chapters’. Can you tell our readers about your career experience before your Second Chapter?

Whenever anyone would ask what industry I wanted to work in, the first thing I would make clear was the fact that insurance would definitely not be a choice. That changed by accident in 1988 when I started a career in the insurance industry. I accepted a job that was close to where I was living and would allow me the freedom to take care of my children. That job turned into a 20+ year career.

The exciting part was the fact that it was a start-up business, built from the ground-up with myself and the owner. And neither of us knew a thing about insurance. What was so interesting was the building and the sharing of ideas. Not knowing anything about the industry was helpful because we didn’t have any pre-formed ideas. The insurance industry has never had the reputation of being on the forefront of technology or change. It was exciting to see how we could move it forward through technology.

Over the years I worked my way up to COO of a couple of start-ups and was introduced to all facets of technology and compliance. And to the ‘men’s club’ which is what it is made up of. There were times that I had to make myself heard and I was never afraid to give my opinion. When I once questioned why someone was being paid more than me, I was told that he had a family. The comeback was to remind my boss that so did I!

I had learned from my father who owned a dry cleaning store in Queens, that ‘the customer is always right.’ That translated to my understanding that customer service is what will bring a company to success. Everything else is how you get there. It’s something that I have never forgotten and has helped me over the years.

And how did you “reinvent yourself” in your Second Chapter?

I actually found me. That may sound silly and simple, but it took the decision to end my marriage in 2014 that gave me the realization that I was a pretty good person. I may have chosen the wrong person to marry, but we all make mistakes now and then. I gave myself a break and felt free for the first time. And I started smiling more. The biggest boost came when a man at the meat counter of a grocery store told his co-worker who was waiting on me, to give me the best, because I’m always smiling.

When my divorce became final in 2015, I registered at Bed Bath & Beyond and decided that this was going to be my time. Invitations were sent to a few friends and family with a link to the registry and a party was had. I celebrated the start of my new chapter. My son and now daughter-in-law had just registered for their wedding. They were starting a new chapter and so was I.

Can you tell us about the specific trigger that made you decide that you were going to “take the plunge” and make your huge transition?

After my second divorce in 2015, two things took place:

  1. My ex wouldn’t sign the release to give me back my email address that I had had for over 20 years.
  2. When I moved into my new apartment, I realized that I didn’t own any silverware or wine glasses. I had given everything to charity when I married.

The first made me angry and the second made me laugh.

It was the realization that I had not known about a simple thing like the ownership of an email address. Had I known, I would have been proactive. For some women, that one simple item could mean their identity and be a devastating loss. I started to wonder what other pieces of knowledge, minor or not, did I have that would be helpful.

That got me thinking back to my first divorce that took place in 1990. Although I had left in 1988, it had taken two years to find a state to get divorced in. My ex at the time was living in Denver. I was living in New England with my children. Not a very welcoming place for a single woman, let alone a single mother. What if I had had the support of other women? I started thinking about how different it might have been. Between work, school and the legal system I bet that there was a lot of information that we could have shared.

What did you do to discover that you had a new skill-set inside of you that you haven’t been maximizing? How did you find that and how did you ultimately overcome the barriers to help manifest those powers?

I didn’t even realize that I had a skillset that was deep inside. Empathy and concern and seeking knowledge had always been there, but shyness had kept me from doing what I needed to. The puzzlement and anger that I felt for something as silly as an email address lit a flame that started to appear. I started Après Divorce without really knowing the extent of the need. As more and more women were receptive to the idea, I saw myself power through without even realizing it. Après Divorce, which was targeted to women going through all stages of divorce turned into Life Après in 2019. It seemed that women who were married, who had never been married, who were re-entering the workforce and so much more, were attending the salon gatherings that I held once a month. It was a safe environment to talk about all things…legal, financial, self-image, relationships, women’s health, women’s rights and much more. Each event had two professionals or experts on the topic and it was all informal. No pressure. Ideas and thoughts were exchanged, information gained and friends made.

The idea behind it was always the same — to give women the tools to empower themselves and realize that with each life event, it can be an opportunity to make something better. And to believe in themselves.

The podcast series ‘Sylvia & Me’ grew out of the events. Many who couldn’t be there in person wanted to hear about it and many who attended wanted to hear more. I took the dive into an area that I’ve never thought of and at the fabulous age of 68, I put out the first episode. Every episode is a conversation with an inspiring woman. Each has something that as women, we can take away some knowledge, inspiration and maybe even some empowerment.

How are things going with this new initiative? We would love to hear some specific examples or stories.

It’s been 5 years since the launch and it’s been more than I could ever expect. The podcast series has taken off with conversation with women from all walks of life. Due to the pandemic, I’ve been able to meet even more — meet that is via Zoom.

There’s Olivia Wells, Director of Programs for Nadia’s Initiative. I spoke with her from Lithuania where she was quarantining with her husband. Nadia’s Initiative was started by Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Nadia Murad in 2018. Nadia was among the many Yazidi women who was kidnapped by ISIS who managed to escape. We talked about what drove Olivia to becoming a human rights advocate, how she met Nadia and the effect the pandemic is having on their programs.

Persis Laverack had just turned 93 and the number was not slowing her down. She just leased a new car and pops her trunk to take out her walker. The pandemic got her started on connecting with people via Facebook. If her former colleagues were no longer around, she found their relatives and connected.

I got to talk with Kara Goldin, Founder & CEO of Hint® Water and the author of ‘Undaunted, Overcoming Doubt and Doubters’ and Simone Gordon who they call the Black Fairy Godmother. Simone is a community organizer helping women in her neighborhood.

To date I’ve completed over 70 conversations with some amazing women who have made a difference in their lives and the lives around us.

Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

When asked this question, I always turn to my mother. Nothing could stop her when she was determined. By the age of 28 she had five children. Her mother had been a single mom and couldn’t afford college for my mother. But my mother was determined. In her early 40’s, when we were all in school fulltime, she entered as a freshman. Eight years later she received her doctorate from Columbia. When applying to the doctorate program, she had been told that she was too old. Boy did she prove them wrong.

I always keep this in the front of my mind. Not only did she not let age get in her way, but she also did not let being a woman get in her way.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started in this new direction?

The topic of one of the events was narcissism. I knew that I had had a very toxic on again/off again relationship with a narcissist, but I had no idea about the impact on so many. Women who I had never met before showed up. Some did even though they were frightened that their partner or spouse would find out. The support that they needed and the stories that they were able to relate to were overwhelming. It’s partly because of that night that the podcast started. Angie Atkinson who calls herself ‘Queen Beeing’ of Narcissism to this day, is the top listened to episode.

Did you ever struggle with believing in yourself? If so, how did you overcome that limiting belief about yourself? Can you share a story or example?

I grew up with that struggle. Meeting all of the women who I have met over the last few years has been a huge help. I realized that in order to be able to engage with others, I needed to have the confidence in myself first. The launch party in June, 2016 was nerve racking. The acknowledgement and the thankyou’s that I received after it was the proof that I needed for me.

In my own work I usually encourage my clients to ask for support before they embark on something new. How did you create your support system before you moved to your new chapter?

A support system is crucial. I started with my web team who I have used for a number of years. After coming up with the name, I asked them to create a logo. I then spoke to a woman who I always wanted to work with but hadn’t had a chance to — Judy Klym my public relations woman. I kicked the idea around with a few of my friends and listened to advice which was definitely needed. It was an organically grown support system that has helped me move to this chapter.

Starting a new chapter usually means getting out of your comfort zone, how did you do that? Can you share a story or example of that?

Comfort zone — now there’s two words that I never thought I’d be able to say I got out of. I really need to go back to that launch party. I was never comfortable speaking in front of people and here I was, the center of attention. It was a huge leap. I had sent out the invitations and there was no backing out, so at the great age of 65, I jumped in with both feet before I had a chance to back out.

Fantastic. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my organization” and why? Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Divorce is a word that has such a stigma to it. But it is also a subject that women want to talk about and share with other women. When I first started, some of the women were shy about asking questions or talking about themselves. But once among others who have either gone through it or know someone, they relaxed and started opening up.
  2. People don’t commit to anything in advance. I would be tearing my hair out trying to guess how many would be attending. Each of the evening events were held at different venues around Fairfield County. Invitations and notices were sent and posted 2 -3 weeks before. The same thing happened each time — most people would commit the day of. That’s another reason for the podcast. I don’t have to worry about food and seating.
  3. You can’t please everyone. Each event was very carefully planned out. A large portion of any proceeds went to a charity. One of the events was at a salon talking about image. The salon was very gracious with their time and offered some demonstrations. They were demos, not full service. One of the guests complained quite loudly and wanted more.
  4. There are some people who are just out to mess with your head. When I started, I hired a business development woman who was adamant that it was her way or the highway. In other words, if I didn’t do exactly what she had suggested, then I must not know what I am doing. The launch almost didn’t go off because of this.
  5. Imitation is good for the soul. When someone copies what you are doing, then you must be doing something right. It’s a good thing to have happen.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?

Women standing by each other not letting age get in the way. I’d love to start a movement that has nothing to do with ‘anti-aging’ but has to do with embracing the knowledge that is gained. And networking with that knowledge. We are living in a time when we cannot get complacent. The younger generation of women cannot grasp the idea that it wasn’t until the early ‘70’s that women were allowed to get credit on their own without a male signature.

We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them. 🙂

Jane Fonda. The work that she has done and continues to do with moving women forward, with climate change and taking the stigma out of a number — she is a woman who I admire and have for many years.

How can our readers further follow your work online? — They can find links to all social media from the website and to the podcast.

Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!

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