Barbara Beskind began her career as an inventor when she was 8 years old, making her own toys, like a hobby horse built with tires, which today we call repurposing. During the Depression, she was just making do with what she had at hand. She planned to pursue her dream of becoming an inventor as an adult, which in the early 1940’s required an engineering degree. But when her high school guidance counselor convinced her that engineering schools didn’t accept female students, she joined the army instead. She served 44 years as an occupational therapist, reaching the rank of major, and after retiring went into private practice. During those years, she created and registered six patents for devices that help children with balance issues. At age 89, she had had two very satisfying careers.
Preparing to retire for the second time, she discovered the design firm IDEO on a 60 Minutes story. IDEO is the firm that designed the first mouse for Apple, among other devices, and in the story, the founder mentioned the importance he placed on diversity on the design team. So Barbara wrote to them, and two years ago, one of the firm’s partners hired her to focus on projects related to aging, designing products for baby boomers, a growing trend in the field. Barbara lives in a community for older adults, and commutes to work at IDEO every Thursday. She’s collaborated on a pair of eyeglasses that can switch from one prescription to another, but originally the design called for tiny batteries. Barbara advised that older hands weren’t dexterous enough to change batteries that small, and the team looked for new ways to power the glasses. She’s also working on her own designs, like one that would help the residents in her community who are prone to falling. She considers herself a problem-solver, and says that going to work every week makes her feel decades younger.
Now 91, Barbara’s story is a triumph in more ways than one. There’s no way to know if she’s the oldest designer in Silicon Valley, but as a woman, she’s definitely in the minority. Underrepresented in the workforce overall in Silicon Valley, only 11% of the executives are women, and approximately 20% of the software developers. In the C-suite, only 53% of executive management teams have woman member, compared to 84% of companies across America. According to a recent study, 20% of engineering graduates are women, but only 11% of practicing engineers are women. Work environment is cited as a main contributing factor for leaving, so it’s inspiring to see women like Barbara bucking the trend. She inspires her new colleagues as well, with her energy and attitude. That’s a tremendous legacy for a third career.