Friday, December 16, 2011

Off The Beaten Track: Is 50 The New 30?

This week’s guest, Jayanti Shukla, is a busy career woman living her dream in Mumbai, India. After 24 years in the insurance sector, gaining her fair share of success, she decided to take that leap of faith to follow her true calling. Jayanti is now in charge of a major non-profit organisation in Mumbai.

I completed 24 years of service in the insurance industry in 2008, and I had enjoyed these 24 years. I got my promotions in time, was paid well, lived in a company-given flat in a posh suburb of Mumbai, and enjoyed all the trappings that came along with my comfortable job. I enjoyed the positions I held and the respect I received in the corporate world. But I knew by then that this was not what I wanted to do for the rest of my life, even if I was one of the youngest managers in the company and not done moving up the corporate ladder. I was 48 years old and the vice president of a major insurance brokering company.

For many years, I spent my spare time working with voluntary groups involved in social and civic causes. These interactions kept me grounded and closer to reality. When I turned 40, I told myself I would quit my corporate sector job at 50 then do only what I really wanted to do. But I was lucky. When I turned 48, I was offered a job to head a non-profit organization. The head hunters believed that my experience with voluntary groups combined with my corporate sector experience made me a suitable candidate for the post. Without thinking twice, I agreed – it seemed to fit into my long-term plans and, even though it was two years early, it felt right.

At a centre that United Way of Mumbai supports,
offering classes to slum children
I knew nothing about this organization, though United Way as a non-profit movement is huge in North America and some other countries. Still, I’d never heard of them before interviewing with them. It was only after I began understanding the work that the Mumbai chapter of United Way performed in the non-profit sector in India, did I realize just how lucky I was to get into this particular organization both in terms of the work the United Way did all over the world and how this opportunity supported my own career plan! My salary took a huge hit as did all my old perks. From a posh office in the business district, I moved into a small office tucked away in an old industrial neighborhood. I have never regretted the decision.

The two years to my turning 50 were life changing. I had a bonus two years' lead time to plan and work towards doing just what I had planned to do when turning 50. Now no two days were the same. At my new workplace, I found myself working with a bunch of well-trained social workers and, believe me, if you want to look and feel young, spend your time with young social workers. Friends I met after a long while mentioned how I did not look a year over 30, and I would mentally thank my new assignment and my colleagues for this. My office staff was in the social sector by choice, and their aspirations from life were so different from the more career-oriented young professionals I worked with in the corporate sector. Community impact, resource mobilization, campaigns supporting the girl child, fund raising for the cancer afflicted, microfinance programs for women’s self-help groups, how to stem farmer migration to cities due to failed crops – my world changed overnight and took on new meaning. 

With my young team of social workers
I was free from worries about the next promotion increment, performance parameters, and business targets, and at home, I was content my daughter was now a responsible adult, independent, and doing well. Now 50, I felt totally liberated and decided I wanted to throw a big party to celebrate my birthday – for me, a personal celebration of the more confident, focused, and happier me. After I lost my mother to cancer in 2005, I had run in the Mumbai Marathon – in the easy 6-km run – to raise funds for victims like her. It was cathartic. My interaction with other non-profits brought me closer to the challenges organizations face for funds, and I began participating in the marathon again, now with renewed vigor, and raised so much more. Participating in the Bangalore and Delhi Marathons were just logical next steps.

At the start of the
Bangalore Marathon 2011
My association with the voluntary groups I’d worked for before I joined United Way continued. For over a decade, I have been involved with a community trust that organizes a hugely popular community festival, the “Celebrate Bandra Festival,” where an entire community comes together to celebrate the uniqueness of its suburb, its multicultural population, its status as an education hub and the restaurant capital of Mumbai, and so much more. This festival is the only one of its kind in Mumbai that showcases the best a community can offer. In a unique model, the proceeds from the festival contribute towards funding projects that ensure a better quality of life for residents – solving water shortages through rainwater-harvesting plants, powering solar water heaters, and donating school buses for orphanages. After moving into the social sector professionally, my life seems to have come full circle.

With college-student volunteers

Is destiny my companion, or is all this just a coincidence? I was running the marathons even before moving to the non-profit organization, but I did not know when I joined my new job that United Way of Mumbai had, just a few weeks before, been signed on as the official charity partner of the Mumbai Marathon. Now I was heading an organization that was mandated to create and implement a strategy to get as many non-profits, working on just about any cause – education, disability, tribal welfare, sports promotion, mental health awareness – to register with the marathon’s charity partner and use the marathon as a platform to raise funds. There I was until just a few years before raising funds for cancer-afflicted patients, and here I am now, spearheading efforts to facilitate fundraising for a humongous number of causes. In fact, I was now responsible for heading the largest philanthropic exchange in the country. I knew for sure I had an angel above looking after me!

With my family at an awareness walk on the occasion of
World Disability Day earlier this month

Life could not be better. My energy levels have increased, my family life has improved, and my circle of friends greatly diversified. I look better and am at peace with myself. I am in my 50s, and I thank god for it. I was fortunate enough to have been able to change tracks at a stage in life when one doesn’t really want to risk rocking a “steady boat.” Well, nothing ventured, nothing gained! 

So I look forward to 2012 with anticipation and continue to set goals for myself as I do before every New Year. This time, it is learning how to swim and joining a piano class. Is there anything special about what I am doing? Hardly so. It is just a question of following your calling – the calling of your heart and mind!

What about you? What are you going to make happen in the coming year? 


  1. Thanks for sharing your story with us Jayanti! You are brave to make such a radical switch in your life, especially at the stage that you did. And it has turned out to be the right decision for you in so many different ways. Good for you! I think it's important to set goals. Otherwise, we just get buffeted around by random pressures. Life is short.

  2. What a wonderful story! I was past fifty when I folded up my life in America and moved to Italy. I don't run marathons, but I am active, and people tell me I look younger than my years. I think that comes from doing what you really want to do. Congratulations on finding your place. Lots of continued success!

  3. Jayanti, sorry for the delay in responding, but I'd like to add my two cents. Your story is remarkable in so many ways, but one big way is how difficult it is in a country like India to make a big career change, especially so deep into your career. It's tough changing careers in the States but it's much tougher in India. So kudos to you for that remarkable transition.

    But your story is also proof that if we can visualize something, decide that a particular goal is within our reach, we can make it happen. That's true of all of us. It's when we say "I wish" or "if only" that we might feel it's out of our control. Like giving up without really trying. Visualizing what is possible can sometimes make all the difference. That's true for us aspiring authors as well.

    Congrats on finding yourself -- you're an inspiration to us all.

  4. Jayanti....It takes rare courage to make your life-changing decision of giving up a secure job,a promising career and financial stability to follow your heart and dreams in a venture that offers measly earnings but incalculable wealth in terms personal joy & job satisfaction. Your decision to go the United Way is truly stupendous. BRAVO !!

  5. Need I tell you how big an inspiration you have been to me? With a lot of inspiration from you and Janhavi's timely suggestion today I too have made a small shift in my career and it has added a lot of meaning to my life. Thank you!!!

  6. Thank you Heidi, Patricia, Reza, Beena, Supriya.

    I am overwhelmed by your words of praise. I have enjoyed sharing my experiences with you and enjoyed even more the responses I have got. As the years go by I realize all the more how important it is to do what you really want to do, and I have been lucky in having been able to do so. I am also happy reading about what you believe in and it feels great to know others share your view towards life. I do hope 2012 allows all of us enough opportunities to follow the calling of our hearts. So here's wishing you all the very best for a wonderful, peaceful and happy year ahead.
    Warm regards and best wishes