Your first act is school, your second act is work, but have you thought about what you’re going to do in your third act? Join host Liz Tinkham, a former Accenture Senior Managing Director, as she talks to guests who are happily “pretired” – enjoying their time, treasure, and talent to pursue their purpose and passion in the third act of their life.
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In this episode, Liz talks with Frances West – The Wisdom Whisperer. Frances left Taiwan to go to college in the United States and was fortunate to land a job with IBM after graduation. She quickly moved up the ranks, working in both the US and China. Wanting a change, she applied for a job at IBM Research thinking she would be working in their Availability Center—before finding out that it was actually in their Accessibility Center. In her role, she helped IBM lead the transformation of products and services to be accessible to all types of people.
In her third act, Frances continues to advance her knowledge and interest in accessibility by advising and investing in startups focused on accessibility technologies. She’s also the author of a book, Authentic Inclusion, where she talks about how diversity is at the core of disruptive innovation.
1:49 Coming from Taiwan to the US
5:50 Getting the job at IBM
7:17 Experiencing discrimination for the first time
10:55 Availability vs. Accessibility?
13:40 Understanding accessibility
16:03 Reporting to the US Foreign Relations Committee
17:48 Her Third Act
21:02 Digital Inclusion at the heart of digital transformation
23:11 Mom, why do you continue to work so hard
25:31 The Wisdom Whisperer
26:50 Tying digital inclusion to digital trans
You can learn more about Frances West on LinkedIn, Frances West LinkedIn. Her Ted Talk is here. Her Twitter is @fwest34. Here website is Frances West Website and you can buy her book, Authentic Inclusion, here.
If you enjoyed the podcast, please subscribe and share a review. Engage with more stories of those finding fulfillment in the third act of their lives on Liz Tinkham’s Third Act podcast at thirdactpodcast.com.
Liz Tinkham (00:13):
Hi, this is Liz Tinkham and welcome to Third Act, a podcast about people embracing the third act of their lives with a new sense of purpose and direction. The third act begins when your script ends, but your show’s not finished.
Liz Tinkham (00:34):
Hi everyone and welcome to Third Act. Today I talk with Frances West, The Wisdom Whisperer. Frances left Taiwan to go to college in the United States and was fortunate to land a job with IBM after graduation. She quickly moved up the ranks working in both the United States and China, but after many years she wanted to change, so she applied for a job at IBM research thinking she’d be working in their availability center, but found out that it was actually their accessibility center. In her role, she helped IBM lead the transformation of products and services to be accessible to all types of people. Today, she continues to advance her knowledge and interest in accessibility by advising and investing in startups focused on accessibility technologies. She’s also the author of a book, “Authentic Inclusion”, where she talks about how diversity is at the core of disruptive innovation. Hi, Frances, welcome so much to Third Act and happy New Year. We’re recording this right after the holiday. How are you?
Frances West (01:38):
Good. Thank you so much for inviting me today.
Liz Tinkham (01:40):
Let’s go ahead and get going. I’m so excited to talk to you about everything that you’re doing. You were born and raised in Taiwan, so what brought you to the United States?
Frances West (01:49):
It’s a bit of a history, born and raised in Taiwan, until I was 14. My family actually moved to Hong Kong because my father’s job, and I was attending first year of university in Hong Kong, and I saw a poster for exchange students, sophomore exchange program to come to the U.S. and I applied and much to my surprise, I was chosen to be the exchange student to go to Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia. It was supposed to be a one year program, but after being here for three months, I met my husband and fell in love.
Liz Tinkham (02:29):
After three months you met him?
Frances West (02:31):
Yeah, I was on campus in December at a Christmas party and I couldn’t even really speak English very well, and this guy walked up to me and introduced himself. I guess you could say it was love at the first sight, I was 19.
Liz Tinkham (02:46):
Oh my gosh. That is such a cool story. I knew you had told me that you met him there, but I didn’t realize it was in the first three months, and you’re still married, right?
Frances West (02:55):
Yeah. First three months. I mean, looking back, I don’t know. I mean, I was quite daring and 19, very young and I was staying with a Jewish professor family. And really no guidance, there weren’t guidance or contact from my parents and here I was, just out there. But the rest was history, so to speak.
Liz Tinkham (03:15):
You said you had gotten a job waitressing in a Chinese restaurant, but then you end up working at IBM. What happened? How’d that happen?
Frances West (03:22):
Well, once I decided to stay in the United States against my parents, my school, everybody’s desire, actually, I was reprimanded very harshly for being disloyal, unfaithful to my culture, to my country, to everything, to my parents’ upbringing. I had to really think hard to support myself financially. So, I saw waitressing in Chinese restaurant and that was the only place I could find employment, frankly. Later on, I did waitress at Ramada Inn as a breakfast waitress. I supported myself through these waitressing jobs, but I always wanted to have a job with multinational companies. I was in Lexington, Kentucky and at that time IBM and Procter and Gamble were two companies I wanted to really work for, and everybody thought I was crazy, because here I was a foreign student with no really the right visa, but I was determined to try. And I was very lucky that it was a branch manager from IBM Lexington, Kentucky branch interview me and actually took my experience as waitressing to heart as a first and the best customer service experience and hired me into IBM sales office in Lexington, Kentucky.
Liz Tinkham (04:48):
I had the exact same experience. I was a waitress, that was it, and IBM and Procter and Gamble were the big jobs to get, coming out of Ohio state. Accenture was also a good one, and I can remember telling my whole waitressing story to the recruiter because, I’m yeah, it’s a really hard job. You got to make people happy. You don’t always get tipped, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, and people always ask me what were some of your best jobs? I go, everybody should be a waiter or a waitress. It’s the best way to learn about customer service.
Frances West (05:18):
Well, I actually forced my two sons to do these front line servicing job. My older son was at Pete’s Coffee as barista, and my younger son was doing catering at Boston College, throughout college. Both of them are doing well, I attribute to that their front line service oriented job experience.
Liz Tinkham (05:39):
I have done the exact same thing with my three kids. Okay, so you’re at IBM, you’re young, you’re Taiwanese, what was it like to be a young Taiwanese woman at IBM? What was this, back in the ’80s?
Frances West (05:50):
It was actually, I started in ’79, that’s really… For me it was just, everything was so new. I mean, I was the first, actually I was the second Asian person in that branch office and there was a guy ahead of me, but I think looking back again, as we were talking, IBM has really, as a company, has created a really good culture, to not really focus on your differences. They immediately assigned a mentor, I was following all these successful marketing reps, sales people around, going on customer calls. And so it was just a lot of learning, a lot of excitement, a lot of possibilities. It was probably one of the best experiences I’ve ever had. Never really thought about anything other than just, I need to learn, I need to be a fast learner, because there’s so much to be absorbed. By the way this is in Lexington, Kentucky.
Liz Tinkham (06:49):
It’s unbelievable. In 1979?
Frances West (06:52):
In 1979. And yet, there was just no question that the company had a trust in my ability and then I wanted to make a difference, so it was really that simple.
Liz Tinkham (07:08):
During your time at IBM, you were sent to Beijing to work on a Chinese financial exchange. You told me that it was the first time you ever felt discrimination, talk about that.
Frances West (07:17):
Yeah, it was in 1993. For those of you who have a few years, I guess, will remember that, that was the first time IBM actually went through some real near death experience. In 1992-93 timeframe, IBM almost went under. There was a lot of layoff in the United States and I was actually in, my mid-career was about to really take off. But then the IBM U.S. situation became very, very difficult. I made a decision to see if there are other places where there are growth, and China happen to be one of the growth market for IBM. Since I speak and write Chinese, it’s my first language, I thought it would be great to go there. I also thought it would be a very easy assignment because my background, my experience, I already had quite a few years in the management experience in the U.S. Little did I know when I got there that, when I’m in the United States, if there’s any a kind of a so-called discrimination is more of a race discrimination like I’m Asian.
Frances West (08:23):
I’ve really perfected to deal with any kind of subtle or not so subtle racial discrimination, but never focused on being female or woman in business. When I got to China, we had a lot of Asian customers, I mean, Chinese customers and the Chinese executives at work and the Asian culture that the women in business actually was not that much celebrated or not used to. So, for the first time I had to deal with the subtle or sometimes not so subtle gender discrimination. So, that’s when I, looking back we are realized, today in our society or globally, we talked about discrimination, whether it’s race based and whatever, but it can happen anywhere. In this case we’re all Chinese, but because I’m woman in business, I was sometimes really excluded, or some inappropriate remark would make, and then I really have to learn to navigate that landscape.
Liz Tinkham (09:28):
When I was working at Accenture, I never really felt much gender discrimination either, but I went to Japan to work for a while and oh my goodness, talk about a different culture, you could really see it there. So moving on, you eventually take a job at what you think, I think you remember telling me the IBM Availability Center, but it turns out to be the IBM Accessibility center. So tell us about that center and what your role was there?
Frances West (09:55):
Yeah. That’s interesting. We talked about in life, especially, I guess in this case women in career, there are times when you want to make decision that’s in line with your overall, priorities in this case, my family situation was that, I really wanted to have a job and career that at that point to be more U.S. based. And then there’s this opportunity in IBM research that came up, that I thought, wow, this is such a great IBM research, of course. Such a great cache, I wanted to join. And frankly, I did not like the job I was doing at the time. I was really hoping and wanting to get to switch job. So, I interviewed this job, not really kind of studied the description of the job, because at the time what I heard about this job was that the organization actually has some morale challenges.
Frances West (10:55):
So, the whole interview was about whether I have the capability or the experience of managing a low morale organization. We never talked about the job, and I thought I was joining Availability Center, because high availability is one of the system requirement for IBM. The word “accessibility” was a foreign word, it never even registered until I took the job and found out it’s about accessibility. In this case, the definition of accessibility is about digital access, making sure that everybody can access technology without any barrier. So it’s a really completely different job from what I thought I was taking, but it turned out to be a really changing job.
Liz Tinkham (11:40):
When you got there, how did you take before you figured out, oops, we’re not talking about five nines. We’re talking about digital accessibility and inclusion?
Frances West (11:48):
The first two, three weeks, when I got kind of the operation guy, you start giving all this information about the organization and I start reading, turning the pages. I still remember I was reading in bed, I was like, “Wait, this is not about availability, this is about access for people with disabilities.” At first, what do I know about people with disability? Because at that time I was still young, I could not identify any kind of disabilities, but I always jokingly said, as I do more in the accessibility area, the more is about serving myself now because as I get older, I start acquiring vision impairment, like bifocal is a must, and now my hearing beginning to go, so captioning is necessary when I watch TV or movies and mobility. I’m very interested in all these new technologies of autonomous vehicles. I can imagine one day I don’t want to drive, I couldn’t drive. So it’s fascinating.
Liz Tinkham (12:48):
And what year was this, that you took that job?
Frances West (12:51):
It was at the end of 2003, beginning with 2004. We’re talking about 17-18 years ago. Yeah.
Liz Tinkham (12:59):
IBM always was on the front edge of pushing boundaries for technology, because that was really early. I can remember when I was running our Microsoft Account for Accenture, one of the early meetings I had on that, but it was more 2016, 2017, and it was just incredible to be in a meeting talking with people who were both vision and hearing impaired and talking about what their experience was and using the technology. It was the first time in my over 30 years career that I’d ever been sort of put in their shoes. What do you remember as well about some of the most profound things you learned when you took over that team?
Frances West (13:40):
Well, one of the first thing was, when I had my first meeting, the team member, some of them are blind and some of them are deaf, and they’re deaf PhD scientists, researchers, and I was amazed. For example, the first time I watch a blind person navigate using computers and how they use keyboard, and then how they can listen at a twice or three or five times the speed of you and I can, when they use what they call the screen reader. The ability that they have in navigating technology was mind-boggling, and then I also had a deaf person on my team who used sign language to communicate. So we will have his signer or speak to us about what he’s signing and you will think that would be kind of awkward.
Frances West (14:34):
I remember, I was fascinated by this, going through a third party to communicate, but after one minute, you totally forget, that Seth is deaf, and then you totally identify Roger his interpreter’s voice, from that point on, if we are on a conference call or zoom meetings, you just communicate as if like any other person. That’s when I realized that, maybe in the initial shock, because you’re unfamiliar with people with disabilities, but they’re human. If you have a common goal in this case, a task at hand, then you just focus on what needs to be done and because their different ability, their perspective, and their creativity really, really shine through. That was the biggest takeaway for me, and then it actually circle back to when I first started my career, I really, like I mentioned, I appreciated how IBM actually didn’t focus on my differences, but just recognized that difference, it could be an asset. So that’s really the kind of foundational driver for me staying in this business for so long and still going.
Liz Tinkham (15:52):
If you look back at your time at IBM and the work that you did there, what are you most proud of?
Frances West (16:03):
I will have to say is the moment when I represented the IT industry to testify in front of the U.S. Foreign Relation Committee. The need for the United States to pass the UN convention for the rights of people with disability act. The topic of digital inclusion is bigger than individual, bigger than even a corporation, like IBM or Accenture or Microsoft. It is a societal topic. Because we’re talking about digital access for all, so it really takes, what I believe, a public policy and also private innovation to work together. So UN kind of organization create a great framework and U.S. could have been the leader, if we were part of that whole convention.
Frances West (16:57):
Unfortunately, United States did not pass the convention treaty, were six votes short, but still the spirit of the United States, are working for example, American Disability Act, and the subsequent interpretation from technology standpoint, still world leading. That’s probably the most significant and most proud moment of my life, and also by the way, my father worked for United Nations, so when I addressed the United Nations in some of these topics, I always thought about him because he was my hero.
Liz Tinkham (17:36):
Oh my gosh, what a wonderful story and how impactful. So after 37 years, which is amazing, you decide to retire from IBM. What do you think you’re going to do then, for your third act?
Frances West (17:48):
My third act. Yes, absolutely. I actually retired with the intention to start my own business. I knew I didn’t want to work for another company because after IBM I felt like there was just no other company I need to work for or want to work for. And also, I wanted to really try to be entrepreneur, so I decided to start my own kind of, I call it boutique, I guess you can call it, strategy consulting company, working with both enterprise customers and also startup. I knew actually in the very beginning, if I only have one minute to spend, I want to spend with startup, because to me that’s the next generation of IBM, Microsoft. I really believe that topic, like digital inclusion, just like climate change, or we need a new generation to really take action, because it is a long haul societal topic and project, and it’s going to take many, many years. The sooner, the better we can motivate the younger generation, the better it is. And to me, startup is one vehicle to get there.
Liz Tinkham (18:57):
And are the startups that you’re working with, are they focused on digital inclusion?
Frances West (19:02):
Yes, it’s very interesting. The startup, and many of them actually are technologists first, which is actually what I think is the right thing to do. But these are what I feel like they’re very special breed of technologies, that you want to use technology to better humanity. And actually in all the cases, they kind of accidentally go into accessibility, just like I was. So from that standpoint, actually give them the clarity to balance the purpose and profit, because in the accessibility world, historically, there’s a lot of compliance talk and also a lot of kind of philanthropy, charity mindset thinking, and not so much business.
Frances West (19:46):
So I actually welcome, these new entrepreneurs, a younger entrepreneur coming in from business and also technology angle, because as you and I know, profit actually is a good thing, because that sustains you. Because they’re special, they really want to understand and want to learn how to create a solution that’s sustainable and scalable for all humanity. So it’s fascinating and it’s a lot of fun to work with them.
Liz Tinkham (20:18):
I can’t even imagine what people are coming up with, I’ve interviewed a couple people who work for Alp, and they have a technology arm, and they’ve been talking about some of the innovation for inclusion, as you mentioned, as people get older. I was just talking to Bradley Schurman who wrote “The Super Age”, by 2030 there’ll be more people over 65 than under 18. So it’s absolutely needed as we progress. So you wrote a book called “Authentic Inclusion”, talk about that. What prompted you to write it?
Frances West (20:47):
So when I retired, that was 196.. I mean, 2016. But if you recall, around 2015, that was the famous Google walkout, the gender-
Liz Tinkham (21:00):
Oh yeah, of course. Sure.
Frances West (21:02):
And the CEO action was just put in place. There is a lot of talk about, or the beginning of this inclusion mindsets coming in. And then from that point on what I noticed is that a lot of companies, especially in the tech industry, because they’re well funded, I mean, they’re super well to do companies, and start throwing money at it. So overnight you see all these inclusion consultants, or conferences coming in, which is not a bad thing. However, to me, there is this, this foundational action that the company needs to really think about, in this case, it’s actually not just think of it as a HR practice of hiring or grooming talent, but also technology underpinning, which is accessibility and the digital inclusion. But people are not connecting the dots yet at that time. So I felt it’s very important for me to really go out and to create this connection for, especially the C-suites, for the board members, that if you think digital inclusion or digital transformation is important, as Accenture in the past five years, the top 20 trends, 10 trends is always digital transformation, is always on top of that.
Frances West (22:13):
But very few people made digital transformation connection with digital inclusion. To me, that has to be the way to think about inclusion, not just as a process or principle thinking, but as a technology action as well. So that was for the messaging part of the Authentic Inclusion book, but also from the personal standpoint, I knew that when I retired from IBM, I really don’t have the IBM platform anymore. So a book potentially could give me a forum, to really amplify my thinking. That’s why I decided to write a book.
Liz Tinkham (23:11):
I watched your Ted Talk about Authentic Inclusion, which is great, and we’ll put it in the show notes, and I was really struck by what you said, when you said your kids ask you, “Mom, why do you continue to work so hard?” So mom, why do you continue to work so hard?
Frances West (23:28):
I work so hard because since 2016, if you even look at where we are today, this world of ours, not just the United States, around the world, there seems to be so much division, in that inclusion is the concept of bringing everybody together, and so how do we create a common ground? And based on my personal experience and my professional experience, to actually help, maybe to share some of the hows or share some of the stories, to me it’s even more important than ever. So from that standpoint, I really actually working harder than ever. I do believe that we need to come back and understand that technology has to have a place and also an inner kind of a core that is putting human first, and that beyond all this description of labels, or pronouns and this and that, we are all humans.
Frances West (24:31):
And there is a way of combining humanity and technology as a kind of go forward strategy. So I’m trying to do my part in imparting that can do spirit, and also I now have three granddaughters, from that standpoint, I’m even more motivated to make sure that inclusion is real, is authentic, because I want to see my granddaughters when they grow up, that they don’t have to deal with, or to be facing some of the challenges that you and I actually have been facing. And that technology actually can potentially play a role, a big role in even the playing field, so to speak.
Liz Tinkham (25:12):
That’s fascinating. So you call yourself the Wisdom Whisperer, what does that mean?
Frances West (25:16):
Well, I think the word wisdom ties with my getting older, and I found myself sometimes actually getting less patient and also…
Liz Tinkham (25:29):
Yes, I know that feeling.
Frances West (25:31):
I know, I feel like I can just speak the truth, so to speak, speak my mind, and then some people actually keep saying, “Wow, that’s a great kind of… That’s a wisdom that we really want.” So, okay, if you want that, then I’m going to give it to you. But the whisperer part is that, what I’ve found is, the type of topic that we’re talking about actually involves some deep kind of thinking change, or one can call a cultural shift, over, looking at topics like inclusion. So it has to be somebody who really wants it, and not something you can just keep shouting at it. Or to say, “You need to do this or go to another diversity training.” People have to want to get it, so I’m just going to be here providing the wisdom, so to speak, or a knowledge, but if you want it, I will whisper to you and then become yours, but it’s for you to integrate, or to digest and then become yours. I’m not going to keep shouting at you and force you to do anything. That’s not going to be authentic.
Liz Tinkham (26:38):
Yeah. Well, that’s great. Sometimes I think I might need a little wisdom or maybe you can come and talk to my children as well. So I almost titled this podcast, I’m not done yet. What aren’t you done with yet?
Frances West (26:50):
I do think that this topic, the more I work it, the more it has the importance to tie to the, for example, the future of work and future of society. There’s a lot of talk about ESG nowadays, because I mentioned earlier, I’m beginning to do work with the board members, and I think there’s so much lesson learned about people with disability at a foundational level because they are the real human. I mean, if we see them as somebody that needs, that are not ‘perfect’ that is exactly what the humanity is about, because we’re imperfect, we have certain differences that makes this species special. So if you look at, for example, work from home, with COVID, work from home has been something that people with disability has been asking for years. Because if you, for example, you have a mobility challenge, working from home is a lot easier. But now everybody’s buying into that, and then yesterday on 60 Minutes they were talking about the future, work needs to be flexible. Again, people with disability always have flexibility.
Liz Tinkham (28:03):
Oh, working women and working dads. I mean my goodness, back to the future on that one.
Frances West (28:08):
Right. And then they talked about work life balancing, that has always been again, women or underserved immigrants, they always have family obligation on top of the work obligation. So all the things that we actually can learn from underserved population, especially people with disability, give us a blueprint for the future of work, a future society, a future value. From that standpoint, that’s why in my book I talked about, I really believe, I hope at least this is what I hope, that we will have a renaissance and that, profit is important, but in this case, I think the gen Z-ers is demanding that the profit has to be aligned with purpose and also principles. Going back, that’s the only sustainable model in my mind versus profit only kind of a thinking.
Liz Tinkham (29:00):
Well, Frances, this has been so fun to talk to you here in January of 2022, we will publish in our show notes, your LinkedIn, and how to get ahold of your book. Where else can we find you online?
Frances West (29:13):
You can follow me on Twitter, my handle is fwest34. Three, four; number three and number four. My website is Franciswest.co, co. Not .com Franciswest.co.
Liz Tinkham (29:32):
All right. We will publish all that and thank you so much for being on Third Act today. What a wonderful topic for everybody.
Frances West (29:38):
Oh, thank you so much for your invitation. This is a great way to kick off the new year. Thank you.
Liz Tinkham (29:46):
Thanks for joining me today to listen to the Third Act podcast, you can find show notes, guest bios, and more @thirdactpodcast.com. If you enjoyed our show today, please subscribe and write a review on your favorite podcast platform. I’m your host, Liz Tinkham, I’ll be back next week with another guest who’s found new meaning and fulfillment in the third act of their life.
Want to share the story of your own Third Act on our podcast? We welcome stories from executives who pivoted their careers to find their passion and purpose later in their lives. Tell us more about yourself to be considered as a guest.