Four women reinvent themselves
Eve Meyer faced a curious dilemma when she was the executive director of San Francisco Suicide Prevention. Every year, the organization held a fundraising dinner, for which people bought tickets — and then stayed away in droves. “Nice money, but an empty room,” says Meyer. “People were afraid we would talk to them about suicide.”
The solution? Make them laugh. Along with staff members, Meyer developed the idea of “Laughs for Life,” an annual fundraiser featuring comedians such as Brian Copeland and Irene Tu. Meyer, who ran Suicide Prevention from 1988 to 2018, even told jokes herself. She enjoyed the laughs she got so much that, upon retiring last year, she started a second career as a stand-up comic.
The Haight-Ashbury resident does about two gigs a month and has appeared at Milk Bar, El Rio and Bar Fluxus. Her topics? Aging, mental health and the ridiculous things that people suggest to deal with depression. It’s not much different, she says, from communicating to the public about suicide. “I still get this pleasure out of delivering a message,” she says. “But now, I’m making people laugh.”
Meyer has embraced a bold second act, an about-face from her first. She also embodies a quote attributed to Middlemarch author George Eliot: “It’s never too late to be what you might have been.”
Other Bay Area women have also pursued second acts — often dictated by the uneasy balance between work and family. That was true for Cecily Joseph, 55. After graduating from Tulane University Law School in 1989, Joseph dreamed of working on international issues such as alleviating world hunger or poverty. She ended up at a law firm and then was director of legal affairs at Veritas, a software company in Silicon Valley. Joseph loved the startup atmosphere. But in 2000, she decided to temporarily leave law to spend more time with her children.
Veritas’ CEO at the time instead talked her into starting the company’s philanthropic foundation, a job that required fewer hours. It was a pivot — one she didn’t make consciously — that led to a consuming second act.
When Veritas merged with Symantec a few years later, Joseph became the company’s head of corporate responsibility. She held the job while also running the Symantec Foundation and, for a while, acting as the company’s chief diversity officer. So, no, it didn’t give her more family time. But, Joseph explains, “it really resonated with me and was kind of what I always wanted to do.” She built a platform to address Symantec’s energy use, waste and packaging, as well as its impact on climate change and green-house gas reduction.
To tackle tech’s lack of diversity, Joseph’s team created an educational program giving high school graduates and military veterans the skills and internships needed for cyber-security jobs. Seventy-one percent of the program’s graduates were underrepresented minorities. Despite leaving Symantec this January (her commute between her Hayward home and Mountain View was awful), Joseph says that her CR job “made me feel more empowered as a human being and citizen of the world” and believing “you really can make a difference.”
Like Joseph, Kathy Rucker also transitioned from her “first act” to spend more time with family. She had worked as a live action producer at Colossal Pictures for roughly a decade before the company folded in 1999. At the time, she had just had a “miracle baby” at 48, and wanted to be with her daughter.
Rucker had loved theater since she was a little girl and decided to use some of her time writing plays. The Hillsborough resident took online classes, as well as a class at Berkeley Rep and started submitting work to festivals. Her first play, Beautiful Scar, was a finalist for the Heideman Award at the Humana Festival Ten-Minute Play Contest in 2003. Rucker joined Facebook playwriting groups, networked endlessly and continued submitting her plays. Her efforts led to successes, including her play about cyberbullying, Crystal Springs, which was produced in San Francisco and London in 2014.
Rucker, 63, relies on a vast imagination and borrows from real life to write about everything from online hate to a kidnapped Virgin Mary statue to a lonely- heart con job. “I’m attracted to stories that are slightly askew,” she admits,“stories that show humanity and faith, and believe in something other than the black and white. I like the gray areas.” And following her heart fuels her. “It’s like these ideas keep coming and I have this huge file of stories I want to pursue,” says Rucker. “It’s just so much fun to keep trying and to get better at it.”
Kelly Carlisle, on the other hand, found her passion — gardening — later in life. Now the executive director of Acta Non Verba, a youth urban farm project in East Oakland, Carlisle worked at several different jobs after college, including four years in the Navy, from 2001 to 2005, when she served as an operations specialist aboard the USS Essex, stationed out of Sasebo, Japan.
A few years after leaving the Navy, Carlisle was an unemployed single mom who fell in love with a lemon tree she planted in her backyard. It was an “aha moment,” when she made the connection between food and how it was grown.
After growing distressed in 2010 about the crime and nearly 40 percent dropout rate in Oakland — where she’d spent part of her childhood — she applied her passion to the problem, creating a one-quarter-acre organic garden at the Tassafaronga Recreation Center, connecting kids to their food and providing an outdoorspace to escape the violence. Carlisle worked tirelessly, sometimes without pay, to launch the nonprofit, which has now expanded to two other Oakland locations. About 3,000 kids a year, aged 5 to 15, plant, harvest and sell the produce. The profits go into individual college accounts for the young gardeners.
Though the work has brought rewards, including dinner at the Barack Obama White House, Carlisle credits her first act — the Navy — for giving her the humility to do whatever was necessary to get a nonprofit off the ground. “No job is too small,” says the 40-year-old Berkeley resident. “I’m the executive director of this fabulous organization and I still pickup garbage around the rec center where our camps are.”
Her advice for women who want their own second acts? “Go for it,” says Carlisle, “and try everything. Try writing. Try catering. Try office work. And then follow your passion. But know that your passion might not get you paid for a while.”