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My Year at Stanford's Institute for Midlifers

How this 'gap year' for adults has shaped her next chapters

By Susan Carter

(Susan J. Carter has been a 2015 Fellow in the first class of the Stanford Distinguished Careers Institute (DCI), a Stanford University program in partnership with the Stanford Center on Longevity. for established leaders who seek to transform themselves for roles with social impact. Here, as her program is ending, she reflects on the experience.)

I like to think of the Stanford Distinguished Careers Institute (DCI) program as a "gap year" for adults.

It's been a terrific bridge from my position as CEO of an investment firm (Commonfund Capital), which wrapped up on Dec. 31, 2014, to what I am imagining as a portfolio of meaningful activities.

What I've Learned

I arrived on campus thinking about the dearth of women on boards and in senior leadership roles in the investment business. Over the course of the year, I’ve made decisions about the types of boards I'm interested in and have taken courses that I believe will make me a more effective board member. I’ve further honed my interest in impact investment and identified and connected with leading firms in this growing segment of the investment business.

Susan Carter
Susan Carter

As the program is coming to an end, I am fortunate to be close to joining three boards — two are advisory in nature and one is a paying board, with a substantial time commitment. One of the advisory boards is with a startup focused specifically on developing educational programs to address the issue of building the pipeline of young women interested in the investment business. It's called Girls Who Invest.

Why the Fellows Chose This Program

The things that spring to mind first about DCI include how collaborative and intellectually energetic the cohort is. Each Fellow has enjoyed a successful career in a particular industry or profession and possesses proven expertise in his or her field. And yet depending on whom you talk to, the Fellow might be identifying entirely new directions in which to take that knowledge and skill or may be nurturing a long-corralled passion for the first time.


The courses themselves have been enlightening in many ways. A few I took delved into the theory behind some of the things I did in my CEO job (like negotiation and leadership). Others educated me about subjects I have long cared about but never explored deeply — such as personal wellness, the mind/body connection, nutrition and related social policy. And some were in areas I have enjoyed occasionally but have wanted to study more extensively, like ballet and art history. To deepen the enrichment of the DCI experience, there have been weekly presentations by Stanford faculty, including a number of Nobel laureates.

Sharing Life Journeys

In addition, all of the Fellows have shared our life journeys — what matters to us and why — with each other. This opportunity, together with a memoir-writing class, has helped me hone the vocabulary for describing my career years and for writing my "professional story." It has also made me think hard about what I want out of my next chapters.

I'm one of the Fellows doing the program with my spouse (my husband, Nick). We met as undergraduates at a small, East Coast liberal arts school 40 years ago, so it's been great fun to be back on a campus together — a large, world-class university at that — and to have this shared experience of "starting over" again. In fact, even living in a tiny rental house, while not exactly student housing, has shown us how much simpler life is with less "stuff" and how little we really need to be happy.

It is also just great fun being back in school. Professors at the top of their game are welcoming. Interacting with students again brings its own regenerative energy, and creates the delightful, if only momentary, illusion that you're actually getting younger.

In fact, most of the time in class I've been so lost in the subject material that I’ve completely forgotten about my stage in life and have felt like I'm 20 all over again!

Susan Carter was a 2015 Fellow at the Stanford Distinguished Careers Institute and is a Senior Advisor at Commonfund Capital, where she was formerly president and CEO and worked for 25 years. She is also a board member of the Pacific Pension Institute and a member of the Executive Advisory Board of the Center for Private Equity and Entrepreneurship at Dartmouth's Tuck School of Business. Read More
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