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Purpose Prize Winners: Over 60, But Far From Over

Six who prove that anyone can pivot to an encore career

By Richard Eisenberg

What the world needs now (aside from love, sweet love) is more people like the six winners of’s 2015 Purpose Prize awards, whose names were announced today.

These four women and two men, age 61 to 77, demonstrate that it’s possible to make a difference — a big difference — after 60., a nonprofit building a movement to tap the skills and experience of those in midlife and beyond, awards the Purpose Prize to people over 60 “combining their passion and experience for social good.” This is the 10 annual awarding of the prizes; for 2015, one winner is receiving $100,000 and the other five are getting $25,000 each.

In the course of the Purpose Prize history, Encore has received nearly 10,000 nominations and selected 508 winners and fellows (runners-up), giving out more than $5 million to these inspiring do-gooders.

What struck me about many of this year’s winners — chosen from roughly  600 nominations — is that they didn’t wholly reinvent themselves for their encore careers. Instead, the work they’re now doing so brilliantly is often a natural extension of what they’ve done before — just with more, well, purpose.

“When I began in this field more than a decade ago, we talked of an encore as a dramatic shift, going from a for-profit job to becoming a teacher or something like that,” said Eunice Lin Nichols, director of The Purpose Prize. “What we’ve seen is that the shift is often more incremental. It’s not a dramatic ‘aha’ moment. It’s more of a pivot.”

I just spoke with three of this year’s winners about why they do what they do and the advice they’d offer others about launching an encore career:

Laurie Ahern
Laurie Ahern

Laurie Ahern, President of Disability Rights International (DRI) and the $100,000 Purpose Prize winner  A former investigative reporter, Ahern, 61, runs a human rights nonprofit in Washington, D.C., that’s fighting to keep children with disabilities out of abusive institutions. Not incidentally, Ahern was a child abuse victim herself.

One of her most impressive efforts (among many): convincing the United Nations expert on torture that the way some children were being treated in orphanages was, in fact, torture. Ahern and DRI are featured in The Visionaries documentary airing on PBS stations throughout November.

“Winning The Purpose Prize is a great honor and something I would have never expected,” Ahern told me. “It means a validation of my encore career and also will bring attention to the very important work we’re doing.”

Ahern is an ideal example of not being afraid to plunge into something meaningful to you even if you don’t have a background in it.

“When I came to what is now called DRI, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I had no background in international human rights law. I’m not a lawyer. In fact, I never graduated from college,” she said. After a few years there, though, she found her footing.

“I can’t save every kid in an institution, but I hope I can help stop the next generation of kids from being locked away and forgotten,” she noted.

Ahern believes that for the type of work she does, being 60+ is a plus. “The wisdom you gain as you grow older can’t help but be a plus,” she said. “For me, I feel like there isn’t anything I wouldn’t try — and it’s exhilarating and exciting. I don’t see myself on a rocking chair anytime soon.”

Ahern’s advice on launching an encore career: “I would encourage people to stick their toe in the water and give it a try. We recently had a pediatric neurologist come to volunteer with us for two weeks in the Soviet Union. It became a life-changing event for him. Now he wants to leave his position and find a place to volunteer full-time.”

Jamal Joseph
Jamal Joseph

Jamal Joseph, founder and executive artistic director of IMPACT Repertory Theater and a $25,000 Purpose Prize winner  Talk about a life story. A foster child, Joseph, now 62, was a Black Panther in Harlem at age 15. The honor student was incarcerated twice as a young man, including a “life-changing” stint in Leavenworth. His work as a prison playwright and director ultimately led him to start the IMPACT theater program for Harlem kids, which teaches the student performers about peer leadership, conflict resolution and time management. More than 1,900 youngsters have participated in IMPACT training sessions and workshops in New York, Philadelphia and Atlanta.

Last year, IMPACT branched out and started the Generations Project, fostering connections between the young and the old. “We bring together seniors in the community and young people to share stories and experiences and create journals, spoken word and music,” Joseph said.

Did I mention that Joseph, who takes no salary from IMPACT, is also an award-winning filmmaker, author, 2008 Academy Award nominee for a song he and IMPACT members wrote (Raise It Up) and a Columbia University professor?

Like Ahern, Joseph sees his age as an advantage — never mind the second hip replacement coming in a few weeks.

“What used to be known as the declining years are now the bonus years where you start to figure things out,” he said. “My encore career keeps me young.”


He’s now hoping to expand IMPACT around the world. “It doesn’t have to have the name IMPACT as long as it has an impact,” he added.

Joseph’s advice on launching an encore career: “Don’t whisper your dreams; shout your dreams! If people are not sharing your vision, you don’t need new dreams, you need new friends.”

Patricia Hinnen
Patricia Hinnen

Patricia Foley Hinnen, founder and founding CEO of Capital Sisters International and the $25,000 winner of the Purpose Prize for Financial Inclusion sponsored by MetLife Foundation  Hinnen, a former fellow who is based in Colorado, has come full circle with her encore career. In her 20s, she and her husband served in the Peace Corps in Africa twice. Now, after years doing international development work with the U.S. Government Accountability Office, she is helping poor women through the creation of the world’s first $1,000 zero-interest “Sister Bonds.” (The word “bonds” in the name has a double meaning.)

Those bonds, with two-, three- and five-year maturities, have financed 13,000 microloans for women in Guatemala and the Philippines. Each $1,000 bond funds 10 loans of $100 for the women. “In these countries, a $100 business loan is used for everything from raising goats and chickens to buying sewing machines,” Hinnen said.

So far, 100 percent of Sister Bond investors have reinvested their bonds. Hinnen’s goal: raising $15 million via Sister Bonds in all 50 states by 2020 to fund 150,000 microloans in Latin America and Asia, helping up to a million women.

For decades, Hinnen (who calls herself a “save the world visionary”) has been angered by what she calls “the feminization of poverty.” In the late '90s,  she told me, “I realized that in spite of billions of dollars in government aid, women were no better off. It was shocking to me that women were as poor as ever.”

Hinnen then began helping launch a few micro-enterprise organizations in Colorado and eventually formed Capital Sisters International. It raised $1.3 million during the first bond offering in 2011.

Hinnen’s advice on launching an encore career, particularly starting an encore-career business: “Be willing to be flexible as you learn. It’s not so much about trying and failing so much as trying out different models until you get it just right. And surround yourself with really smart people.”


The other three 2015 Purpose Prize winners:

Dr. Samuel Lupin, 77, $25,000 winner of The Purpose Prize for Intergenerational Collaboration, sponsored by The Eisner Foundation. Lupin is founder and medical director of Housecalls for the Homebound, offering health care to 4,000 homebound elderly patients.

Belle Mickelson, 67, $25,000 winner of The Purpose Prize for Intergenerational Impact, sponsored by The Eisner Foundation. Mickelson, an Episcopal priest, is founder and executive director of Dancing with the Spirit, a traveling program in which old fiddle players bring music to children in remote Alaskan villages.

Laura Safer Espinoza, 62, $25,000 winner of The Purpose Prize. A former New York State judge, she is executive director of Fair Food Standards Council, bringing human rights and economic justice to farmworkers.

Photograph of Richard Eisenberg
Richard Eisenberg is the former Senior Web Editor of the Money & Security and Work & Purpose channels of Next Avenue and former Managing Editor for the site. He is the author of "How to Avoid a Mid-Life Financial Crisis" and has been a personal finance editor at Money, Yahoo, Good Housekeeping, and CBS MoneyWatch. Read More
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