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Barbara Beskind is defying age, the odds and tech convention

cracked ceilings

Woman, 91, works as tech designer in Silicon Valley

By Andrew Tavani on March 23, 2015

For those whose belief may be wavering in the old saying ‘good things come to those who wait,’ they should look no further than the story of Barbara Beskind for reassurance. Beskind, 91, is working as a tech designer in Silicon Valley — a place notorious for skewing both young and male — where she’s realized her childhood ambition by working as a designer at the California office of the design and innovation firm IDEO.

Beskind’s unlikely story began about 80 years ago when, as a child, she designed and made her own toys because her father was out of work for seven years during the Great Depression and couldn’t afford to buy any. Beskind knew early what she wanted to do in life and dreamed of becoming an inventor.

She set out on her road to Silicon Valley long before Silicon Valley was even a thing. Her career options limited, in 1945, she was accepted into the War Emergency Course. That summer, she trained to become an occupational therapist for the Army. But Congress wouldn’t approve Beskind and her co-trainees’ commissions until 1948 when they were finally admitted into the Army in the Women’s Medical Special Corps.

Beskind spent the next 44 years in the Corps, which was renamed the Army Medical Specialists Corps when men were eventually admitted to the group. She points to the experience as having been critical in shaping her approach to work and life.

“That experience was very formative,” she said in an interview with Women in the World. “It made me well organized, self-reliant, self-disciplined, independent, a problem solver and a leader. Those qualities have helped me significantly in the aging process.” She ended up obtaining a general patent for 6 pieces of therapeutic devices that she developed after she retired from the Corps and went into private practice as an occupational therapist.

“I’ve tried to retire five times,” Beskind said. “I always morph into something new. It’s always in the creative field.”

And so, two years ago — at an age when most people are long-retired — Beskind saw a story on ’60 Minutes’ about the design firm IDEO and decided to send in her resume along with a letter detailing her experience. IDEO’s primary claim to fame is having designed the first mouse for Apple back in the 1980s. Beskind’s letter caught people’s attention there.

“When our head of H.R. received Barbara’s letter, he passed it on to me, since I was leading our work in the aging space,” said Gretchen Addi, an associate partner at IDEO. “I asked if she would like to come and spend a couple of hours with our designers … to share her story and help them with their ideas. Our relationship just evolved into something that was great all around.”

Beskind joined IDEO two years ago, and since has played a key role in the designs of several aging-related devices. To help give her (and others in her age group) added support while walking, she modified ski poles to make them tools for getting around more easily.

“I padded the grip so that it molds to my hand,” she said, adding, “I implement the use of the rocker buttons as a push-off.” She said the buttons also provide greater stability for walking on glossy floors. The polls are even outfitted with blinking LED lights meant to be used when crossing the street.

She and her colleagues also developed a set of special watercolor pencils designed for people with macular degeneration so they can easily identify the colors of the drawing utensils. And she’s reinventing the walker and rebranding it as a “trekker.”

Kayvon Skakeri, a protoyper in the IDEO shop, says Beskind’s input on projects is invaluable, especially in a place where most people are less than half her age. “Barbara brings an important perspective that no one else here at IDEO has — the perspective of a 91-year-old who witnesses the challenges of her elderly peers,” he told Women in the World. “She is here to drop knowledge — knowledge that is important because we are all aging and have loved ones who are aging.”

If Beskind is at IDEO to drop knowledge, it’s because she has a lifetime’s worth of it to drop. And her unique perspective also includes having been a woman in the workforce for more than 60 years. She says she’s witnessed some dramatic changes over that time period.

“Women are now fully accepted in the business and scientific world,” Beskind said. “When I was ready to find a career, there were only three professional choices: nursing, secretarial or teaching. Usually women only worked until they got married. The range from now to then has been exponential.”

And her advice for women young and old on achieving their dreams: “Find your passion and let it be a driving force in your career and enjoyment of life.”

“Creativity is the elixir of life,” she remarked, noting that her job at IDEO provides her the opportunity to indulge her creative impulses. “From the time my feet hit the floor [there], I’m thinking about design solutions and enjoy discussing these with my colleagues. It’s exciting.”

“Their enthusiasm is infectious,” she said of her colleagues.

Above the praise she receives from colleagues or the example she’s become to women of all ages, Beskind is amused by the reaction of her grandchildren; she has five, ages 9-16.

“The youngest says, ‘BarBar, you’re amazing!’ When you get accolades from that age and teenagers, you’ve really made it!”