After marrying and moving across the country at 52, Ann yearned for the connection with other women in midlife. She launched Women at Woodstock weekend gatherings to bring women together and share experiences, support, and fun.
Tell us a little about your journey…
I always have to smile at the word journey when applied to my life, because I would describe it as more of a series of meanderings, mad dashes, dilly-dallying, chasing after interesting things, and arduous hikes. It is this:
I grew up in Southern California in a beach community, went to UCLA and earned a bachelor’s degree in cybernetics, then fled eastward for a place that had spring and fall and winter—Cleveland, Ohio, where I earned a law degree. I practiced law in New York City for 10 years (environmental protection), married, and returned to Shaker Heights outside of Cleveland where I raised two daughters. I founded and for 15 years published two regional parenting magazines, during which time I developed relationships with many of the magazine’s advertisers and started helping them with their ads and marketing.
Eventually I sold the magazines and concentrated on PR and marketing, then served as the director of communications for a school district for a couple of years.
I got a divorce after 23 years of marriage and eventually moved back to my original Southern California neighborhood at age 52 to marry a wonderful man who I had dated right after high school. I developed my own practice in social media marketing, SEO, web design, and ghost writing.
My daughters are now 32 and 29 and I’m very proud of them. Both graduates of Columbia University, one has lived all over the country and done everything from PR to working as a merchant marine to bartending and has just returned to Cleveland to earn a master’s degree in counseling, and the other is a managing editor at Pearson Publishing and lives in Cape Town, South Africa.
When did you start to think about making a change?
While I was happily married, I was also lonely after the move. Frankly, when I returned California, I just never connected with a new posse of friends. At the same time, I had wonderful relationships with my clients, mostly women over 50 from all over the country. I yearned to connect in person with other like-minded women—not for business, not for spiritual development, not for yoga, but for interesting conversation, brainstorming, friendship.
What is your next act?
I am the founder of Women at Woodstock. This is a gathering for women over 50 in our generation’s symbolic birthplace: Woodstock, NY. We’re now in our fifth year with our next gathering this October. We spend a weekend together with speakers, workshops, evening salons (guided discussions), yoga, brainstorming sessions, good food, wine, and fun. There is no theme except to share information, encourage and help each other in the pursuit of our creative efforts, businesses, or personal goals, and build friendships.
We have an entire property to ourselves for our gathering – the Lifebridge Sanctuary in Rosendale, NY, about 20 minutes from Woodstock. It’s an eco conscious restored farmhouse plus cottage, solar powered, with wood-burning fireplaces, a large great room, and spectacular views of the Hudson Valley.
Because of Women at Woodstock, I’m reaching out and getting to know more and more interesting women all over the country— the world, really—week after week. I’m definitely no longer lonely. I’m bathed in friendships and ideas and encouragement and support and I gladly give it back. The women in the “Women At Woodstock community” report the same feelings. It feels like a movement, yet we have no agenda except, really, carpe diem.
Interestingly, and not surprisingly (since women over 50 have lived a lot and know a lot and can move mountains if they want to), several business results have come out of these relationships: companies launched, jobs changed or found, clients developed, deals negotiated. And several relationship issues have been repaired: A mother revealed the painful truth about her adult son for the first time ever; a wife faced the raw facts of her marriage and gained the strength to make a needed change.
Among the more usual activities of workshops and learning and exchanging ideas and finding mentors and that sort of thing, small miracles have happened, and they continue to happen every time we gather together.
How did you come up with the idea for Women at Woodstock?
For many years, as a business owner, I had followed all kinds of advice for building my business. I joined an online women’s business owner organization. I went to in-person networking events. I established a mastermind group in my area. It all worked fine. But it wasn’t the real me. Not that I was being phony; it’s just that the real me was inside turning the knobs and pulling the levers. You know, consciously. It was psychically tiring.
One day I had a conversation with an author to whom I had been recommended as a publicist. This was an opportunity to gain another client, but I found myself simply enjoying talking with her. She was one of those like-minded women, you know? Within minutes, I found myself talking about my idea for a women-over-50 gathering that was neither conference nor woo-woo retreat and she was immediately excited; we talked intensely, ideas flying back and forth, for an hour and a half. I hung up the phone and realized that I’d completely sidetracked the conversation away from the services I could provide. I’d lost the chance for a new client, yet I felt better about my plans for the future than I had in a long time.
I made two decisions: 1) Make Women At Woodstock a reality and 2) ditch the PR work, which I finally admitted to myself I did not like and did not have to do just because I knew how to do it (a huge revelation). I decided to stick to writing, social media, web design, and the techie SEO stuff, all of which I enjoy.
How did you make Women at Woodstock a reality?
I’ve started and run several businesses but I’ve never organized events, and frankly, I mostly hate events. Networking is not my thing; cocktail parties are not my thing. But somehow the inspiration for Women At Woodstock just came over me. It just flowed naturally and whenever I talked about the idea to other women my age, they got super excited and they said, “You’ve got to do this, Ann! You must! Do it and I’ll be there!” So more out of feeling—how can I put this best—out of feeling a desire to be me among women whom I truly like and admire, I went forward. It turned out to be a really great decision.
I’m an impulsive person, always have been, so I can’t lie and say that I devised my plan for Women At Woodstock after careful planning, consideration, fact-gathering, and judiciously seeking advice and guidance. I thought of it, I felt compelled to do it, I did it. Parts of it clicked into place: It had to be in Woodstock, the iconic place of our generation. It had to be women over 50. It had to be casual. It had to be constructive and grounded in everyone’s reality—no religious or belief-system-based agenda.
How supportive were your family and friends?
It helped tremendously that my husband was supportive, standing behind me and quietly cheering me on. It’s so incredibly freeing and empowering (pardon me for using that word, which I hate, but I can think of no other) to have someone important in your life see you for who you really are and say “You are smart. You have good ideas. Follow your dream. I applaud you.”
My daughters too said that it sounded wonderful and they encouraged me to go ahead with it. That sounds like a no-brainer maybe, but I have to give this background to explain why it was in fact so meaningful to have their support: During the time that they were growing up, I was winning awards for my two magazines and growing the marketing services of my company, but the business that I ran was an enormous cause of friction in my marriage. Unfortunately, my then-husband during those years did everything he could to sabotage my work and persuade my daughters that what I was doing was stupid and that I was being neglectful and uncaring and I was risking the family’s financial security. They have to have, still, very mixed feelings about my business undertakings. Yet they warmly encouraged me to follow this new idea of mine. Clearly they still believe in me and my ideas.
What challenges did you encounter?
Well, to be blunt, as an event organizer I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. But what the heck, you research and you seek advice and make a plan and stay very organized. When I sent my schedule for the first Women At Woodstock to the group sales coordinator at my venue, we had a phone call to discuss the particulars, and as we were wrapping up, she said, “How many years have you been doing this?” I said, “I’ve never done this before.” She was floored. She said my level of organization was better than just about anything she’d ever seen. I know, buttering me up maybe. But I don’t think she would have been very positive if things weren’t in good shape.
So that’s what I did. I believed in my mission and I did my best and yes, I learned a lot by the slap-in-the-face information delivery system rather than classroom lectures or books—like, when you book a venue for an event, you have to ante up a portion of the expected cost up front, and you have to sign on the dotted line obligating yourself to pay up to 80% of that expected cost whether your event flies or not.
My background as a lawyer stood me in very good stead in negotiating those contracts; my business background stood me in good stead in mapping out the whole plan and eventually hiring an assistant and delegating duties; my marketing and web design background stood me in good stead in building my website and growing my online following; and my core desire to have this event be what I envisioned it to be—not to build a business just for the sake of building a business, but to make Women At Woodstock the different thing that it is—gave me the drive and the strength to make it happen.
Were there times when you thought about giving up?
I’ve had more nights than I care to talk about waking up at 3 am and wondering if everything was going to come together and whether I was going to cover expenses. But I’ve had many more days of great conversations, idea development, extensions of support, and just plain fun. I never thought about giving up. The women who’ve come together over this, they’ve kept me going. And my husband standing behind me, that has too.
What advice do you have for women seeking reinvention in midlife?
The more you are yourself, plain and simple, no trying to fit into any mold you think you should fit into, the happier you will be.
Ask yourself what’s missing. What do you need? What talents or creative forces have you not yet allowed yourself to unleash? Ask yourself what drives your desires. Then move in the direction you’ve pointed out for yourself.
What advice do you have for those interested in organizing an event such as yours?
Don’t do it.
OK, I’m kidding. But seriously, my path is not one of exponential financial growth or big business or fame or fortune. It’s one of meaning and happiness—according to my own terms. It’s not for everyone. If you have a real reason to do something like what I’m doing, then go for it.
What resources do you recommend?
Wow, that’s a hard question to answer, because I have called on so much deep background to pull this thing off: My experience as a lawyer; my marketing, writing, and design skills; my organizational talents as a long-time business owner…
I’d say you need to know, or hire people who know, how to read a contract down to the last detail, understand it, and be able to negotiate for changes or addenda if needed; how to organize a schedule and a flowchart for lodging, meeting rooms, speakers, workshops, meals, and events; how to set up and effectively utilize a website, social media sites, bulk email, and a blog; how to reach out to speakers and workshop leaders and construct a package for them that provides them real value in return for their time and expertise without breaking your budget; and how to get and utilize feedback on an ongoing basis in order to make your event the best that it can be.
And you have to have a sense of “what the hell,” and above all, a sense of humor. There’s a certain attitude of freedom and joy that has to wrap around the whole thing; otherwise I don’t know how you would keep going.
Wild Apricot has a good bare-bones article on how to organize an event, along with a checklist of what you need to do, plus videos, case studies, and membership software you can buy, priced anywhere from free (50 contacts or less) to $270/month for 15,000 or more contacts.
For taking registrations and payments, I highly recommend Wufoo, a free online form-building program that’s very user friendly.
You will need to be able to process payments online as well; Paypal is of course a well-known payment processor for small businesses, but I find it clunky and if you don’t use the “Pro” version to streamline credit card processing, it often throws people off. A lot of people recommend Stripe for payment processing. If you plan to seek sponsorships for your event, check out Linda Hollander, the “Wealthy Bag Lady” for advice and guidance. She offers a lot of information free.
What’s next for you?
I want to keep producing Women At Woodstock for many years to come. In my “day job,” I’m continuing to cut loose more and more work that I do not enjoy or find interesting. I’m turning, degree by degree, toward writing more than anything else.
Which brings me to the next chapter (pardon the pun). Finally, I’m writing a book, which is my hidden dream. I’m very excited about this. I finally feel free to let the dream out in the open and I’m writing on a serious and extended basis for the first time in my life.
Contact Ann Voorhees Baker at email@example.com
Women at Woodstock website
Please visit this page to find out about our gathering on October 28-30.
And visit this page to find out about our week of writers’ retreats October 31-November 6.
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