Author Ann Brashares once wrote: “I look back on my 20s. It’s supposed to be the prime of your life, the most vital, the most beautiful. But you’re making your critical decisions and sometimes your most critical mistakes.”
This sentiment rings true for most women’s career trajectories. As CEOs, award-winning actresses and game changers in all arenas get younger and younger, it can seem as though women are rising to power immediately — which we know isn’t true. (Check out the stories of women who started off as assistants and failed before they succeeded if you require further reassurance.)
Looking back at the early careers of well-known women, most of them were just starting to hit their stride in their mid- to late twenties — and many of them probably couldn’t have predicted what was in store for themselves in the future.
Here’s what 21 incredible women were up to on or around their quarter-century mark:
1. Mindy Kaling, age 34
Creator and actress, “The Mindy Project”
In 2003, when she was 24, Kaling played Ben Affleck in “Matt & Ben,” a spoof play she co-wrote with her college BFF Brenda Withers. “The young women perform about as well as they write,” wrote New York Magazine’s John Simon in a review. Age 25, Kaling was hired as a writer for “The Office” shortly after — the only womanon a staff of eight.
2. Jane Pratt, age 50
Editor of xoJane
At 24, Pratt, the woman behind xoJane.com, was “plucked out of entry-level obscurity” to become the founding editor of now-defunct teen magazine Sassy. Carl Swanson of New York Magazine remembers Sassy as a media outlet like no other: “It was confessional, confiding, a bit reckless, swooning for the authentic pop anti-hero, and surly about anything phony. It talked about things that were parts of people’s untidy lives but often, out of shame, remained undiscussed.”
In the wake of Sassy’s success, Pratt hosted talk shows “Jane” and “The Jane Pratt Show.” Pratt launched “Jane” magazine in 1997, but the publication shut down in 2007.
3. Hillary Rodham Clinton, age 65
67th United States Secretary of State
Hillary Rodham enrolled in Yale Law School in 1969, when she was 22. During her second year there she met a first-year YLS student named Bill Clinton, who kept looking over at her in the library. According to Salon, Hillary often tells the story of how they met when she was 23: “I said ‘If you’re going to keep looking at me, and I’m going to keep looking back, we might as well be introduced — I’m Hillary Rodham.”
4. Ellen DeGeneres, age 55
Stand-up comedian, actress and host of “The Ellen DeGeneres Show”
By 1981, DeGeneres was the emcee at Clyde’s Comedy Club in New Orleans. In 1982, at 24, DeGeneres was named Showtime’s Funniest Person in America, well on her way to becoming the A-list funny lady she is today.
In a March 2007 interview with W magazine, DeGeneres explained how daunting starting out in the comedy world can be:
You have to be really, really tough-skinned, because it’s hard. There’s lots of traveling, lots of being by yourself, lots of really rude drunk people. You’re not just in big cities; you’re in small towns, you’re in mini malls, strip malls, and people wander in. Lots of places where, literally, the soup of the day got the top billing. There would be a chalkboard on the sidewalk and it would say: SOUP OF THE DAY: BROCCOLI. AND ELLEN DEGENERES. And I’m not kidding.
5. Amy Poehler, age 42
Former “SNL” cast member, “Parks and Recreation” actress
After college, Poehler moved to Chicago to study improv at The Second City andImprovOlympic. In 1996, 25-year-old Poehler banded together with three other Chicago-based improv comics — Matt Besser, Matt Walsh and Ian Roberts — to create the group that would become the Upright Citizens Brigade. In a January 2010BUST magazine interview with Rachel Dratch, Poehler said:
The early Chicago days were such a rich chapter in our lives. It was a time when we had the right combination of narcissism and naiveté and a lack of responsibility to anyone but ourselves. But since I was part of the UCB, I had a little bit more bravado at the time because I had a tiny little gang. I don’t know if I would have been able to make those moves on my own.
6. Marissa Mayer, age 38
President and CEO of Yahoo!
Mayer joined Google in 1999, when she was 24, as the company’s twentieth employee and first female engineer. “My quest to find, and be surrounded by, smart people is what brought me to Google,” Mayer said. She climbed the ranks at the company for the next 13 years.
7. Helen Mirren, age 68
Mirren was invited to join the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) when she was 24, after her first film appearance in 1969’s “Age Of Consent.” She performed with the RSC for two years before touring North Africa and the U.S. with the International Centre for Theatre Research.
Mirren remains vocal about the sexism she encountered in her early career — including a 1975 television interview where host Michael Parkinson asked if her “equipment” got in the way of pursuing a serious acting career. Mirren talked to theDaily Mail in July 2013 about her early acting years, saying:
The ’60s were not great, the ’70s were really crap; the ’60s and ’70s were pretty ghastly, I think. And into the 80s, as an actress, you would be the only female on set, apart from the continuity person, who was always a woman, and maybe your own personal wardrobe person.
8. Toni Morrison, age 82
Pulitzer- and Nobel-prize winning author of Beloved and The Bluest Eye
After earning her Master of Arts degree from Cornell in 1955 at age 24, the Song Of Solomon author taught English for two years at Texas Southern University in Houston. Morrison published her first novel, The Bluest Eye, in 1970 when she was 39. In a May 2008 TIME magazine Q&A, Morrison said: “When I started teaching, I was absolutely thrilled. There’s nothing more exciting to me than to read books, to talk about books with students–generation after generation–who bring different things to them. I loved that. I would stay there.”
9. Shonda Rhimes, age 43
Creator and screenwriter of “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Scandal”
After completing her MFA in screenwriting at the University of Southern California, Rimes worked a variety of day jobs in office administration and as a counsellor for a job center advising mentally ill and homeless people — a far cry from her current gig as the creator of multiple hit television shows. When she was 25, Rhimes also worked as a research director for the 1995 documentary “Hank Aaron: Chasing the Dream.”She got her big break with “Grey’s Anatomy” in 2005.
10. Valerie Jarrett, age 56
Senior Advisor to the President of the United States
Jarrett earned her law degree from the University of Michigan in 1981 at age 25. “Some of the best times of my life were spent in Ann Arbor,” Jarrett said in 2010. At the commencement address for Michigan Law students that same year, Jarrett advised the graduating class: “Resist the complacency that you will find rooted in your comfort zone and constantly challenge yourself. That’s what fuels passion.”
11. Oprah Winfrey, age 59
Host of “The Oprah Winfrey Show”
After being fired from the 6 p.m. news slot at Baltimore’s WJZ-TV in 1977 at age 23, Winfrey was recruited to co-host WJZ’s local talk show “People Are Talking,” which premiered in August 1978 at age 24. Winfrey spoke to the Baltimore Sun in 2011 about her arrival in Baltimore, saying: “I had no idea what I was in for or that this was going to be the greatest growing period of my adult life… It shook me to my very core, and I didn’t even know at the time that I was being shaken.”
Winfrey left Baltimore knowing that she no longer wanted to do television news, and eventually found her footing as a talk show host. The rest is history.
12. Nikki Haley, age 41
116th Governor of South Carolina
The current Governor of South Carolina grew up working in her parents’ clothing store, and joined Exotica International in an official capacity in 1994 at age 22. Haley became CFO and helped transform the business into a multi-billion dollar company. In a 2007 interview with Sikh Chic, Haley explained how working in the store had shaped her growing up: “We learned the value of hard work and the meaning of self discipline, working in the store. We learned that rewards don’t come without sacrifices, and that if you do a job — you do it right or you don’t do it at all.
13. Cecile Richards, age 54
President of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America
After graduating from Brown in 1980, Richards worked as a union organizer in the Rio Grande Valley and New Orleans from age 22 to 24. One of the people she supervised was an organizer from Massachussetts named Kirk Adams, who would later become her husband: “I got interested in my boss pretty quickly,” Adams recalled in a 2012 interview with the Dallas Morning News. The couple moved to Houston in 1983 when Richards was about 25 and began organizing nursing home workers for the Service Employees International Union.
14. Jhumpa Lahiri, age 46
Pulitzer-prize winning author
After graduating from Barnard in 1989, the author of 1999’s Interpreter Of Maladiesand 2003’s The Namesake spent her twenties pursuing a slew of degrees from Boston University, including three different master’s degrees and a Ph.D. in Renaissance Studies.
Lahiri told The Independent in 2008 that she never thought she would become a writer: “I didn’t enter into it properly until my early twenties. After I left college and found myself out in the world something started to shift in me… a slow, hesitant artistic awakening. It was a secret, scary thing.”
15. Robin Roberts, age 52
“Good Morning America” anchor
After beginning her career as a sports anchor for WDAM-TV in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, Roberts moved to WLOX-TV in Biloxi at age 24. She described her early career to Prevention in 2011:
I look back over the first half of my career — working for a small station in Hattiesburg for $5.50 an hour, then moving to Biloxi to Nashville to Atlanta for two years, and then ESPN in 1990. I was not a very good friend. I was so laser focused on ‘I’m going to work for the network, damn it. And I’m sorry if I can’t come home for Christmas or if I can’t go to your kid’s graduation.’ And I didn’t even feel bad about it. At least now I feel bad. And I don’t do that as much. Today, as much as I love my career, there’s no way I would ever put that before anyone in my personal life.
16. Madonna, age 55
Best-selling female recording artist of all time
After signing a record deal with Sire Records, Madonna released her debut single, “Everybody” in 1982 when she was 24 followed by “Burning Up” in 1983. She was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2008. As of December 2012, Madonna has won at least 234 awards from 430 nominations.
In a September 17 Reddit AMA, when asked what advice she would offer her 20-year-old self, Madonna responded: “Don’t take any of this personally,”
17. Judy Blume, age 75
Author of “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret”
Blume received a B.S. in education from New York University in 1961 age 24, and came to writing after she had children. She told NPR in 2008:
I never thought about writing. I was married young, I was still in college, as we did then, and I had two babies before I was 25, and I loved them, and I loved taking care of them, but I was a little bit cuckoo, staying at home and not having a creative outlet… [Then my kids went] to pre-school. And I had two hours every morning to myself, and that is when I wrote.
Blume published her first book, The One in the Middle Is the Green Kangaroo, in 1969 when she was 31.
18. Diane von Furstenberg, age 66
After apprenticing with Italian textile manufacturer Angelo Ferretti in 1969 at age 23, von Furstenberg started designing. “I got into fashion by accident,” she told Vogue in 1976. “Ferretti had some terrific fabrics, you know, so I started making a collection. I had no training as a designer or anything like that, but I just felt that there was a need for some little dresses.”
19. Condoleezza Rice, age 58
Former Secretary of State
Rice earned her Ph.D. in political science from the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver when she was 26 in 1981.
“I think it’s really a story of not believing that there were limits of race and gender,” Rice said of her success in an interview with TIME magazine.
20. Billie Jean King, age 69
Former #1-ranked professional tennis player
Ten years after her Grand Slam debut at the U.S. Championships, 25-year-old King was in the peak of her athletic career in 1968. During that year King won three consecutive tournaments in Australia and her third consecutive Wimbledon singles title. She underwent knee surgery in September 1968 and took the rest of the year off.
In September 2013, King talked to NPR about the challenges she faced early in her career:
First we had the challenge of [there being no] professional tennis [league for women] and then we had this [pay] disparity. But more importantly, the men who owned the tournaments, who ran the tournaments, started to drop the women’s events entirely. Most of the places, when they did have us play [and] included us, they gave us about a 12- or 11-to-1 ratio of prize money.
21. Tina Fey, age 43
Former “SNL” castmember, “30 Rock” writer and actress
Before her “SNL” days, Fey performed with improv troupes (she and Amy Poehler both toured with the Second City) and picked up some acting work — including a pretty awkward bank commercial from 1995, when she was 25. In a February 2009 interview with Oprah, Fey revealed that she started cracking jokes in elementary school as a way to connect with people:
The only way I could get comfortable around people was to make them laugh. I was an obedient girl, and humor was my one form of rebellion. I used comedy to deflect. Like, “Hey, check out my zit!”—you know, making fun of yourself before someone else has a chance to.