The Older Entrepreneur

Posted Wednesday, November 14th, 2012| Comments (16) rule
Why employers should embrace this trend
Helen Dennis
Specialist in Aging, Employment & The New Retirement

Phone: 310.373.6660
Email: info@helenmdennis.com

Imagine Silicon Valley in the 1980s with its entrepreneurial, brilliant, and creative 22-year olds working 20 hours a day and eating pizza at 3 a.m. on paper plates. That scene may still exist, but entrepreneurship is not just for kids. In fact, a recent study shows that the age group accounting for the sharpest growth in entrepreneurship as a percentage of all entrepreneurs is the cohort between the ages of 55 and 64. In 1996, 14.3 percent of all entrepreneurs were in this age group. In 2011, the share had grown to 20.9 percent. The percentages actually declined for those 44 years old and younger—most sharply for the 20- to 34-year-old cohort.

The demographic picture of entrepreneurship is changing. One question is, why now? In my work as a consultant on entrepreneurship for older workers, I have come across a variety of motives: unemployment, job insecurity, a burning idea, a desire for freedom, frustration with age discrimination, a wish to make a difference, and economic opportunities.

At three recent conferences on entrepreneurship for Baby Boomers sponsored by the Center for Productive Longevity, attendees came for these reasons and others, but they had one trait in common: passion. Their passion often emanated from personal experiences such as divorce, serving as a hospice volunteer, readiness to depart from a practical career path and take a risk, a love of cooking, or noticing the broken porches of elderly neighbors and wanting to help.

People who consider entrepreneurship later in life are not without fear, but some of their fears are based on myths. At one of the conferences, Len Schlesinger, the president of Babson College, in Wellesley, Massachusetts, outlined a few:

  • Myth #1: Entrepreneurship is a solo profession. False. Entrepreneurs engage with friends and networks.
  • Myth #2: Entrepreneurs are born, not made. False. One can acquire the knowledge and skills needed to become an entrepreneur. Many university business programs (including Babson’s) offer this training. Conferences, workshops, and online resources do, too.
  • Myth #3: Entrepreneurship requires big and new ideas. False. Most entrepreneurial launches spring from small ideas. Moreover, seven out of eight businesses are extensions of old ideas, according to Schlesinger.
  • Myth #4: Entrepreneurship is about money. Not always. Many become social entrepreneurs as an encore career to combine their purpose and passion with a paycheck.”

The growth in entrepreneurship among older adults sends at least two messages to employers:

  1. If you want to retain high performing mature workers who have a yen for entrepreneurship and creativity, identify opportunities within your company where the entrepreneurial spirit can be expressed. Examples: Google engineers have one day a week to work on their own. Within the organization these activities are referred to as “20 percent projects.” Gmail was one. Microsoft launched the Microsoft Pioneer Studios, a skunkworks operation that attracts the company’s entrepreneurial employees.
  2. Include some coaching on entrepreneurship in your company’s retirement planning services. By doing so, you will demonstrate relevance, provide a service, and embrace the core of a successful American economy. You might also incubate an idea that will one day become part of your company’s portfolio.

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Helen Dennis is a consultant on aging, employment, and the new retirement based in Los Angeles.


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16 responses to “The Older Entrepreneur”

  1. Jan Hively says:

    Hi, Helen..

    Terrific article!

    By the way,my understanding is that just over one half of the older adult entrepreneurs are women!

    Take care
    Jan

  2. Judy Goggin says:

    And how about a couple of messages for leaders in higher education, including community colleges, four year colleges and universities, and graduate schools of business:
    1. Older adults interested in becoming entrepreneurs are a strong market segment for your established programs in entrepreneurship, including social entrepreneurs.
    2. Think about adapting your requirements, format, and program length to accommodate these experienced prospective entrepreneurs who are usually looking for a more efficient and lower cost pathway to what’s next at this stage of their lives.

  3. Helen says:

    Hi Judy. There is a strong message here for community colleges and universities.
    Thanks for expanding the message beyond employers. The time is now.
    Regards, Helen

  4. Helen says:

    Hi Jan. Thanks for your kind words and adding a possible fact about women. Need to checK this out. Regards, Helen

  5. Inspiring blog, Helen. In my work with people over 45, I find that they’re more risk tolerant and open to unknown outcomes. Both of these mindsets facilitate the path of the entrepreneur.

  6. Helen Dennis says:

    Thank you Barbara for sharing your experience with those 45+. Risk tolerance and operating in a somewhat ambiguous environment are part of entrepreneurship. Many with maturity and experience have these attributes. We need to spread the word. Regards, Helen

  7. Hans says:

    Absolutely inspiring! And not only relevant for the US, also for Europe and elsewhere. For example, in the various case studies in a recent study, two Swedish self-employed consultants very much confimed the observation with regard to Myth 1. Contacts with clients and business partners were a strong motivation: http://www.eurofound.europa.eu/areas/populationandsociety/incomeafteretirement.htm

  8. Kathleen says:

    I think Barbara’s comment on older individuals being more risk tolerant is very telling. While younger people may have great ideas for businesses they are nevertheless wary of pursuing them because they still have families to establish and all the responsibilities that are a part of that stage of life. Older adults, with that behind them, are more able to take a risk.

    Add to that the fact that most of the older adults now venturing out into the business world are part of the same cohort that started Silicone valley (Steve Jobs, BillGates etc.)it should not be so surprising that they are open to the challenges of entrepreneurship. I believe that the “boomer” cohort has always made waves and caused change and this is just another extension of that tendency.

  9. Helen Dennis says:

    Hi Kathleen. Mid-life and older adults may be better in a better position to analyze and take risks without the usual family obligations. There also remains a signficant mid-life group that has financial responsibilies they were not counting on such a costs of care providing and adult and grandchildren moving home. This group may or may not lean towards entrepreneurship. Clearly boomers will continue to redefine aging and entrepreneurship is part of that redefinition. Thank you for your good comments and observations, particularly the Silicione Valley reference.

  10. Helen Dennis says:

    Hello Hans. Thank you for your comments and the global perspective. Clearly this topic is not just signficant in the U.S. With the growing older population in industrialized nations, their longevity and the uncertain economy, entrepreneurship for mid-life and older adults is a signficiant gobal opportunity and need. And thanks for the Eurofound reference. Regards, Helen

  11. Cherie Faiella says:

    Great article Helen and could not agree more. That said, I think we should talk less about “aging” and more about “Prime”. Sematics you say…not really and this is why, what has also changed dramatically is the way people age. No longer is 50 or 60 old. I would argue that and lets pick on woman – they have more energy biologically then men as they go into thier prime, they have more time as children are now grown up, they are more affluent, have networks and they are smart. This does not sound aged to me, its sounds like the prime of their life. An exciting time to contribute and build. A small but important point. Thank you.

  12. Helen Dennis says:

    Thank you Cherie for your important commentary. “Prime” is a great substitute for age conveying a realistic message and image. It seems timely to focus on women with 40 million boomer women ultimately aging with a majority facing traditional retirement. And yes, many are smart, affluent and have networks. That sounds like a perfect match for entreprenuerial opportunities. Regards, Helen

  13. Informasikan says:

    I will be always remember with this Myth…

    Myth #1: Entrepreneurship is a solo profession. False. Entrepreneurs engage with friends and networks.
    Myth #2: Entrepreneurs are born, not made. False. One can acquire the knowledge and skills needed to become an entrepreneur. Many university business programs (including Babson’s) offer this training. Conferences, workshops, and online resources do, too.
    Myth #3: Entrepreneurship requires big and new ideas. False. Most entrepreneurial launches spring from small ideas. Moreover, seven out of eight businesses are extensions of old ideas, according to Schlesinger.
    Myth #4: Entrepreneurship is about money. Not always. Many become social entrepreneurs as an encore career to combine their purpose and passion with a paycheck.”

    This 4 Myth open my mind about entrepreneur… thank you for this.

  14. Helen Dennis says:

    Hello Informaskin: Delighted to know that Myth #4 is relevant to you. Entrepreneurship is about money, and often much more. And that much more is making a difference — having social impact. Thank you for letting us know and hopefully you will be encouraged to create or pursue an encore career for yourself. A new book as just been published which might be useful: The Encore Career Handbook by Marci Alboher.

  15. A lot of older people are starting their own businesses to supplement income they are already receiving. With more times on their hands, than when they were younger, it gives them something productive to do.

    A friend of mine buys and sells musical equipment through eBay. Another friend takes on odd welding jobs. I have some ads up around town for people looking for a man and a half-ton.

    Can you write? The Internet is content driven. Businesses, publishers and websites pay for articles.

    Can you take pictures? I’ve ran across websites that will buy your photos.

    What about your online skills? I attended a business course with one lady who was setting up a studio to have classes of seniors who wanted to learn how to use computers better so they could keep in touch, share pictures and videos with family who lived away.

    Some other things older people might do:

    Teach people how to dance
    Give guitar lessons
    Tutoring
    Art lessons
    Gardening business
    Help people reduce stress
    Sew clothing
    Start a cake decorating service
    Start a party planning service

    There are tons of part time businesses older people can start :-)

  16. Helen Dennis says:

    Thank you Steve for your terrific examples and suggestions. Each of us has some skill, talent or ability that can be translated into a small business. The bonus is if that ability can be turned into something we love to do. Great suggestions!