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Entrepreneurs of a certain age, in this uncertain time

Chanin King
After raising eight children, Chanin King launched Ordered in All Things, a professional organizing firm that leverages much of what she's learned in her busy household. Recently, she sat for an interview for a marketing video.

At 50-ish and older, weathering hard times and calculating risk is tinged with the benefit of experience when it comes to the opportunity of startup life.

When Ozzie Ganoza found himself suddenly unemployed in 2018 after 22 years with a communications technology firm, the entrepreneurial mindset he’d been nurturing for years kicked into gear.

Pontos + M&H Designer Team
From left to right: Michele Van Oudenhoven, designer; Siliva Sanchez-Silva; Leonardo Maugere; and Ozzie Ganoza, founder of Apparel Trading, LLC.

“I had always wanted to do something on my own, but my employer forced me to jump into the pool,” said Ganoza, who recently turned 50. “Fortunately, I had started realizing the challenges of the corporate world and their way of bringing in new blood, new technology, and new ways of assessing skillsets, but I had kids heading to college so I had to prepare to have additional income.”

Ganoza’s rationale was rooted in his experience as a young man in his native Peru. He was stunned when his father was dismissed from the local police force after more than 30 years of service and subsequently scrambled to figure out an alternative career.

Conversely, having regularly brainstormed business ideas with his wife over the years, Ganoza started Apparel Trading, LLC, within months of being dismissed from his corporate job. The company imports high-end, hand-knitted Peruvian alpaca sweaters that are designed in Europe.

Although Ganoza understands that the company – which industry mentors told him performed better than a typical fashion startup in Year 1 – is facing some near-term challenges related to COVID-19, his drive stems from more than raw numbers.

“I keep telling friends that they need to start something that can help them down the road, as it will provide tranquility in their lives,” he said. “It doesn’t translate into how much money they’ll make, how many wheels are in the garage, or the size of their house, but the type of life they will have.”

Second-act success

Increasingly, middle-aged people are realizing that entrepreneurial opportunities – and success – don’t fade away in their 40s. Consider that in 2019, Kauffman Foundation research found that more than 25% of new entrepreneurs were between 55-64 – up from about 15% in 1996. Unrelated research from Guidant Financial and the Small Business Trends Alliance said individuals 55 or older own 43% of the country’s small businesses in 2020.

While financial success is, of course, a key objective of any business venture, Margaret Johnsson sees older entrepreneurs adopting broader sets of goals. The founder of the Business Innovation and Growth Center at Northeastern Illinois University and self-proclaimed Johnny Appleseed of starting up (“I spread entrepreneurship everywhere I can”), Johnsson frequently hears as much about personal legacies as she does about sales and profit potential.

“The biggest driver for those starting business at 50-plus is that they want to make a bigger impact,” she said. “Most are not quite sure when it happened, but the clock started ticking and they start to think ‘how will I answer my kids and grandkids when they ask me what did I do?’”

For years, the abundance of attention given the entrepreneurial experience has highlighted the photogenic 20-something who cobbled together some technical knowhow and an overabundance of moxie to develop a solution to a problem we didn’t know we had.

Reality, however, tells a different story.

The world celebrates when you’re in your 20s and 30s, when your life is mapped out to begin your career, build on experience to achieve success and by your 50s or 60s, you shut it down because you’re retiring.

50 isn’t the end, it’s the start.

— Chanin King

Leslie McKinney was laid off in 2016 by a large document management systems company after a 25-year career that included multiple engineering and leadership roles. To soothe her frustrations with the ensuing job search, McKinney increasingly expanded her involvement with the Chicago chapter of Black Women in Science and Engineering, which she now realizes sowed the seeds of entrepreneurship.

By late 2019, she had taken enough seminars on creating a business that she launched LMK Innovation, contracting with early stage physical product companies as a quality assurance strategist.

“I never thought I’d be without a corporate job,” McKinney said. “And while I still don’t believe entrepreneurship is for everyone, it is important to have more than one revenue stream and think of other ways to bring in money, especially for people who get laid off in their 40s.”

The W-2 world only gets more treacherous as the years pass. A 2018 Urban Institute study, “How Secure is Employment at Older Ages?” found that 56% of workers age 51-54 endured an involuntary job separation that led to long-term unemployment and reduced household earnings.

“The world celebrates when you’re in your 20s and 30s, when your life is mapped out to begin your career, build on experience to achieve success and by your 50s or 60s, you shut it down because you’re retiring,” said Chanin King. “But 50 isn’t the end, it’s the start.”

Through her 20s, 30s, and much of her 40s, King was raising eight children, currently aged 11 through 27, but also found success with a number of side ventures such as unique gift baskets, decorating wedding venues, and selling baked goods. Long-inspired by her father, who started a building security system firm in his 60s, King recently launched Ordered in All Things, a professional organizing firm that leverages much of what she’s learned in her busy household.

Ordered In All Things
Chanin King, teaching children to organize during a vacation Bible school program at a local church.

King’s broader goals include supporting religious and education efforts in her community and beyond, as well as demonstrating the virtues of independence to her children.

“At the very least, I want to show them that – just like my father showed me – you can take something from concept to completion, although you don’t have to wait until you’re 50,” she said. “My husband and I want our kids to understand that sooner than we did, and some of them have, and they’re tasting success.”

Sometimes, years of contending with a personal challenge provide the spark for starting up a business beyond 50. For example, Andrea Pederson was diagnosed with pernicious anemia at 28. The autoimmune condition, in which the body fails to absorb vitamin B-12, quickly led to multiple sclerosis (MS), which was exacerbated by malabsorption syndrome, a chronic condition in which the small intestine doesn’t function properly.

As it was the mid-80s, MS drugs didn’t exist, and the prognosis was that she would be wheelchair-bound by her 60s. Determined to topple conventional wisdom, Pederson zeroed in on nutrient-dense foods to beat back MS.

The approach proved effective and on the cusp of her 60s, as her successful career as an independent industrial manufacturers’ representative was winding down, Pederson launched Cocolasses, a dark chocolate syrup sweetened with nutrient-dense blackstrap molasses. Through the subsequent five years of test batches, grocery store samplings, and some sales wins, she honed a desire to raise the bar on school nutrition philosophies.

“I want to be a change in the world in my own little way,” Pederson says. “I want the world to understand that choosing a healthy lifestyle does not mean a life of deprivation.”

Redefining failure

Alongside a broader scope of success, maturity tends to foster perspective, which helps mitigate risk concerns as well. The opportunity to share experiences in a program such as AARP Foundation’s Work for Yourself @ 50+, which Pederson, McKinnney, King and Ganoza all completed, further identifies strengths and opportunities that the entrepreneurial path could hold.

“I have no fear of getting laid off or fired – that’s already happened,” McKinney said. “I know there will be highs and lows throughout this experience, but I know that I have a great idea, I have a service that’s needed, and I have nothing to lose.”

King said: “At this point, I have a different definition of failure. To fail at something has absolutely nothing to do with who I am, and for my business, losses or failures are what make me better and help me get those clients that I keep forever.”

That’s not to say the COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t been an obstacle. Yet, for those who endured the Great Recession a decade ago, and other tough economic conditions prior to that, flexibility is a learned trait.

At 50-plus, there’s nothing to hold you back. It’s an advantage, as long as you have the drive, the passion, the energy, and you believe in yourself.

— Andrea Pederson

“Regardless of whether you’ve been running a business for 30 years or you’re just trying to get something off the ground or anything in between, if you’re 50-plus, you’ve been through the downturn of 1991, the downturn of 2001-02, and 2008-09,” Johnsson said. “What’s differed between all of those and this time is what’s driven the downturn, but the reactions in the business cycle all look very similar.”

To be certain, conditions in the coming months will force many entrepreneurs – young and old – to consider giving up on their ventures, but Johnsson sees many recalibrating on the fly.

“Definitely with older entrepreneurs, there’s a sense that this is my last hurrah, and I’m going to make it work,” she said. “So they do what the have to do, from figuring out how to overcome sales and marketing obstacles in a new way to creatively introducing yourself to key markets.”

For example, while McKinney is developing strategies and content to stimulate awareness of her services virtually, King is tailoring her offerings to the online environment, as well as tapping the 16-year-old video producer she raised to build out a YouTube channel. For Pederson, the inability to offer samples in grocery stores has freed up time to complete a full brand relaunch, while Ganoza is candidly assessing his retail partners’ ability to deliver sales when sweater season starts up again in the fall.

Trying times? Yes. Unconquerable? Not at all.

“If you’re young, you don’t have any experience so you can’t see the big picture, and in your middle age you have kids and a family to worry about so you’re always asking ‘can I do this?’ because you don’t want to be living under a bridge,” Pederson said. “At 50-plus, though, there’s nothing to hold you back. It’s an advantage, as long as you have the drive, the passion, the energy, and you believe in yourself.”