By: Kerry Hannon
This is not a how-to column for women over 50 who want to start their own businesses, but rather a “why not?” one.
We hear a lot about sexism against businesswomen and a lack of venture capital for women-owned enterprises. And both of these are serious concerns. But based on my reporting talking to entrepreneurship experts and women business owners, I’d say the deck isn’t stacked against women over 50 hoping to launch businesses. In fact, I’d argue that these women hold a few aces that younger female entrepreneur wannabes don’t.
“I would say that women over 50 starting their own business actually have more advantages than disadvantages in comparison to younger women,” says Kimberly A. Eddleston, a professor of entrepreneurship and innovation at Northeastern University and a senior editor on the EIX Editorial Board of the Schulze School of Entrepreneurship at the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis.
More Time and Energy in Midlife
“Generally, this is a time in their life when their responsibilities as a mother are substantially less and more easily managed in comparison to those women who are in the child-bearing and early child-rearing stages,” Eddleston says. “This allows women in mid-career to become much more involved in their careers and to be ready to devote more time and energy to themselves than to their family responsibilities.”
Experts I’ve interviewed have consistently told me that decades of workplace experience can make a big difference in whether womens’ businesses thrive. “The added work experience and the associated boost to their self-confidence significantly assists in the development of their businesses,” says Eddleston.
Consider Michele Burchfield, 56, of Pittsburgh. As director of national accounts for the Boston Beer Company and an executive in other roles there before that, she spent 13 years “running all over the country with a full-time nanny raising her kids,” she says. It wasn’t working. She hit the brakes and resigned to stay at home and focus on raising her two elementary-school-aged sons. But she couldn’t stand not working outside the home. So she launched a consulting firm, the MBM Group, catering to clients such as Fiji Water, D.G. Yuengling & Son and Sierra Nevada Brewing Company.
Launching in a Male-Dominated Field
Destiny Burns, 53, is another successful female entrepreneur who toughened up from years working in a male-dominated field. She opened CLE Urban Winery, a boutique winery and tasting room in her hometown of Cleveland last year. But Burns had initially retired after a 20-year military career as a Navy intelligence communications officer and then spent 13 years in business development positions for defense contractors such as General Dynamics and Northrop Grumman.
When I asked Burns about her challenges as a woman starting a business, she was quick to say there were challenges, but not because she was a woman.
“I have not really encountered any specific bias or issues related to my gender or age” she told me. “I have spent my entire adult and professional life in a man’s world… first the U.S. military and then as an executive in the defense sector. Most entrepreneurs I encounter are also men. I am comfortable in male-dominated business situations. I just don’t see myself as any different and that’s how I conduct myself.”
Her saving grace was her experience. She tapped the same skills to sell her business model to lenders that she’d used in her post-military career when she made the case why the government should award her company the business.
Paying It Forward
Another corporate refuge, Barbara Rodgers, 61, launched Nutrition Life Strategiestwo years ago following a nearly 30-year career as a securities industry executive.
“After struggling with multiple sclerosis at the end of my corporate career, I was drawn to an education and career path in holistic nutrition because of the results I experienced personally in arresting my MS symptoms by changing my diet,” Rodgers says. “My goal now is to pay it forward and help others who are dealing with chronic disease.”
Like Burchfield and Burns, Rodgers credits her decades of experience in the workplace for preparing her to start her business. “After nearly 30 years in the securities industry — a male dominated industry, especially when I got started in the 1980s — what I’m experiencing now is refreshing. For the most part, anyone I’ve met in holistic nutrition is very nurturing, supportive and friendly.”
Getting Certified as a Woman-Owned Business
For Burchfield, one of the biggest tests was not trying to make it in bro-based world, but the opposite: getting her business certified by the Women’s Business Enterprise National Council (WBENC) as a woman-owned business.
“It’s a grueling process,” Burchfield says. “But we got through it just in time to put the logo on our label and many companies, such as Target and Starbucks, have initiatives to work with WBENC-certified companies.” Tapping into the increasingly women-friendly initiatives for capital and advice is a savvy strategy for female entrepreneurs of all ages.
The best reward for Burchfield: “It sounds romantic, but when we watch someone taste our water and look up and say ‘Wow,’ you can’t stop smiling,” she says. “It’s like your child taking the training wheels off the bike, and you see them tooling down the road on two wheels.”
Click here to read more.