Encore Entrepreneurs Get the Job Done

Tonia  Benjamin likes to feed people.

"I  love cooking and watching people eat," she says.

Over  her 20 years with the USPS, Benjamin has prepared meals for coworkers to enjoy  at the post office or to take home for their own families. In addition to her  40-hour a week job, for the past 10 years, Benjamin has managed her own  word-of-mouth catering business, using her home kitchen. In fact, it was the  catering business that enabled her to purchase her Brooklyn, N.Y., residence.

Now  she's ready for more.

In  2017, at the age of 50, Benjamin earned her food handling license and  established her own limited liability corporation (LLC). She is saving money  toward the renovation of a nearby building, which she hopes to lease by  mid-2019. Her ultimate goal: to quit her current job within the next two years  and support her daughter and herself through catering.

"I'm  just waiting for the building to open up my business," she says.
  Benjamin  represents a rapidly growing segment of the U.S. population: people 50 or older  who are shifting from employee to employer. A recent study from the Center for  an Urban Future (CUF) – "Starting Later: Realizing the Promise of Older  Entrepreneurs in New York," which was funded by Capital One's Future Edge  initiative – focused on New York City "encore entrepreneurs" who are creating  their own job opportunities, either to supplement existing paychecks or in  response to job loss.

Jonathan  Bowles, CUF's executive director, says the center wanted to explore how the  national demographic trend of an aging population was affecting – and could  affect – economic growth. In 2016, also in collaboration with Capital One's  Future Edge initiative, the center conducted a study, called "Breaking  Through," that documented the growth of women entrepreneurs in the city.  Looking at "encore entrepreneurs" was a logical next step.

"We  keep in close touch with many of the excellent small business assistance  organizations across New York," Bowles says. "In talking with the small  business counselors, we learned that pretty much all of these organizations  were seeing a growing number of entrepreneurs over the age of 50. In several  cases, we heard that a third or more of the aspiring entrepreneurs [seeking assistance]  were in their 50s and 60s, and that this was a significant spike from even five  years ago."

The  study showed a 19 percent increase over the last decade in New York City  residents 50 and older who are self-employed. The rate of growth in  self-employment is even greater for those 60 and older: 44 percent. The report  notes that many older workers lost their jobs in the wake of the Great  Recession and turned to entrepreneurship for a variety of reasons.

"It  was surprising to see how many older adults were turning to entrepreneurship  after encountering age discrimination in the workplace," Bowles said. "There  were clearly a lot of older adults who turned to entrepreneurship because they  always longed to start a business, but many more seem to be doing it out of  necessity.

Theresa  Bedeau, Capital One vice president in community development banking, says the  CUF report validates what she's experienced anecdotally, in her work with  clients and with Capital One's collaboration with organizations such as City  University of New York's (CUNY) entrepreneurship program and Senior Planet, a  nonprofit that assists seniors with courses and technical support.

"We  saw a real interest from people at Senior Planet in CUNY's entrepreneurship  program," Bedeau says, adding that in a recent pitch competition, three of the  finalists were encore entrepreneurs. "We thought ‘Maybe there's something here,  and an opportunity to build up this ecosystem to support older entrepreneurs.'"

Bedeau  says many older entrepreneurs need some assistance with technology in all its  forms.

"Technology  is about how we make our processes more efficient," she says. "We are looking  at a population where their previous jobs maybe didn't need tech skills. They  need help with social media, to drive consumers to their business and build  their brand. You have to help people understand in the beginning, because it  can be really intimidating."

Bedeau  says Capital One partners with nonprofit organizations nationwide that are  providing technical assistance, consulting and training to entrepreneurs of  every age. "It's about meeting people where they are," she says. "We are really  able to understand what the local challenges are with nonprofit partners and  design solutions from the ground up."

Vandra  Thorburn of Brooklyn, laid off at 61, happily took advantage of New York  state's self-employment assistance program (SEAP), which allows individuals to  collect unemployment benefits while they work toward establishing a new  business. SEAP requires participants to attend classes in finances,  bookkeeping, rules and regulations and marketing. "All of those classes that I  would never have thought of taking," Thorburn says.

As  part of the program, Thorburn wrote a business plan for her idea – Vokashi, a  service that collects food scraps for composting – which then netted her $5,000  in seed money from a business competition sponsored by the Brooklyn Public  Library. "SEAP was really great," she says. "In fact, I wrote an award-winning  business plan. What I lost [by not having a traditional job], I got in my  prize."

Thorburn's  business uses a Japanese system of bacterial composting called bokashi. (She  changed the ‘b' to a ‘v' to reference her first name.) Subscribers receive buckets  with airtight lids and a bran mixture with the necessary bacteria. They add  food scraps as they go, and Thorburn swaps out fresh buckets for the filled on  a schedule the customer selects. She used her prize money to purchase the van  she uses for bucket collection.

After  about four years, Thorburn developed a partnership with Marine Park Golf Course  for an outdoor location where she could process and leave the food scraps for  the months-long process of decomposition. The course, which is publicly owned  by the city of New York, then uses the compost as fertilizer.

Thanks  to that collaboration, Thorburn was able to expand her collection from roughly  30 buckets a month to nearly 400 buckets a month. "The trade is that they share  the land, and I give them compost," she says.

Thorburn's  business model relies on subscriptions, not profit from selling the compost.  She says that because her house was paid for, and because she qualifies for  Medicaid health insurance, she is able to support herself through Vokashi. Now  71, her plan is to continue with the business for a few more years. Before she  finishes, she hopes to establish relationships with the other municipal golf  courses, adding sustainability centers where children can learn about  composting.

Thorburn  is happy with what she's been able to accomplish. "I've been able to be a  pioneer in this," she says. "It's my blue sky vision, my idea, my personal  creativity in this particular space."

Both  CUD's Bowles and Capital One's Bedeau say encore entrepreneurship benefits both  individuals and cities.

"The  most important thing is for local policymakers and economic development  officials to view this as an opportunity," Bowles says. "Encore  entrepreneurship can translate into loads of new businesses and provide a key  spark to the economy. And entrepreneurship also can provide opportunities for  older adults to become more financially secure later in life. Either way, it's  a win for cities."

The "Starting  Later" report recommends city administrations pay attention to this growing  business energy. "We think cities can do a lot more to promote entrepreneurship  and self-employment as one path for older adults," Bowles says. "Since many  people in their 50s and 60s have spent a lifetime working for someone else,  forging out on their own can be daunting. So many cities have all sorts of incubators  to support the growth of new businesses. We think cities ought to create an incubator  for encore entrepreneurs."

Bedeau  adds: "These are people who aren't ready to retire, they aren't ready to settle  down, or they still need to earn money.

"I  think entrepreneurs are the most creative and determined out there," she says.  "Once they realize that tools are available to them, they take advantage of  them."

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