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.
“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.
Then three years ago, Burchfield took it up another gear. With her high school and college friend Carla Frank, she co-founded Blume Honey Water, a company which makes an all-natural drink combining water and bee-friendly honeys with fruit, herbs and spices.
Last year, Blume Honey Water hit shelves in Pennsylvania, the Washington, D.C., metro area and Colorado. It’s now available in the Mid-Atlantic Division Whole Foods stores, 200 Giant Eagle and Market District stores, Mom’s Organic’s and Buehler’s Markets.
“I feel really confident. I have almost 30 years of experience,” says Burchfield.
Burchfield is one of a growing number of women starting businesses. Women now make up 40 percent of new entrepreneurs in the United States — the highest percentage since 1996, according to the 2016 Kauffman Index of Startup Activity. And in 2016, there were an estimated 11.3 million women-owned businesses in the U.S., up 45 percent since 2007, according to the 2016 State of Women-Owned Businesses Report from American Express. (Stats on businesses owned specifically by women over 50 are rare.)
What’s the pull? In a recent survey, Paychex asked 1,000 aspiring business owners how they feel, and what they fear, about the prospect of working for themselves. Women were more likely than men to say they were eager to start businesses because they wanted to work for themselves.
For women, taking control of your career is one solution to both the gender pay gap and the lack of advancement opportunities that many feel in today’s workplace, as I just wrote in this New York Times article.
Interestingly, when I talked to Burchfield about her challenges as a woman starting Blume Honey Water, she was emphatic about gender not being an issue for her. “It has never even crossed my mind. My mom raised me not to think of it that way. She told me to ask: ‘What do you need to do to be the best to compete and add value to your business, or who you are working for?’”
I’ve heard similar views repeatedly from the female entrepreneurs over 50 I’ve interviewed in recent months. Like Burchfield, they don’t feel they’re facing particular obstacles launching start-ups because they are women.
As I thought about it, it occurred to me that there was a common spine among the women I’ve met who are becoming entrepreneurs: They cut their teeth in male-dominated industries.
As a result, over the years, they developed thick skins. And that may be a core factor for women over 50 eying new ventures. “Starting your own business is not for the meek,” says Burchfield.
And when it comes to funding their start-ups, women in mid- to late-career generally have more financial capital of their own to invest in their businesses.
“Since differences in financial capital are a key reason that women owned-businesses tend to struggle more than men owned-businesses and have limited growth, the ability to invest more capital provides a substantial advantage to these businesses,” Eddleston says.
Burchfield and Frank, for instance, self-funded their Blume Honey Water research while earning income from their consulting practices. The women raised $1.8 million in initial outside investment from friends and family when they were ready to start production.
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.
Another corporate refuge, Barbara Rodgers, 61, launched Nutrition Life Strategies two 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.”
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, as I wrote about in this Next Avenue column.
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.”