Igniting Intergenerational Entrepreneurship

May 26, 2016

How older women are changing the start-up landscape.

by Elizabeth Isele
Founder and CEO, Global Institute for Experienced Entrepreneurship

This Month’s Power Shift Forum in Washington, DC, was a dynamic convening of world leaders – women of all ages – creating innovative collaborations and partnerships, opening new pathways through technology and building sustainable inclusion to equip more women and girls with the skills and confidence they need to drive social and economic change for themselves, their communities and the world.

It provided multiple ways for me to highlight the still under-recognized opportunity to create economic prosperity for people of all ages by catalyzing cross-generational experience to ignite a new kind of entrepreneurship.

We are living in a new world. In Senior Entrepreneurship: The New Normal, I note that the world has changed for seniors and they, in turn, are changing the world. Today’s 50+ year-olds who have been given the gift of an additional 20–30 years of longevity and good health are creating businesses of their own—from micro- to multimillion-dollar ventures. The majority of these new entrepreneurs are women and they are optimizing their life and work experience to build everything from glue guns to technology-driven businesses.

The Kansas City, Missouri-based Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation’s Index of Entrepreneurial Activity identified the highest rate of entrepreneurial activity in the U.S. for the last 15 years has been among the 55 to 64 age group. As of spring of 2016, I learned from one of the Kauffman researchers that the trend shows no sign of slowing down for those entrepreneurs who are 64 years old or older.

The predominance of successful women entrepreneurs in the US was documented in the 2013 Women-Owned Business Report, published by American Express OPEN. Between 1997 and 2013, the number of women-owned businesses increased by 59 percent – 1½ times the rate of U.S. businesses overall. What’s more, over the past 16 years, employment by companies owned by female entrepreneurs was up by 10 percent and their revenues grew by 63 percent. Both of those increases exceed those of all but the largest, publicly-traded firms. Today, more than 8.6 million U.S. businesses are owned by women. They generate more than $1.3 trillion in revenues and employ nearly 7.8 million people.

But this is not just a US phenomenon. Entrepreneurs aged 50 and above in the United Kingdom, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and many other countries, are launching startups faster than any other cohort.

Older women may have never identified themselves as entrepreneurs, but in many ways they have been entrepreneuring all their lives: in their work; managing a home; raising a family; nurturing reciprocal relationships; and so much more.

There are five essential assets needed to succeed in today’s digital, Big Data, hyper-complex, Internet of Things’ world, and they are so intrinsically embedded in women’s experience that we have a unique advantage to succeed where young, inexperienced entrepreneurs cannot. Those traits are:

1. Curiosity: not just a superficial interest in all things out there, but curiosity as in truly engaging with what’s out there and what’s not. Our experience makes us unique from machines built on algorithms and from digital natives who crave the predictability the algorithms produce. Our experience helps us find unexpected pathways to simplify the complex and make unlikely but meaningful connections work.

2. Creativity: discovering new ideas and or new systems. Getting info is not the biggest challenge in our Big Data-driven world. Google alone answers almost 2 billion search queries a month. The biggest challenge is analyzing, prioritizing and connecting all that information in new ways, and older entrepreneurs’ experience of knowing what works and what doesn’t gives them a huge advantage over those who’ve little experience testing new ideas.

3. Initiative: to actually do something with ideas. Yes, the young and energetic are often eager to push forward to apply their knowledge to generate profits but lasting value is created when the experienced combine their knowledge with their intuition and judgment to create prosperity.

4. Multidisciplinary thinking: experienced individuals understand the benefit of reaching out to others from multiple disciplines for their insights. I recently saw a short movie called “The Adaptable Mind” where I heard this brilliant nugget, “Instead of multi- tasking, we should be multi-asking.”

5. Empathy: Be it selling an idea, product or service, empathy is key. Remember what Maya Angelou said about her stories, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

The ability to sense motives and feelings of others grows stronger throughout life and enhances the ability to communicate effectively face-to-face as well as any form of social media.

The world is waking up to the economic impact of experience. In fact, Finland, as a country that appreciates and understands the power of a mature workforce, has named experience as its number one natural resource!

That being said, the even greater opportunity exists in harnessing cross-generational experience. Intergenerational entrepreneurship has tremendous potential to both fuel economic growth and build social capital. It can take many forms in families and in communities to build new businesses or find innovative solutions to major societal problems.

Three examples of women unleashing the power of intergenerational collaboration to build successful business worldwide are:

1. Congreso de Latinos Unidos Inc intergenerational program for Latina Women Entrepreneurs.

With a new grant from the Friends Foundation in Philadelphia, Congresa is implementing an innovative intergenerational entrepreneurship project designed to build the capacity of older people and young adults to develop small business initiatives focused on producing and marketing culturally relevant crafts. Approximately 10-15 youth and 10-15 older adults will participate in this pilot project. After receiving training in intergenerational communication, understanding and entrepreneurship, participants will work with a Business Consultant to identify potential products or ideas, conduct market research, identify target audiences for products, and develop an operating budget. The students and older adults will be directly involved in the production, marketing, and managing of the pilot business. Products will be sold at Congreso and online, capitalizing on the youth’s technical expertise. Proceeds will go back into the project to scale the program. Through this program, participants will enhance their entrepreneurial skills and knowledge, develop new intergenerational relationships, and increase a sense of connectedness to the broader community.

Yesi Morillo-Gual entrepreneur and founder, Proud to be Latina, based in New York City says such programs are ripe for success because, “Immigrants, in general, have innate entrepreneurial skills. When they arrive in America, they have to figure out everything for themselves – from language, to where to live, to how to support themselves. There is no blueprint.”

2. Sooretul: An intergenerational entrepreneurship program advancing rural women farmers through e-commerce in Senegal.

Sooretul, was created by Awa Caba (aged 27) and a group of young African entrepreneurs to help older Senegalese women farmers who create local, organic agricultural products by giving them an online space to sell and promote their products. Women are producing couscous, juice of fruits of mango, bissap, and other natural products used in the Senegalese daily life. The online commerce platform is hugely beneficial as access to the main networks of food and large-scale orders is not easy for small producers in Senegal. In Senegal, more than seven million people are digitally connected. This means that a woman living more than 700 km away from Dakar with no access to supermarkets or shops has the opportunity to reach seven million consumers. The e-commerce platform aims to connect rural supply to urban demand and allows customers to make their purchases online and have them delivered at their chosen location. According to a 2013 study by the McKinsey Global Institute think tank, internet-facilitated business contributed 3.3% of Senegal’s gross domestic product (GDP) – the highest level for any African nation – with Kenya in second place on 2.9%.

Sooretul’s creator, Awa Caba, won the innovation award of the Rebranding Africa Award 2015, an initiative that rewards projects of the year considered to be the most innovative on a continental scale.

3. Marie Campbell built an intergenerational business after being anointed “Star Baker” in the Great British Bake Off.

Marie is a Scottish grandmother who was propelled to business success by her daughter. At age 66, Marie, was the oldest contestant, to date, on the wildly successful reality TV series where passionate amateur baking fans compete to be crowned the UK’s Best Amateur Baker. The series follows the trials and tribulations of competitors of all ages, from every background and every corner of Britain, as they attempt to prove their baking prowess.

Marie’s daughter Catriona Campbell, Founding Director of Seren, is a digital guru. She was one of the first inductees into the UK Digital Hall of Fame and one of the top 100 individuals recognized by Sir Tim Berners-Lee for their contribution to the development of the Internet.

Catriona, sensing there was a larger market than just family and friends for her Mum’s cakes, applied to the show on her mother’s behalf. Her Mum was selected from 36,000 applicants and, although bumped off the show after an episode when her biscuits went bust, Marie was an audience favorite and was well-loved by the other contestants for whom she quickly became a mentor. Marie was in it for the fun and experience and the younger bakers learned a lot about how to cope with the stress of the competition from her. Even when her biscuit failure led to her Bake Off demise, she was able to laugh at her mistakes and get on with her life.

After the show, Marie was overwhelmed by the number of orders for her cakes the TV show exposure generated. She opened her own bake shop and hired a young, 24-year old pastry chef from a 2-Star Michelin Restaurant to help meet the demand. The intergenerational team’s cakes are truly works of art, and their customers include the famous 5-Star Gleneagles Hotel in Scotland.

Today, Marie’s expanding her business through e-commerce. Her tech daughter is helping build the website, but Marie herself keeps track of the business with 3 iPads. And, though this began as a two-generational endeavor, Marie’s now teaching her grandsons the art of baking and she says the 5-year old’s skills wielding a pastry piping bag have him well on his way to becoming a young, master decorator.

Effective intergenerational collaboration doesn’t just happen. The process of building cross-age, mutually beneficial relationships takes time, energy, and an appreciation of diverse life perspectives and goals. Understanding generational differences and commonalities is key to the intergenerational learning experience.

Programs such as our (GIEE’s) Experience Incubator® unleash the entrepreneurial potential of women at all stages of life by helping them identify opportunities and develop the skills and competencies required to be successful entrepreneurs. Making these opportunities intentionally intergenerational not only enhances the learning experience, it also dispels age-related stereotypes and builds strong bonds across age, race and ethnicity in our increasingly diverse communities.

Through mobile tech education programs like Power Shift attendee Louise Guido’s “Smart Women” we can connect these new entrepreneurs and their expertise to one another and to other would-be women and girls poised to build a business of their own and drive economic empowerment worldwide.

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