Older Entrepreneurs Take On the ‘Concrete Ceiling’

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AVERY CHENOWETH spent childhood summers on a front porch in Tennessee, where adults would say, over pitchers of martinis as fans slowly turned, “If you listen carefully, you may learn something.”

He’s still learning. Now 60, Mr. Chenoweth, with a 65-year-old partner, recently started a business called Here’s My Story, whose gaming app brings history alive through location-based role-playing.

It works with Harpers Ferry National Historic Park, where users participate in the lives of historical figures. Slaves, soldiers and nurses are depicted through an interactive process that takes the oral storytelling of Mr. Chenoweth’s childhood beyond the front porch.

It wasn’t easy to become an entrepreneur later in life. Originally a novelist, Mr. Chenoweth had a major heart attack that left him too fatigued to write. He had to look elsewhere to pay the bills.

He began working for Hertz, earning minimum wage by returning rental vehicles that had been abandoned. One car used in a drug deal had “nine bullet holes in the window,” he said. “It was just shot to smithereens.”

A year later, a friend, Philippe Sommer, told him about an incubator at the Darden School of Business of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, where Mr. Chenoweth lives. Known as i.Lab, it began by offering mentorship and courses to support students starting businesses. When Mr. Sommer took over the leadership, he opened it to local residents.

“At that point it was like shifting gears and flipping on the lights and going in and, you know, just coming back to myself again,” Mr. Chenoweth said. “Full speed, full lights, full energy. It was just completely rejuvenating.”

Now in robust health, Mr. Chenoweth still found being older than most of the other participants, many of them M.B.A. students, a challenge. He didn’t have the technological experience to follow through with his idea, and he knew that going out on his own would be risky.

“As you get older, the ceiling isn’t glass,” he said. “It’s concrete. Or even worse, it’s made out of wood and covered with silk.”

Many older Americans want to start a business but find they lack certain skills, and sometimes also the confidence to try something new. In response, more organizations focused on training entrepreneurs are targeting baby boomers.

The Y.W.C.A. San Francisco and Marin Fifty Plus Program offers training, mentoring and placement for women 50 and over. One 68-year-old woman, who asked not to be named for fear of age discrimination, started a bookkeeping business thanks to the program’s QuickBooks training and mentorship.

There is also a partnership between AARP and the Small Business Administration. The organization and the federal agency, which both have local offices in every state, provide workshops and webinars tailored to local needs. Other groups include the Renaissance Entrepreneur Center in San Francisco, and S.B.A.’s numerous local partners.

While some groups focus specifically on an older crowd, those like Darden’s iLab that offer training for entrepreneurs are also growing accustomed to seeing this age group. As Mr. Chenoweth says, “It’s more about temperament than age.”

Jason Blumberg, chief executive and managing director of Energy Foundry, which makes early-stage investments in energy start-ups, offers one example of the advantages of experience. “Clean tech is not a new industry,” he said. “It’s redefining and upending an old industry and pieces of old industries.

“To do that,” he added, “you need to have a lot of knowledge of the industry that you’re competing in.”

The Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation found that 24.3 percent of new entrepreneurs in 2015 were ages 55 to 64, compared with 14.8 percent in 1996. The Small Business Administration reports that one in four people between 44 and 70 are interested in becoming entrepreneurs.

Not everyone over 50 wants to be an entrepreneur, of course, but more than a third of Americans 50 to 64 anticipate working for pay after reaching the traditional retirement age of 65. Can entrepreneurship open opportunities for them as well?

Melissa A. Berman is president and chief executive of Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors and a professor at the Tamer Center for Social Enterprise at Columbia Business School. She says the concept of social entrepreneurship — “an innovative and creative way to meet a social need” — can be applied to employment of older people just as much as, say, to building facilities for clean water in Africa or providing microcredit to artisan women.

Which is where the Global Good Fund, through the Diana Davis Spencer Foundation Fellowship, has decided to try to make its mark. The new fellowship, which is now accepting applications, is for entrepreneurs who create jobs for Americans 50 and older.

The Global Good Fund, which began with a program for emerging entrepreneurs from around the world, will apply that same model to the new fellowship. Fellows participate in rigorous training, working with professional coaches and mentors over 15 months — a length of time that, according to Ms. Berman, avoids “drive-by mentoring” that is “not likely to create lasting help for the entrepreneur.”

Coaches from previous years have included Ted Leonsis, founder and chief executive of Monumental Sports and Entertainment, and Lydia Thomas, former president and chief executive of Noblis, a nonprofit research group based outside Washington. On the fellowship’s board of advisers are Muhammad Yunus, the Nobel Peace Prize winner who founded Grameen Bank in Bangladesh, and Sheila Johnson, one of the founders of Black Entertainment Television.

After months of coaching and evaluating skills, the fellows are to meet for five days of what José V. Fernández, the fund’s director of programs, calls “an intense boot camp on leadership.” They will also collaborate online.

Why is employing baby boomers a worthy goal of social entrepreneurship?

“Companies flourish in diversity,” Mr. Fernández said. “The immense experience and the different challenges and contexts that this community has faced makes them an invaluable asset. They understand a market that is being disregarded. It’s not only the employment of this group, but that this group as a buyer has been extremely overlooked.”

Mr. Chenoweth, who hasn’t lost his novelist’s way with words, is among those planning to apply for the Global Good Fund fellowship. “It will be another opportunity,” he said, to “try to lasso lightning and pull it down and put it in a bottle.”