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For Insight, Look to Older Entrepreneurs

OPINION

For insight, look to older entrepreneurs

They have profound insights into the unmet needs of the aging population.

DARYNA/ADOBEADOBE/GLOBE STAFF

growing number of late-career adults are opting for a new path: entrepreneurship. The appeal is twofold: to build something meaningful — and just as important, to design a work life that works for them.

To help companies improve the aging journey, a cross-sector group of Boston business leaders formed AGENCY: Worldwide Innovation for Living Longer and Aging Better. We launched AGENCY at the Cambridge Innovation Center with a seed grant from the Baker-Polito administration to help forge a larger longevity-centered innovation hub in New England.

We knew the trillion-dollar global AgeTech market opportunity would pique the interest of entrepreneurs. What we didn’t know was just how strongly older adults themselves would be drawn to the work.

Many are leveraging Boston’s robust startup resources to help lift their new ventures. Peter Nash, an expert in team-building, and Susanne Greelish, an experienced food-industry rep, met at an AGENCY event and co-founded Ginger Gems, a healthy snack company they are incubating at Commonwealth Kitchen in Dorchester.

Some founders retired from their first careers only to plunge back into action, itching to fix a problem or turn their passion projects into income-producing businesses. Daria Myers and Robin Albin, for example, left their senior executive roles in the cosmetics industry to launch Everlusting, a brand that reframes beauty with a line of desirable sensorial products for “unstoppable women of a certain age.”

To support and amplify this powerhouse of untapped potential, AGENCY convened the Founders Over 55 Collective (F55+). The group quickly bloomed to 400-and-growing members who tune in for virtual panel discussions, skill-building, and networking. F55+ members are unabashedly reinventing themselves as entrepreneurs despite the prevailing ageist stereotypes that startups are the purview of the young.

Older founders are breaking the mold of the idolized tech-founder persona — one who is so obsessed with their venture that they miss out on life. Instead, they are maintaining balanced lifestyles while doing what they’ve always wanted to do — and getting paid to do it.

For example, Ross Ozer’s early retirement package gave him the runway to launch RJOStudiosCo to sell his own hand-crafted home décor and men’s fashions on Etsy. This financial services senior executive turned maker now has the scheduling freedom to also pursue his other passions for travel and theater.

Another advantage that older entrepreneurs enjoy is a lifetime of business relationships. Dianne Austin endured chemo treatment while working full-time at a hospital. Dismayed that no wigs matched her “beautiful Afro kinky curly hair,” she and her sister launched Coils to Locs to offer diverse wigs via Dianne’s connections with hospital gift shops and address a health care disparity for women of color.

That said, ageism challenges still exist. Older entrepreneurs who are uncomfortable in risking their own nest eggs and finding venture capital unwilling to bet on them, do spend considerable time seeking alternate sources of funding. Cash prizes from incubators and early wins from special interest groups have otherwise helped some jumpstart their businesses.

Julie Lineberger and her architect husband designed an accessible home addition after her godson became paralyzed. Veterans groups took note, and Julie launched WheelPad L3C to make her ADA-compliant Personal Accessible Dwellings that allow people with mobility challenges to live at home in comfort and dignity.

Julie earned the top prize at AGENCY’s Pitchfest for Vitality with AARP Innovation Labs and now, at 64, she is ramping up production to meet WheelPad’s pandemic-fueled growth as an alternative to nursing homes.

Other seasoned founders parlay Small Business Innovation Research grants and collaborations with larger partners to increase their visibility for add-on funding. Jayanthi Narasimham, a tech expert in Boston, was concerned about her mother’s declining health in India, 8,000 miles away. At 60, she is working with geriatricians to pilot WatchRx, her AgeTech wristband that allows eldercare teams to remotely manage medication reminders, monitor geofence wandering, and track vital signs.

Regardless of their motivation, company size, or business model, people who start a business later in life consider their age to be an asset and when mixed with a powerful cocktail of ambition, restlessness, savvy, networks, and life experiences, it can lead to entrepreneurial success and personal satisfaction.

The wellspring of talent in this cohort cannot be ignored. The economic impact of their contributions cannot be discounted. The mental health benefits that come from sustaining a growth mindset, social connections, and meaningful work at their own discretion cannot be underestimated.

Let’s not marginalize the value of older founders or block their path with outdated ageist mindsets. Instead, let’s ensure our business ecosystem welcomes age diversity as a bedrock of innovation and belonging. Hire them, buy from them, partner with them, fund them, be them. You just might catch a glimpse of your own future of running a business — and a life — you love.

Danielle D. Duplin is cofounder of AGENCY: Worldwide Innovation for Living Longer and Aging Better and cofounder of The Founders Over 55 Collective.