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.”