On a sun-kissed California day, I dragged my chair across the porch of the Cavallo Point Lodge in Sausalito and pulled it up next to 71-year-old Randal Charlton, a newly minted 2011 Purpose Prize winner. He had already sunk into a chair for a brief break in a whirlwind weekend of meetings and celebration.
As we gazed up at sweeping span of The Golden Gate Bridge nearby, we talked about new beginnings. Something he knows a lot about.
Charlton’s efforts at Detroit’s business incubator TechTown, where he was the executive director from 2007 until the end of October — and the turnaround in his personal life–landed him one of five $100,000 Purpose Prizes, which honors Americans over 60 who are developing new ways to tackle social problems.
The award, given annually, is part of a program of Civic Ventures’ Encore campaign, which aims to engage millions of boomers in careers that combine personal meaning, income and social impact. One observer I know dubbed the prize, sponsored by the Atlantic Philanthropies and The John Templeton Foundation, “a sort of Oscars” for social entrepreneurs.
Charlton plans to use the money to support baby boomers who want to go the entrepreneurial path via a new arm of TechTown called BOOM! The New Economy. The start-up aims to help adults over age 50 in southeast Michigan transition to new careers, entrepreneurship and volunteer service. It’s a collaboration between AARP Michigan, Community Foundation for Southeastern Michigan, Corporation for a Skilled Workforce, Luella Hannan Memorial Foundation, Operation ABLE of Michigan, and TechTown.
He knows the demand is there. At TechTown, more than a third of the entrepreneurs coming to the incubator for conferences and training were over age 50.
That’s not surprising. Recent research released by Civic Ventures, a think tank on boomers, work and social purpose, shows that approximately 25 million people – one in four Americans ages 44-70 – are interested in starting businesses or nonprofit ventures in the next five to 10 years. The findings support research from the Kauffman Index of Entrepreneurial Activity, which shows that in 2010, entrepreneurs between the ages of 55 and 64, accounted for 23 percent of new entrepreneurs, up from 14 percent in 1996.
“There are many obstacles to building successful enterprises at this stage in life,” Marc Freedman, founder and CEO of Civic Ventures and author of The Big Shift: Navigating the New Stage Beyond Midlife, says. “But, as we’ve seen with The Purpose Prize, many have been able to make a living while making a difference. We need to help many more do the same.”
Charlton is an entrepreneur to the core. He has bought and sold 14 different companies during his career and been an executive for several global biotech companies. But his path has been twisty. A native of England, Charlton kicked off his career as an agriculture journalist, worked for an agricultural export company and lived for weeks in a Saudi Arabian desert tending a Saudi sheik’s herd of dairy cows. He has been a consultant for cattle breeding associations and for the European Development Fund, too.
Not all of his endeavors have been hits. He lost money on a cattle-ranching operation to produce low-fat beef, for instance. And when he was 53, his Cajun-tinged jazz club in Sarasota, Fla. went belly-up.
And when I say belly-up, I mean kaput. Not only did he lose his club, but his luxurious waterfront home was signed over to creditors to pay his debts. His marriage ended. Then in 1998, one of his four daughters, Kate, who suffered from schizophrenia, committed suicide at the age of 28. His world had exploded.
He floundered. Charlton spent a year in his native England with his other children. Not knowing what to do next, he wrote a book about women’s World Cup soccer in 1999. Kate had played soccer. It didn’t make him any money. “It was good therapy, though,” he says.
His life spun back around in his 60s. He re-married and moved to Detroit, where he developed an idea he had for a biotech company. He co-founded the firm, Asterand, a human-tissue research business, and successfully attracted investors to get it off the grounds. The firm merged with a UK competitor, then went public in 2006. Shares now trade on the London Stock Exchange.
The writing was on the wall. It was time to retire. He was over 65, and at that time it was “expected that CEOs of big UK publicly- listed companies retire at that age,” he recalls. But he wasn’t ready to really retire, so before he handed over to a new CEO, he started job-hunting.
“I went to see my friend Irv Reid, the president of Wayne State University, to ask him if he had anything useful for me to do,” Charlton recounts. And the door to TechTown swung open. TechTown was established in 2000 when Wayne State University, General Motors and the Henry Ford Health System convened to fight Motor City’s economic blight by create an engine of economic growth with both local and statewide impact.
He dubbed Charlton an adviser on economic development, then within three months, the director of TechTown resigned. Reid asked Charlton to take on the job. “I had no experience of running an incubator,” he says with a modest, but self-assured smile of someone who has spent a lifetime jumping into the unknown.
It clicked. In four years, he raised $24 million from foundations and government and assembled a remarkable array of resources for training and start-up funding in a city hit hard by the economic downturn. To date, TechTown has invested $700,000 directly in early-stage businesses through the TechTown Loan Fund and the Thrive One Fund, and helped clients raise $14 million in seed funding. More than 250 companies have taken advantage of entrepreneurial support at TechTown. Some 3,000 people have attended TechTown conferences, and more than 2,200 entrepreneurs have graduated from training programs.
As we sat soaking in the rays and blue-skies above, Charlton graciously doled out astute advice for entrepreneurs over 50. And with refreshing honesty and a twinkle in his eye, he shared some of his personal saga, too. This is what he told me:
“What motivates me to help other entrepreneurs and build BOOM at my age? I grew up on a farm in Devon, England and was milking cows at 6. My life’s culture is work. That’s important to me. It doesn’t have to be important work. But it has to be work. I have to contribute.
I lost a daughter and that changed my approach to life in a lot of ways. I think what I am trying to do is give back something to society. I can’t get back my beloved Kate, but I am trying to get more purpose to my life.
I reached the age of 60 having had a wonderful career, having been involved in 14 different companies, always doing something that fascinated me, and always being quite well rewarded. During the 1990s, I made a few mistakes both from a business and personal perspective, and I ended up broke at 60. Completely broke. I had to go to library to read the newspaper because I couldn’t afford it. I lost my house.
But I learned crucial lessons that can help someone who wants to start his or her own business:
1. De-risk your personal life. If you are a risk taker, as all entrepreneurs are, it doesn’t help if you also add risk into your personal life. This is the biggest single lesson I have carried through the last decade. I made a conscious effort to de-risk my personal life. Stress in your personal financial life ruins your ability to make good business decisions. You can’t be nimble.
In other words, do not build up credit card debt, do not to have a big mortgage, do not to buy a car with big monthly payments. Our house is the smallest house on the block. We have zero mortgage. Our Subaru Outback is ten years old. I do not feel I suffer in any way. I love the good life just like everybody else. I will go out and have a nice dinner with my wife and friends, but I pay with money I have already earned.
2. Don’t bet your retirement money. Do not put the whole of your 401 (k), or even half your 401 (k) into this great idea. It doesn’t matter if you have to have nine partners and you only get a tenth of your great idea. Better to do that then risk your financial future.
Be disciplined. Men more than women, particularly when they are young, do not understand that they are mortal. Like a lot of people I burned the candle at both ends when I was young. I worked hard and I played hard. I decided that the only way I was going to function and be successful post-60 was to be ruthlessly disciplined. Picture Muhammad Ali. He won some of his best fights with phenomenal discipline and training.
People over 60 have got to train for that period of their life. Before a business meeting, I make sure I am mentally and physically fit. I watch what I eat and drink. I’ve had joint replacement and clearly I am not going to run too many marathons, but I walk two or three miles every day. If you look at successful businessmen and women, they are pretty fit, and physical fitness helps your mental fitness.
4. Always overdress. Something I learned at the airport. I asked myself would I be less confident if the pilot was sitting in the cockpit wearing a Grateful Dead t-shirt with a ring in his or her nose and spiked colored hair? The answer is I wouldn’t feel as comfortable. There is reason they wear a uniform. I determined I knew I wasn’t going to be a dashing young man when I engaged in my business activities, but I determined that I would always dress as well as I could.
I wear nice suits, ties and shirts, big designer labels even, but my wife buys them at a resale shop-some have never even been worn before. I do have one pair of dress shoes I had to buy new, though. I arrived at a conference in Kalamazoo and had forgotten to pack any.
5. Network without fear. Who do you know? Who do they know? State what you are looking for. Be upfront about it. Is it money? Advice? A job until your business gets up and running? Don’t worry about rejection. It’s not about you. It’s about them.
6. Get out in the marketplace. If you don’t, what happens is you shrink, shrink, shrink back into your own little world and your confidence goes. You have got to be in the game. It doesn’t matter how you are in the game. You need to stay out there.
When I was in my 60s, struggling financially and waiting to see if I could find anyone to fund my venture, I did a gig for a month delivering phone books, the big ones. I used them to get fit. It was a wonderful mental exercise, too, figuring out what was the optimum number to carry. How many houses forward to go before I would need to go back and move the car.
I worked delivering flowers and driving a van. People might say well that’s below you. You’ve been a CEO of a public company or two and worked for British Petroleum. But for me it was like exercise, you know. It was a thing of joy. It wasn’t about the money. It was about keeping me mentally fit and engaged.
I remember one day in 2000, I applied for and got three jobs. There was an advertisement for a zookeeper at the Detroit Zoo in the paper. I happen to have been brought up on a farm, and I know a little about animals. (He had also earned an agricultural degree from England’s Wye College.) I went down to City Hall and I sat for the zookeepers test and I passed it, and I got the job. I also got a job making sandwiches in a deli. That very same day, these venture capitalists in Boston told me they would give me $500,000 to start a life sciences company.”
And on that note, Charlton looked at his $10 watch, straightened his $2 designer tie, and stood-up. It was time to go to lunch and shake some hands.