When Marilyn Arnold was 9 years old, her mother, a skilled seamstress, patiently taught her to sew on a vintage Singer treadle sewing machine.
As her feet pumped away at the machine in her family’s farmhouse near Paris, Mo., she was smitten. “I was in love with sewing, even when I stuck my finger and it bled,” Ms. Arnold said.
Soon she was whirling the thread for crisp white blouses with bright red sailor collars, gathered skirts, and, in time, her entire school wardrobe. She even competed in sewing contests at the Missouri State Fair.
But she never dreamed that now, at the age of 66, she would be running her own small business, Marilyn Arnold Designs, in Lee’s Summit, Mo.
Her specialty is custom designing and sewing 18-inch-by-18-inch pillows, christening dresses and blankets as mementos made from cherished wedding gowns that had been relegated to the back of a closet.
She also stitches quilts big enough for a queen-size bed assembled from beloved T-shirts, and patches together vests from timeworn scarves. “Everything I make is from repurposed materials,” she said.
The idea for her venture took root three years ago, shortly before she retired from her position as a managing partner at the New York Life Insurance Company, after 29 years in the insurance business.
That was when her accountant asked her what she planned to do in retirement. She acknowledged that she knew she had to do something, but had no idea what. The accountant asked a second question: “What did you want to do when you were a little girl?”
While her childhood dream was to become a dress designer, that endeavor seemed too lofty a goal at her age. The idea to design and sew custom pillows from a wedding dress was inspired by a friend’s request.
That was the manageable beginning of a new career. Her start-up costs to buy equipment and supplies and to devise a marketing plan tallied $12,000, financed from personal savings, Ms. Arnold said.
First, she sewed as a side job for several months before she retired to see if there was really enough interest to introduce a full-fledged business. In time, she created a website, opened an online web storefront on Etsy, and began posting her designs on Pinterest.
Today, she handles all the sewing duties herself, easily clocking in 12-hour days. “My biggest challenge has been balancing my time in order to work on all aspects of my business,” Ms. Arnold said. “I have to guard against spending too much time working in my business and not enough time working on my business.”
Older American entrepreneurs like Ms. Arnold are on a roll.
Kimberly Palmer, author of “The Economy of You: Discover Your Inner Entrepreneur and Recession-Proof Your Life,” said she had noticed that the most eager audience for the book was often people approaching retirement, or already in it. “They want to leverage their skills and experience into something entrepreneurial,” she said.
According to a recent study published by the Kauffman Foundation and Legal Zoom, in 2013, about 20 percent of all new businesses were started by entrepreneurs aged 50 to 59 years, and 15 percent were 60 and over.
And, in fact, over the last decade, the highest rate of entrepreneurial activity belongs to those in the 55-to-64 age group, according to the Kauffman Index of Entrepreneurial Activity.
A desire to work for oneself and create a business that is meaningful and has social impact at this stage of life, combined with a job market that makes it tough for workers over 50 to get hired, has clearly pushed more people to pursue the entrepreneurial path.
“For the longest time we’ve assumed that social entrepreneurship was the exclusive provenance of young people,” said Marc Freedman, founder and chief executive of Encore.org, the nonprofit research center dedicated to second acts for the greater good. “Now we’re realizing an undiscovered continent of innovation in the growing population over 50.”
But it is not an easy road. Money is the biggest stumbling block. Most start-ups like Ms. Arnold’s are underwritten with personal savings.
If someone does not have a nice stockpile of savings to tap, or a partner who is still bringing home a paycheck, it is tough to get going. And many entrepreneurs do not pay themselves for a year or so to allow their businesses to gain traction.
To finance the more than $100,000 it took to start Well Read New & Used Books in Hawthorne, N.J., about three years ago, for example, Bill Skees, then 56, asked his six siblings for a loan, and he and his wife, Mary Ann, were able to dip into savings for the rest. The banks he contacted were not enthusiastic.
“There’s lots of red tape, and most banks aren’t interested in financing a senior business start-up, which generally runs between $10,000 to $25,000, because it’s too small,” said Elizabeth Isele, 71, co-founder of SeniorEntrepreneurshipWorks.org, a nonprofit venture geared to helping workers over age 50 start their own businesses. “And age bias can be a big factor.”
That said, many small and microbusinesses, particularly freelance, home-based and online e-commerce businesses, require only a fraction of that to get going, sometimes under $1,000.
Where there’s a will, there’s a way. Determined older entrepreneurs have tapped retirement accounts, tracked down hard-to-get economic development loans in their communities and turned to crowdfunding sites.
A Senate hearing titled “In Search of a Second Act: The Challenges and Advantages of Senior Entrepreneurship,” scheduled for next Wednesday, will offer a chance to air issues like age bias from lending organizations and the need to develop tax incentives for training and start-ups.
“In order to continue our economic recovery, we need to change how we view the terms ‘start-up’ or ‘entrepreneur,’ ” said Senator Mary L. Landrieu, Democrat of Louisiana, chairwoman of the Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship.
“Most people associate those terms with a tech business and a young computer whiz, not a home business in a rural town and a seasoned executive with 30 years of management experience,” Senator Landrieu said. “Senior entrepreneurs are especially critical to creating jobs and growing the economy, because they have the right experience and resources to be successful.”
Ms. Isele, who plans to testify at the hearing, said she and others would argue that this growing demographic group would not cause a crisis. “We need to help people in policy and private industry to understand, this isn’t a silver tsunami,” she said. “It’s a silver lining, yielding golden dividends. Senior entrepreneurs contribute to the economy, paying taxes, creating jobs, paying people and underwriting entitlement programs.”
Senator Landrieu said she hoped the hearing would showcase successful initiatives and discuss whether they could be replicated elsewhere.
One innovative initiative is the eProv Studio, which will officially start this weekend at the Institute for the Ages’ Conference on Positive Aging in Sarasota, Fla.
These new workshops, created by Ms. Isele and Cheryl Kiser, executive director of the Lewis Institute at Babson College, combine the methodology of entrepreneurial thought and action and the techniques of improvisational theater.
“Each participant comes to the workshop with a desire, an itch, an idea of what they might want to do,” Ms. Kiser added. “The method we teach in these groups of 20 is to look at who you are, what you know, who you know, what you can do and the resources you have at hand to create something of value.”
Using the improv process can help decode someone’s entrepreneurial history. “We help them understand decade by decade what they have accomplished and see a pattern of these accomplishments and entrepreneurial skills they have had throughout their entire life,” Ms. Isele said.
Other resources include a free, online, open-source entrepreneurship curriculum, hosted at the Lawrence N. Field Center for Entrepreneurship at the Zicklin School of Business at Baruch College. It is intended for people over 50 and includes help with developing business plans, obtaining loans, gaining and access to business start-up incubators and meeting mentors to serve as sounding boards.
Then there is the Kauffman Foundation’s FastTrac Boomer Entrepreneur program.
In collaboration with AARP and FastTrac affiliates in select American cities, Kauffman is piloting specialized 10-week courses in both English and Spanish. Up to 20 applicants will be accepted in each course. The next course is scheduled to run from Feb. 24 to April 28 in Irvine, Calif., in conjunction with the nonprofit Tech Coast Venture Network Irvine. The cost is $200.
And while many older Americans are new to learning business skills, some cherish the personal rewards discovered along the way. “My business has given me so many things, but what I love the most is that I’m my own boss,” Ms. Arnold said. “I manage my time.”
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