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The Entrepreneurial Solution: Inspiring New Paths for Older Workers

Kevyn Burger August 19, 2019
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Author and startup mentor Sandra Hughes offers vision, guidance for entrepreneurs looking to reinvent their work life. 

Launching a new business always involves a leap of faith. But as more and more Americans turn toward entrepreneurship, Sandra Hughes is convinced they need to spend more time looking before they leap.

“I catch people before they jump. I like to work with those who are still thinking about that pivot into entrepreneurship,” said Hughes, author of “Reinventing Your Life: Your Guide to Finding Fulfillment in Starting Your Business.” That’s when I can give them context for the move to their next chapter.”

Hughes is releasing “Reinventing Your Life” amid a dramatic shift in the workplace that has heightened the lure of entrepreneurship for employees looking for a self-directed option. A recent report from the Kauffman Index of Startup Activity calculates that some 550,000 Americans launch new businesses each month, a number that jumped by nearly 15% between 2015 and 2017. Entrepreneurship is appealing to the increasing number of Americans who can no longer count on a pension and a gold watch.

“Work is changing rapidly and constantly, and will continue to do so for the rest of our lives. We can’t depend on corporate careers, and job security is not what it was,” Hughes said.

While a popular image of the entrepreneur is a hoodie-clad millennial pumping a hot tech startup, older Americans compose a thriving segment of the U.S. entrepreneurial population. Kauffman Foundation research shows that over the past 20 years, the number of entrepreneurs between 55 and 64 increased more than any other age group. Findings also show Americans over 45 are more likely to become first-time entrepreneurs than those who are younger.

Hughes suggests that many workers who’ve developed skills in their traditional or corporate jobs could market their expertise as solopreneurs.

Differentiating and Digging Deeper

After a successful international career with The Gap, Hughes earned her MBA and began a career around her passion: advising clients looking to entrepreneurship as a solution in their own lives. At 57, Hughes is among the youngest of the baby boomers or the oldest of the GenX’ers, depending on how the generations are parsed. She thinks that gives her an affinity with both groups as they begin their work transition with her Life Reinvented programs.

What I ask them to do is pause, reflect and reset—to be intentional,” she said. “I start a dialogue about what differentiates them. We do a deep dive to explore all the things they have ever done, all the things they have touched.”

Too many prospective entrepreneurs don’t invest enough time and effort to build a foundation that will set them up for success. Unlike some entrepreneurship advisors, Hughes believes in working through an extensive and thoughtful process—from creating a vision, to developing a business plan, to maintaining accountability in execution and beyond.

“I emphasize planning and being strategic to realize their vision,” she said. “When you are strategic, you anticipate. You think about what’s going to come next and how you are going to get there. If you’re tactical and get clarity before you go to market, it eliminates so much stress and uncertainty.”

One client, Luci Gabel, credits Hughes with guiding her to a more focused and streamlined vision for her emerging business.

“It’s my tendency to put my head down and work. Sandy said, step back, look at the future, make a plan,” Gabel said. “When you’re in the trenches it’s hard to do that by yourself. You don’t say ‘I’m going to spend an hour thinking about my unique value proposition.’ It’s helpful to work with someone who holds you accountable. You dig deeper.”

Transitioning Experience Into Entrepreneurship

Hughes described many of her clients as the “rock stars” in their previous professions—propelled by the entrepreneurial mindset they developed in the corporate world. She believes that makes them stellar candidates for spinning out their own enterprise. 

Gabel had already shifted from a management career to become an exercise physiologist and nutritionist. She developed her entrepreneurial chops a dozen years ago when she founded Lucifit to consult and coach individuals and corporate groups to optimize their health and wellness.

Despite her previous experience starting a new business, Gabel knew she needed guidance to transition into her next entrepreneurial concept.  

“Sandy helped me take all of my experience and pull it together in a way that made sense,” she said. “I had a big pot of soup, a lot of things swimming around. I had to get my niche clear in my own mind before I could move it forward.”

Gabel is now writing a book, “Eat to Lead,” to be released later this year, and will offer online and in-person courses to supplement the principles set out in the book.

Smart Timing and Tools for the Climb

While Hughes sympathizes with clients like Gabel, who are eager to transform their brilliant idea into a business, she urges measured steps.

“I advocate having an income to support yourself while the new business is growing,” she said. “I do not recommend quitting a job and jumping. When you are branching out on your own, you need to be careful and intentional and not drain your savings.”

Well aware of the pitfalls that face entrepreneurs, Hughes has found that understanding the cycle of the start-up can keep clients from joining the high percentage of entrepreneurs who don’t make it.

“If they jump too soon, they can set themselves back. I’ve seen people who give up just when their business might be ready to gel, but by then they’ve used their savings,” she warned. “They may have to go back to their previous position out of desperation or even go to a job at a lesser level with less pay.”

A planful approach not only is smart business practice, but also helps to diffuse the uncertainty that can overwhelm and frustrate those who are figuring out how to earn a new livelihood after 50. Hughes recognizes the need to keep other parts of life stable while making big work transitions.

She believes in the value of peer networks for entrepreneurs as they launch their new ventures.

“Our friendships have been associated with our jobs. When you decide to be an entrepreneur and leave the job, you leave friends. They’re looking for new people who are on the same road, who have left the structure of a job and are doing things on their own.”

Hughes offers a comprehensive “Life Reinvented” toolkit that includes her book; the site, www.lifereinvented.com; an eight-week group course; and the chance to talk during a clarity call at chatsandra.com.

“It’s an uphill climb,” she said. “But at a time when so many of us are making the leap—by force or choice—I’m passionate about getting into the trenches to support the transition.”

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Kevyn Burger

Kevyn Burger is a freelance feature writer and broadcast producer. She was named a 2018 Journalist in Aging Fellow by the Gerontological Society of America. Based in Minneapolis, Kevyn is the mother of three young adults and one rescue terrier.

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