Silicon Valley adores its wunderkinds. It's easy to look at the Mark Zuckerbergs and Jack Dorseys of the world and assume that youth is a necessity, or at least a major benefit, when starting a business.
And yet, according the Kauffman Foundation's annual Index of Entrepreneurial Activity, the rate of new businesses being started by entrepreneurs between 20 and 34 has actually been falling in recent years. Meanwhile, the number of businesses created by older entrepreneurs between the ages of 55 and 64 is rising drastically. In 1996, just 14.3 percent of new entrepreneurs were older than 55. By 2012, that number had risen to 23.4 percent.
Now there's a conference specifically targeting this demographic of entrepreneurs.
On Thursday a non-profit called the Center for Productive Longevity launched a national conference in Washington D.C. to promote entrepreneurship in the over-50 crowd. The event is the brainchild of 86-year-old Bill Zinke, who previously founded and ran a management consulting firm that focused on issues that arise with older workers. Around 2007, he started thinking about ways to encourage the growing population of seniors to remain productively engaged as they grew older. Drawing on his own experience, he believed entrepreneurship was a particularly good fit for older generations.
"Older people possess something younger people lack: namely experience, expertise, judgment, and performance," he says. "That's why the older people who create new businesses have a better rate of success."
Last year, the Center hosted four regional meetings to encourage people 50 and over to consider starting a business. The national conference will focus more broadly on the policies that need to change in the public, private, non-profit, and academic sectors in order to lower the hurdles for older entrepreneurs. For instance, few academic institutions hold courses in entrepreneurship for older people.
"The reality is, older people don't need the same education as younger people do," Zinke says. Encouraging schools to add more of these classes is one of many calls to action being made over the two-day conference. Another is urging President Obama to set up a presidential commission that would review and improve upon the regulatory environment for entrepreneurs in America.
Zinke insists this initiative is not merely empty discourse. After the conference is over, he hopes to raise funding to sponsor a series of workshops around the country for people over 50 who are interested in entrepreneurship. According to Zinke, the timing has never been better.
"In more recent years, the economy has shifted from being industrial to knowledge-based. Older people can continue working well into their 60s, 70s, and 80s," says Zinke, who founded the Center when he was in his 80s. "I guess I’m an example. And I do not think I’m an anatomical wonder. I simply reflect the reality of demographic change in America."