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Member News: C.C. Eship / NACCE Journal Fall/Winter 2009

Entrepreneurial Opportunities for Mature Adults

Thursday, November 5, 2009   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Matthew Montoya
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By Shelley Garnet

Director, Mainstream, the Institute for Mature Adults

Westchester Community College, Valhalla, NY

In recent years a growing need has emerged for older workers to have access to expanded opportunities to remain in the labor force. Mainstream, the Institute for Mature Adults at Westchester Community College, in Valhalla, NY, undertook a two-year small business training project for those age fifty and over. The project was conducted four times from spring 2007 through fall 2008 and was funded by The Coleman Foundation and the Helen Andrus Benedict Foundation. Some valuable lessons were learned about entrepreneurial training for this age group based on the initial support of these funders, and the program remains ongoing with continued refinements based on student needs.

Mainstream, an older adult education program begun in 1984, serves over 3,000 students each year in both enrichment and vocational courses. Since the start of its Center for the Mature Work Force in 1990, Mainstream has been a leader specifically in job training programs for those ages fifty and over, providing various short term and more intensive job training programs for over 1,000 people annually.

For the past several years, Westchester County has been ahead of the curve in relation to the number of baby boomers approaching retirement age. These aging workers remain in the workforce for two primary reasons: financial necessity and the desire to remain active and/or try something new. Mainstream saw a gap in entrepreneurial training opportunities for mature adults and there was enough evidence to indicate that a program to encourage baby boomers to start small businesses would reach a small but eager population.

Mainstream partnered with the Women’s Enterprise Development Center (WEDC), a designated Women’s Business Center by the U.S. Small Business Administration, to provide a unique entrepreneurial training program designed for adults over fifty called “Entrepreneurial Opportunities for Mature Adults.” The fundamental objective of the partnership was to provide this expanding demographic group with access to affordable, high quality training that would address the specific needs of mature adults who were considering becoming entrepreneurs. Providing sufficient follow-up support post-training to help participants meet their goals was an additional objective. A full report on the methodology employed for the program was documented in a Best Practices Guide that can be accessed at

Lessons Learned

We have learned a number of pedagogical and administrative lessons while administering the program over the past three years:

Student Recruitment

  • Formation of an advisory committee was helpful for recruiting. We recommend an Advisory Committee that not only has expertise in the field of small business development, but also has a wide variety of community contacts.
  • Outreach efforts need to be done on multiple fronts, including online, print advertising, mailings and through community outreach using the Advisory Committee. Word of mouth was not an effective source of students. No one method of outreach was found to be more effective than others, which is why multiple methods of outreach are so important.
  • Recruitment was labor intensive. The population sought was very busy with family and work. Often people have difficulty fitting a program such as this into their busy lives. It proved important to have one knowledgeable and enthusiastic person to follow up with students to address their questions and concerns.

Course Format and Curriculum

  • Mature adults interested in starting a business want to move on it quickly to replace lost income or change careers. Students wanted this non-credit course to be shorter in length than typical semester-long credit programs. During the first session (spring 2007), classes were held once a week. Student feedback indicated that a week in between classes was too long a gap for them. It also did not provide the necessary momentum needed in a class that relies so heavily on class discussion and participation. Subsequent sessions were held twice a week for two and a half hours.
  • The time of day for training depends on the cohort. Individuals who participated were largely in their fifties. Many still worked; others were unemployed. The most successful time for the class proved to be in the evenings. During recruitment, it is important to survey callers on their availability to be able to serve the most number of people.
  • Mature adults have exciting ideas but often lack the credentialing and/or knowledge of regulations that would impact their business. Building awareness of these issues is key to business success. Students should be counseled early on in the session on which local and government regulations and licenses might impact their business.
  • Instructor quality makes a big difference in student business plan development. Ideally the instructor should have experience in starting a successful small business as well as the knowledge and ability to teach adults. The program should be a planned and balanced combination of lecture, discussion and exercises.
  • Participants’ computer skills need to be assessed and addressed with a flexible computer training sequence tailor-made to participant needs. To assess computer needs, a brief survey was included on the intake information form. This helped structure the ten hours of computer instruction in the most efficient way. There was a wide range of computer abilities. During some of the computer classes the practical, business-oriented content was presented first, and the more basic computer elements were presented at the end. This allowed the more advanced students to leave early if they wished.
  • Microenterprise vs. small business training – which should be the emphasis with mature adults? None of the students had business backgrounds and few, if any, knew what a business plan really entailed. Several of the students already offered a service from their homes that they wanted to expand, but most had not planned on getting any technical support. The training encouraged some to move beyond microenterprise and really focus on starting a small business.

The Mature Adult as Entrepreneurship Student

  • Mature adults interested in starting a small business present like other age cohorts in terms of their drive, creativity, and vision. Some students were planning and starting businesses after normal retirement age. Some students planned to continue working while getting their businesses off the ground. Age does not mean lack of energy or ambition. Some older adults recognize that this is the time of life to “go for it” and pursue the business they have always dreamed of starting. Some students planned businesses that used their prior life and work experience directly.
  • Mature adults have a passion for their craft or interest and want to make money doing it. Many students wanted to take a hobby and turn it into a business, such as the banker/accountant who opened a catering business based on her love of cooking. One person was passionate about genealogy and wanted to turn that passion into a business. Some students had pursued these activities for years on a very small scale, either on a volunteer basis, or for little pay, and were eager to discover if they could turn their passions, interests and activities into a real small business.
  • Most mature adults have had no formal business background, and many have not attended a class in years. Addressing these fears, as well as the fears of taking the risk of starting or growing a business, is important. One way we did this was through a unit called “Overcoming Obstacles.” The basic message of the class was that each student should expect obstacles, determine which ones they could overcome and take the appropriate action. The obstacle itself is not as important as how they deal with it. The discussion included a strong emphasis on the many benefits of being an older entrepreneur. Many of the students’ individual fears were also addressed in the one-on-one meetings with the business instructor.
  • Most mature adults need to develop presentation skills, not only for their final business plan presentation, but to eventually “sell” their business ideas to potential funders and other partners. It was discovered that the students needed to make their business plan presentations more focused and brief. Just asking students to give a five-minute presentation outlining their business plan was not enough direction. A practice session for the presentations was added to the curriculum.

The most significant outcome demonstrated through the initial sessions of the program was that mature adults have the same passion, entrepreneurial spirit and drive as their younger counterparts. The major difference is that they lack a theoretical base from which to work. Many of our participants had great ideas but did not even know what questions to ask. The idea that there was a body of knowledge on how to start a business was completely new to them, and often surprising. This training has helped get the message out into the community that with training you can operate a successful small business.

Finally, through faculty observation and student feedback we found that the cohort model proved to be the right learning environment for our students. The support and encouragement demonstrated during each training session was a significant factor in the high level of student participation, particularly when it came to the business plan presentations.

Looking forward, Westchester Community College plans to open an Institute for Entrepreneurial Studies in its new Gateway Center Building. The Institute will be committed to advancing innovative and collaborative entrepreneurial programs on campus and in partnership with the community. Through the Institute, the college will continue to examine how it can best meet the needs of the mature adult entrepreneur.

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