By Matthew Halliday – special to the Globe and Mail* – May, 2021
Bill VanGorder likes to say that it only took him 43 years to find his calling.
After a long career in the not-for-profit world, Mr. VanGorder founded Nordic Walking Nova Scotia in 2009, at the age of 67, and immediately realized what he’d been missing all for all those years.
“I love the immediate return on your time and investment as an entrepreneur,” he says. “In business, you’re successful or you’re not, and you find out very quickly which one it is. I appreciate that immediate gratification; knowing what you’re doing, being rewarded accordingly and figuring it out when you’re not.”
Mr. VanGorder is part of a growing wave of Canadian “silver entrepreneurs.” CIBC deputy chief economist Benjamin Tal conducted a study on entrepreneurship in 2012 that found entrepreneurs aged 50 and up were the fastest-growing demographic of new business founders in the country.
“300,000 people in Canada over the age 50 are unemployed,” says Wendy Mayhew, an entrepreneurship coach and author of WISER: The Definitive Guide to Starting a Business After the Age of 50. “Unfortunately, we know because of the dirty word – ageism – some won’t be able to find work. Some can’t afford to retire, and then others simply don’t want to stop working and have a lot left to contribute.”
When he founded Nordic Walking Nova Scotia, Mr. VanGorder fit into both camps: Though he had worked in senior and managerial roles with major charities, including 15 years as president and chief executive officer of the Lung Association of Nova Scotia, his not-for-profit career didn’t exactly leave him with a gilded retirement.
“When the stock market bottomed out in 2008,” he says, “I had no pension, and my savings took a beating.”
What he still had, however, was good health, a restless spirit and an enthusiasm for fitness that he parlayed into Nordic Walking Nova Scotia. The company today sells supplies for Nordic Walking – a vigorous, whole-body exercise popular with senior citizens – in retail stores and online and trains instructors throughout Atlantic Canada.
While many older entrepreneurs start businesses related to their previous careers or move into consulting, Mr. VanGorder and his wife Esther moved in an entirely new direction. But both leveraged the skills they’d developed in decades past. Bill’s background in non-profit fundraising and sales has paid off in building and marketing the business. Esther, meanwhile, had worked as an insurance underwriter and in-house financial counsel and had the bookkeeping expertise to handle the company’s finance.
Which isn’t to say there weren’t challenges.
“The technical things we have to learn, such as social media and online sales, that can be a steep learning curve,” he says.
Mr. VanGorder dabbled in some business services available to start-ups and entrepreneurs but found that many were geared to younger people. Ultimately, he found that simply identifying and learning from other entrepreneurs, of all ages, was the most valuable in bolstering his knowledge.
That experience is borne out by a 2018 study on senior entrepreneurship produced by the Sheridan for Elder Research at Ontario’s Sheridan College. It found that many of the business development services, funding and other supports offered in Canada are geared to young entrepreneurs, despite that more than one-third of new business are founded by people over 50.
Ms. Mayhew recalls one client who was told by a federal agency that they were too old for financing since “they’d never be able to pay it back,” she says. “I don’t know whether that meant because they wouldn’t live long enough or because the business wouldn’t be successful, but it speaks to the attitudes.”
The Sheridan study, which included a survey of 50-plus founders, found that financing was a top concern for older entrepreneurs who tended to have more difficulty finding loans through traditional financial institutions. The majority used personal funds to start their business and many respondents also said that the best supports, in terms of mentorship and modest financial assistance, came from regional small-business centres.
Age isn’t just an issue when it comes to practical matters like money, either. Mr. VanGorder says that in the early days of Nordic Walking Nova Scotia, it was sometimes challenging to prove to people that the business was more than a retirement hobby.
Similar dismissive attitudes can be a factor even for entrepreneurs with a proven track record, like Calgary-based Marjorie Zingle.
In 2003, at age 68, Ms. Zingle opened DataHive, a data centre based in downtown Calgary. Ms. Zingle had already founded a company in Calgary offering management services for not-for-profit and professional associations. At its peak, she managed 17 employees and worked with business and government leaders across the provinces. (DataHive was founded with assets purchased from a distressed data centre that her previous company had used).
Yet when it came time to enter the youthful and male-dominated tech world, she encountered no shortage of skepticism, which she attributes to both her age and her gender.
“One of the major internet providers I was chasing just told me, ‘Marjorie, we will never be in DataHive,’” she says.
In fairness, the tech sphere was completely new for her, and she had to balance the demands of learning a new industry, finding clients and managing employees. Like Mr. VanGorder, she considers herself fortunate to have married an accounting whiz; her late husband, Del, helped guide the company through its early days.
“The number one piece of advice to anyone going into business for themselves,” she says, “is to get an accountant, even if they think they can handle it for themselves. Of course, it doesn’t have to be your husband.”
Today, DataHive is one of the largest data centres in western Canada – and the company that resisted her overtures in those early years is now a long-time client.
Looking back, Ms. Zingle finds it hard to imagine a different outcome. And at age 85, she’s still looking to new challenges.
“I couldn’t do this if I wasn’t keeping my health up,” she says. “What you can get away with as a younger person you can’t at my age, and to have the stamina for this means being serious about keeping your health.”
Mr. VanGorder concurs.
“You know, we kind of jokingly say that 75 is the new 65, but it’s true that people are working longer, living longer, living better,” he says. “You hear concerns about the fact that the population is getting older: Who’s going to pay taxes? Who’s going to keep the economy alive? And I think the answer, partly, is still those of us who’ve been doing it all along.”
*Mathew Halliday, writer/editor
Photo by Carlos Magno, Unsplash.com
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