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The Encore Career Movement Barrels Into Building Businesses

At the Encore.org conference, social entrepreneurs aimed to do well by doing good


At the national Encore.org conference I just attended in Los Angeles, focused on ways people in the second half of life can make the world a better place, I was struck by what I heard at one particular session.

“There has to be a demand in the marketplace. Start with small bets,” said the speaker on a panel. “What is your niche?”

The participants in the room soon broke into small groups to share ideas about funding and sustaining social entrepreneurship startups. The large white papers glued to the walls of the conference room were soon covered with sticky notes. Discussions revolved such topics as crowdfunding campaigns and developing relations with high-net-worth individuals and their wealth managers.

Entrepreneurship Was Big at the Encore Conference

Those kinds of conversations are unremarkable at places like startup gatherings in Minneapolis and accelerators in Nashville, let alone high-tech epicenters such as Silicon Valley and New York City. But this was a nonprofit conference where the 40 or so session participants mostly came from nonprofits determined to learn how to bring their entrepreneurial dream to life or diversify their funding for faster growth.

Encore.org, the San Francisco based social enterprise founded by Marc Freedman two decades ago, is known for promoting practical paths for people in the second half of life. Lately, though, the group has been dedicated to starting a social movement aimed at older adults mentoring younger generations. The tone of the conference was set by the title of Freedman’s new book with a tongue-in-cheek name: How to Live Forever: The Enduring Power of Connecting the Generations.

The session I attended highlighted a striking shift in America’s entrepreneurial culture: the lines are now blurred between business startups and new social enterprises.

For instance, here’s how Bevan Gray-Rogel — founder and president of Encore Tampa Bay — responded when I asked her about her entrepreneurial experience with her startup which launched in 2013: “It has been a journey of a million pivots and experiments, asking where my customer is, where are the gaps, what is the mission.”

Are those the reflections of a business entrepreneur or a social entrepreneur? Can’t tell the difference, can you?

Business Entrepreneurs Blend With Social Entrepreneurs

My suspicion is that business entrepreneurs and social entrepreneurs in the second half of life are behind much of the current blending. Second-life business entrepreneurs and their social enterprise peers share a common language these days emphasizing innovation, sustainability, digital tools, storytelling, partnerships, earned income and mission.

These days, many people in their 50s and 60s share a strong desire to do something that makes a difference and (hopefully) leaves a legacy. Whether the enterprise is organized as a nonprofit or for-profit turns out to be more about tactics then purpose.

I’ve attended several Encore.org conferences and found that this one ranked high on the aspirational scale.

For one thing, the goal of deliberately working at promoting intergenerational engagement for the common good seems particularly valuable at a time when America’s civil discourse is eroding, and social pessimism is rising.

For another, I came away with a much greater appreciation of how important scrappy startups are to the grassroots movement rethinking and reimagining the second half of life.

Two Inspiring Encore Career Entrepreneurs

“Most of the folks that are part of the encore community are entrepreneurs,” says Henry Rock, 66, the founder and executive director of City Startup Labs in Charlotte, N.C. and a former Encore.org Purpose Prize  Fellow.

Rock is a great example. He had a long career in sales and marketing in the media business before coming up with the idea of teaching entrepreneurship to black male millennials in 2006. The idea sat on the shelf for years until he moved to Charlotte and, in 2014, launched City StartUp Labs. The organization, backed by foundations, corporate philanthropy and sponsors, has since expanded its mission of teaching the basics of entrepreneurship to include young black women. City Startup is also piloting an initiative targeted at offering parolees in Charlotte the opportunity to develop and exercise their entrepreneurial capabilities.

Rock aims to develop strategies and diverse funding sources so the group can stay in business for the long haul. “I am at the place right now, not quite an inflection point, but close to it,” he says.

Then there’s Jeff Tidwell, 59, who is also a social entrepreneur. The high-tech veteran has worked in Silicon Valley and New York for various digital companies. He’s currently Entrepreneur in Residence at Boxador in Venice, Calif., where he has launched a cool for-profit company called Next For Me.

The early-stage business is focused helps people 50 and older find good work and manage their finances well for the new longevity economy. “Profit is part of it. Sustaining the business is part of it,” Tidwell says. “But it is also about the social good.”

As Rock, Tidwell and many others I spoke with at the Encore progress made clear:  Doing well and doing good is no longer an oxymoron, if it ever was.

Chris Farrell
By Chris Farrell
Chris Farrell is senior economics contributor for American Public Media's Marketplace. An award-winning journalist, he is author
 of the book, Unretirement: How Baby Boomers Are Changing the Way We Think About Work, Community, and The Good Life.@cfarrellecon

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