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Should Entrepreneurship Be a Company Benefit?

With this program, firms offer the perk and pre-retirees plan startups

By Chris Farrell

These days, many older workers with full-time jobs like to imagine the next chapter of their lives doing part-time work combining passion and a paycheck — perhaps transferring skills they’ve accumulated into their own startup.

Here’s the rub: For many, the transition into unretirement is a DIY effort. The on ramps are largely self-constructed and self-motivated. Few companies, government agencies or nonprofits offer assistance so their pre-retirees can prepare to pursue an entrepreneurship life. Maybe they should.

Elizabeth Isele
Elizabeth Isele

Elizabeth Isele, founder and president of the Global Institute for Experienced Entrepreneurship, thinks so. Isele is currently traveling the world proselytizing for a new employee benefit that’s tailor-made for the modern era: Lessons in entrepreneurship. And I think she may be onto something.

The Experience Incubator Program

Specifically, Isele — who also founded SeniorEntrepreneurshipWorks and SavvySeniorsWork — created the Experience Incubator program to let employees learn what it takes to start a business by having their firms pay for the workshops and classes, mentorship and networking programs and other startup opportunities. Over time, companies might also strike deals with colleges who work with entrepreneurs and startup incubators.

The Europe, Middle East, India and Africa division of global professional services company Ernst & Young is implementing Experience Incubators starting this year.

Isele’s program is deliberately designed to be intergenerational, but I suspect quite a few older workers looking to transition into retirement would eagerly take advantage of this perk.

Older Entrepreneurs Are Trending

These days, starting a business is popular in the second half of life. The 55-to-64 year old age group accounted for nearly 26 percent of new entrepreneurs in 2015, up from almost 15 percent in 1997, according to the Kauffman Foundation. And research by Richard Johnson, an economist at the Urban Institute, shows that the share of U.S. adults self-employed after age 50 increases with age. For example, 5 percent have been self-employed by age 58, 10 percent by 66 and nearly 12 percent by 70.

“Senior entrepreneurship is not an oxymoron,” says Isele.

Just ask Len Biegel, who’s 65+ and currently on his third act. Act One: Broadcasting. Act Two: Corporate crisis consulting. Act Three: Entrepreneur. Working out of the 1776, the global startup incubator in downtown Washington D.C., Biegel is at the early stages of creating an advertising-supported social platform and online magazine aimed at encouraging people 50 and over to share their experiences and insights.

Biegel finds the mentorship, guidance and presentations organized by the incubator helpful and stimulating. “Being an entrepreneur is very challenging,” says Biegel. “But it’s energizing. It keeps me going.”

Some benefits consultants are quite keen on Isele’s Experience Incubator notion, to help grow more Len Biegels.

“I like the idea of having it available as a company benefit,” says Yvonne Sonsino, partner at the consulting firm Mercer, and innovation leader for its Mercer Europe and Pacific division. “As an employee, I like having access to more information and training.”


Why Companies Would Offer an Entrepreneurship Perk

I believe the evidence is compelling that some workers nearing their unretirement years might like an entrepreneurial benefit. Why would management offer to help employees start their own business? Don’t companies just want to say to their exiting older staffers, “Lots of luck?” Perhaps not in the new world of work.

Thanks to the potent combination of globalization and disruptive technologies, smart managers realize that their firms’ ability to encourage creativity and innovation among employees is key to the companies' future growth and performance. In essence, these managers want employees to emulate the energy and dynamism of the startups.

Some businesses, like Hasbro, organize employee hackathons. Others, like Google, provide space and resources for internal startups. Still others create accelerators for new businesses (Nike), join business incubators as corporate partners (MedStar Health) or run their own venture capital funds (General Mills). Adding an entrepreneurship benefit is simply another way to encourage innovative thinking, enhance the attraction of the job and find new revenue streams.

“In truth, every job needs an entrepreneurial mindset. It boosts engagement which, in turn, boosts productivity,” says Isele. “It’s a win-win for employers and employees.”

Catching On in Europe

What’s the prognosis for this particular benefit?

The Society for Human Resource Management in its forthcoming survey looks at more than 300 employee benefits and, sadly, entrepreneurship didn’t make the cut.

Still, Isele’s Experience Incubator is making inroads in Europe and, in that continent, established companies are jumpstarting their innovation pipeline by setting up collaborations with startups. (Winning Together: A Guide to Successful Corporate-Startup Collaborations by Nesta, the British innovation charity, offers some good examples.)

Here’s my fearless forecast: By 2020, as even more of the nation’s 75 million boomers approach retirement, the entrepreneur benefit will be well-known among U.S. human resource professionals. It might even be offered where you (or your children) work. That’s because this benefit is a savvy option in the competition for talent and an especially attractive pathway toward unretirement.

Photograph of Chris Farrell
Chris Farrell is senior economics contributor for American Public Media's Marketplace. An award-winning journalist, he is author
 of the books Purpose and a Paycheck:  Finding Meaning, Money and Happiness in the Second Half of Life and Unretirement: How Baby Boomers Are Changing the Way We Think About Work, Community, and The Good Life. Read More
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