Senior entrepeneurs workshop aims to tap skills and experience of over-50s

Mon, Mar 26, 2012, 01:00

THEY HAVE decades of accumulated experience, knowledge, networks and skills, but people aged 50 and over are still much less likely to start their own business than younger age cohorts.

This is something that Ireland’s county and city enterprise boards, in conjunction with an EU initiative called “Senior Enterprise”, is hoping to change.

“Sometimes people think they might be too old, but I have found the opposite,” says Cathy Whitty, who was 59 when she set up her specialist food firm, Cathy’s Spelt for Health, in Tinahely, Co Wicklow. “When I do tastings in shops, people say ‘good on you’.”

Whitty is one of a group of mentors who will speak about their experiences starting businesses at a two-day workshop for potential “senior entrepreneurs” to be held in Portlaoise in May.

It was nothing short of anaphylactic shock that sparked Whitty’s entrepreneurialism. In hospital after a severe allergic reaction, she was placed on an exclusion diet by doctors unable to pinpoint the cause, and the “no wheat” rule prompted her to experiment with spelt baking.

With assistance from the Wicklow County Enterprise Board and a promotional boost from SuperValu’s Recipe for Success competition, what started out as a cottage business with some shelf space in a local health food store now has its range of spelt bread pre-mixes, stocked in 130 shops.

Whitty is a first-time entrepreneur, having left school at 16 and raised six children, who are now all grown up. This has left her with the time and energy to invest in her business, she notes.

“Older people forget that we have so much experience. Sometimes we undervalue ourselves.”

She is now hoping to capitalise on interest from British retailers by exhibiting at the Natural and Organic Products Europe trade fair in London next week. “We’ve even had a call from Israel,” says Whitty, who has recruited one of her daughters, Yvonne (33), to help her run the business.

About 3,400 people aged 50-64 started their own business in Ireland last year – about 14 per cent of all new entrepreneurs – according to Colm O’Gorman, professor of entrepreneurship at DCU, who based his calculation on Global Entrepreneurship Monitor data.

These figures are “encouraging”, according to the workshop organisers, but the most “entrepreneurial” age group in Ireland – 35 to 44 – is still twice as likely to supply early-stage entrepreneurs as the over 50s.

“As a society, Ireland needs to call upon all the entrepreneurial talent available, regardless of age,” says Sheelagh Daly of the county and city enterprise boards.

Peter Cullen, another mentor on the Senior Entrepreneurs programme, was “just about over 50” when he started his company, the Jelly Bean Factory, with his son Richard. It was a case of starting over for Cullen, as his previous confectionery company had gone into receivership.

“We had no money, no income,” he says. What he did have, however, was faith in the product. “We were always convinced that there was a market for gourmet jelly beans, the American-style jelly beans, in Europe.”

It was still “a massive decision” to go into manufacturing. “Even in the good old days, the banks were nervous about start-ups,” he says.

The Jelly Bean Factory, now the biggest producer of jelly beans in Europe, has been a major success, exporting to 50 countries.

“To be quite honest with you, I don’t care what age you are – if you’re 16 or 76, if you’ve got a good idea, why should age be a barrier?” asks Cullen. “If I see a good opportunity out there, I’m not going to look at my birth certificate.”

Information on the senior entrepreneurs workshop in the Killeshin Hotel, Portlaoise, on May 8th-9th is available at seniorenterprise.ie.