Baby boomers seek 2nd careers as entrepreneurs

By Corey Williams

Associated Press

DETROIT (AP) -- Chuck Salley's career as a sales and marketing executive ended in early retirement. His latest career is taking the late-stage entrepreneur into the biofuel field.

Salley, 69, is one of many baby boomers pushing into new fields through TechTown, a business incubator at Detroit's Wayne State University.

Nearly a third of people attending TechTown recruitment events are older than 46. Ten percent are over 56. They, like younger small business hopefuls, are looking for success during a recession that's seen thousands of jobs slashed across the Detroit area.

Salley is president of NextCAT Inc., which finds commercial uses for biofuel catalysts.

"Some people are doing it for the same reason I did it," he says. "They tried early retirement and found themselves unsuccessful. Some are doing it because they didn't early retire by choice and are considering entrepreneurship as an alternative."

More than 5,000 people attended entrepreneurial events over the past year and organizers have trained about 1,200 people on what it takes to start a small business and succeed, TechTown Executive Director Randall Charlton says.

The research and technology park was started in 2000 and develops companies in high-tech industries to stimulate local job growth through small business startups. TechTown's 100,000-square-foot building houses about 70 growing companies.

Ronna Rivers' Rivers Conservation and Preservation Services opened there two years ago. The 58-year-old had been restoring literature and works of art on paper from her Royal Oak home because local art institutes and museums weren't hiring, she says.

"It's pretty damn scary. The fear of this bad economy is pretty awful, but it also has made me step up my game and take my private practice more seriously," Rivers says. "I have no place else to go with my talents. I'm not ready for retirement. I've come to grips that I may never be able to retire."

An Associated poll in March of 1,160 baby boomers showed many people born between 1946 and 1964 are worried about their finances and savings heading into retirement.

"Many of them are not where they expected to be," Charlton says of TechTown's baby boomers. "Their 401(k)s are not where they expected them to be. Their overall net worth is not where the thought it would be, but they have roots here.

"They led us to say we've got to focus on this baby boomer generation as much as the kids out of college dorms eating Ramen noodles. We've set up a series of programs to talk to baby boomers about their second acts. We feel we are going to be training as many seniors as young people."

About 1,600 people are in or have gone through the training program. The number of tenants in the business incubator has doubled over the past year, leading to the opening of a second building in the coming months.

"When you're having a much harder time getting into the traditional work force, entrepreneurship becomes an option," says Peter Lichtenberg, professor of psychology and director of the Institute of Gerontology at Wayne State.

"They've been supervisors, project leaders, innovators for their companies," he says. "They come now with tremendous ideas and enthusiasm, and the ability to see that niche market that their business is going to target."

Published: Thu, Apr 28, 2011