The rise of senior entrepreneurship in the digital age

The ‘Senior Entrepreneur’ is given a variety of titles, including ‘second-career entrepreneur’, ‘third-age entrepreneur’, ‘mature entrepreneur’ and ‘retiree entrepreneur’. Despite these various titles, the growth of entrepreneurs aged 50 or higher, is rapidly rising according to the Office for National Statistics data in UK. This trend reflects the study by Hitachi Capital and the Centre for Economics and Business Research revealing that senior people expect, and desire, to work beyond the standard retirement age.

Why should we welcome, and indeed support senior entrepreneurship?  Seniors in the self-employment sector will:

  1. reduce the cost of social welfare;
  2. minimise the employment gaps of seniors, and more importantly;
  3. promote an active and healthy ageing society.

Traditionally our society associates entrepreneurship with younger generations. This is evident from various support polices and activities focused on young entrepreneurs. Our experienced yet older generations are implicitly excluded from the entrepreneurial ecosystem.

Discriminatory perceptions, such as ‘older people are slower adopters of new technology and information and thus may not run a business as effective’, can increase level of entrepreneurial exclusion against seniors, and commonly venture capitalist favour young entrepreneurs. But the obvious question arises, is there any evidence to support this exclusion?  Recent research by MIT shows that the chances of business survival and business success are significantly higher amongst senior entrepreneurs. Compared to younger entrepreneurs, venture capitalists appear to stand to gain more by investing more in senior entrepreneurs.

International research shows that both productivity and cognitive performance among older workers are better than among younger workers. Senior entrepreneurs are on average more focused, less distracted, and well able to run a business successfully. Senior entrepreneurs also have further advantages through experience in term of acquisition of relevant markets, industry knowledge and supplier networks. There are numerous successful senior start-ups to further demonstrate this point, such as Lisa Gable (start-up at age 70) founder and CEO of Strap-Mate, Art Koff (start-up at age 70) founder of Retired Brains and even less recent examples such Charles Flint who started the precursor to IBM at 61.

As a business school, what can we do to support senior entrepreneurship?  Currently we have been unable to identify any education offering on entrepreneurship focused partly or specifically on senior members of society. There is therefore a potential gap in offering that could be filled with a top-up degree for senior entrepreneurship education. This is an opportunity for business schools to explore. It should be recognised that likely at their stage in life, prospective candidates are not looking for a full degree, be it at Master or Bachelor level, but are more likely open to explore pathways such as diploma’s or certificates, within a very practical based education program, that should offer the possibility to continue into a full degree. The key here is that there should be a focus on increasing the practical skills for starting entrepreneurs at a senior level, such as digital marketing, writing a business proposal etc.

Alternatively, a massive open online course (MOOC) for senior entrepreneurship can generate a positive impact to our ageing community. This practice will demonstrate the business school practise on the Principles for Responsible Management Education (PRME).

Business schools can also utilise an on-campus incubation service. While existing business incubations on campus do not exclude senior entrepreneurs, services and facilities are in general aimed for younger entrepreneurs. Creating a nexus between old and young can greatly cross-pollinate ideas and enhance effectiveness and success of start-ups. Drawing from existing resources on campus, a business schools can act as a network hub for the young and the experienced, by prominently featuring senior entrepreneurs as much as younger ones.  Sharing good practices can vastly improve engaging our ageing community, because business school do not only mean business, they are here for the community as well.


Sukanlaya Sawang is Professor of Entrepreneurship and Director of Research at The International Centre for Transformational Entrepreneurship, Coventry University.  She was a Director of Research Internationalisation at University of Leicester Business School.