Age? What age. The women on our Fearless Over 50 list laugh in the face of agism, sexism and any other challenge that comes their way. At a time when society is expecting them to pack it up — or at least take a nap — they are starting up, thinking big and kicking their companies into high gear. Take that, retirement.
A few months ago, The Story Exchange set out to find powerful women over 50 who decided to start businesses later in life. Why? Because too often, society forgets that decades of experience is actually a pretty fantastic teacher, and launching a company when you have support, networks and maybe some money in the bank is actually…really good timing.
We are not the only people to think so. No more pre-eminent publication than the Harvard Business Review set out last year to pinpoint the average age of a successful startup founder — and after much research, discovered that it was 45. “The empirical evidence shows that successful entrepreneurs tend to be middle-aged, not young,” HBR concluded.
A celebration is in order, then, for all things middle-aged. (For the record, our SEO consultants steered us to “powerful 50+” as a more popular search term than middle-aged). Earlier this year, we put out a call for entries for our Fearless Over 50 list, and heard from older women all over the globe who aren’t settling for this “take it easy, mama” nonsense. We narrowed our final list to seven women (see below) who impressed us with their intrepid career moves, innovative ideas and stellar track records — all accomplished as the age of 50 neared or went flying by in the rear-view mirror.
Speaking of mamas, we heard from plenty of women who say starting up later in life particularly suited them, as their kids were grown and they finally had time to focus on a different kind of baby. “Once your kids are raised, you get some sort of weird after-burn,” Leslie Bradford-Scott of Walton Wood Farm, a Canadian bath and body products company, told us. “My brain has become smarter, faster, and retains more information than ever.”
We liked women who were actually inspired by age-related battles to start companies, too. When Anita Mahaffey started having hot flashes (thank you, menopause), she didn’t stick her head in a freezer and bemoan life. Instead, she created Cool-jams, a company that makes wicking pajamas for night sweats, which now posts over $1 million in annual revenue. “Use your life experience to do something great,” she says. Or put another way: Screw you, depleting levels of estrogen.
To be sure, there are some cautionary notes we should mention. While all those 30 Under 30 entrepreneurs have years and years to think about details like retirement or succession planning, an over-50 business owner who is building a successful company needs to keep business continuity on her radar screen.
We spoke with expert Rochelle Clarke of Succession Strength, who notes that successful business owners (of any age) should start thinking about how they’re going to exit the business, some five to 10 years before they actually do. So time is of the essence for older entrepreneurs. “Whether you’re going to sell it or whether you’re going to transfer it to family, it takes planning,” she says. “I’ve seen too many good businesses shutter and close for lack of anything but planning.”
On the flip side, while older business owners need to be more concerned about looming retirement, they’re likely not saddled with piles of student loan debt, as millennials and Gen Z increasingly are. And when it comes to successful leadership qualities — things like patience, confidence, resilience, persistence, strength and courage — those attributes often come a little later in life. There’s a reason why post-menopausal killer whales are the leaders of their species. Knowledge, after all, is accumulated over a lifetime.
This is all a long way of saying “not only is it not too late to start, but maybe it’s really smart to start a business over 50.” Below is a list of outstanding women who are proving that the fire in our bellies is ageless.
The Story Exchange Fearless Over 50 list
Leslie Bradford-Scott, 54
Walton Wood Farm
Bailieboro, Ontario, Canada
‘My Brain Has Become Smarter, Faster and Retains More’
Leslie Bradford-Scott of Walton Wood Farm is growing a home-based multimillion-dollar business selling bath and body products.
Teri Dreher, 63
NShore Patient Advocates
‘I’m Just Doing What I Can, One Patient at a Time’
Teri Dreher wants to increase medical transparency and “put patients first” at her company, NShore Patient Advocates.
Anita Mahaffey, 61
‘Use Your Life Experience to Do Something Great’
Anita Mahaffey channeled frustration with night sweats into Cool-jams, an online store that sells moisture-wicking pajamas and more.
Leslie Polizzotto, 51
The Doughnut Project
‘The Everything Doughnut Changed Our Lives Overnight’
Leslie Polizzotto left lawyering and Los Angeles behind to start New York City’s The Doughnut Project — and it’s winning rave reviews.
Jodie Davis, 59
American Cuckoo Clock Company
‘I Haven’t Had a New Pair of Underwear Literally in 4 Years’
Jodie Davis of American Cuckoo Clock Company is on a mission to keep the tradition of cuckoo clocks alive in the U.S.
Joan Steltmann, 55
Bounce Children’s Foundation
‘I Traded Stock Options for Sticky Hugs’
Joan Steltmann was rising up the ranks in the tech world. She pivoted to help ill children, founding Bounce Children’s Foundation.
Jules Pieri, 58
‘I Was Told I Was Too Old, Too Blonde, Too Female to Be a CEO’
Jules Pieri co-founded The Grommet, a marketplace for “maker” products — and overcame being turned down by 250 venture capitalists.
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