On the morning of Dec. 22, 2018, sisters Nikki Howard and Jacqueline Wright awoke to the news of a government shutdown, which meant no paychecks for them for the foreseeable future. With Christmas just days away, their financial security was threatened.
Fueled by their mother’s encouragement, Howard turned to her recipe book and her sister with an idea. The women decided to use their baking hobby to support their families temporarily. They launched with just two cheesecake flavors but quickly attracted thousands of orders. Their business completely outgrew their kitchens in a matter of weeks. Today, Furlough Cheesecake has a store at the National Harbor near Washington, D.C., and has been profiled on The Ellen DeGeneres Show. A perfect storm where circumstance met opportunity gave birth to their thriving business, like the stories of many female founders.
Entrepreneurship in the quest for equality
Every March, we celebrate Women’s History Month with deep reflection on the contributions, sacrifices and advances of female historical figures. Each generation stands on the shoulders of the former seeking to achieve its own defining moments. In the 20th century, women’s suffrage was a centerpiece at the forefront of the national conversation on equality. In the 21st century, entrepreneurship could be the vehicle to equity, as women and their allies advocate for gender rights, inclusion in the workplace and financial security.
The boom of women-owned businesses in the past two years alone suggests a larger trend bubbling underneath the surface of the Great Resignation. Not only has the pandemic created job uncertainty for millions, but it also has accelerated the twin pressures of limited financial resources and increased caregiving demands. Many older women — aware of the biases of ageism and sexism — are choosing to find new ways to earn money in the face of such volatility.
In the 2019 study “Age and High Growth Entrepreneurship,” MIT researchers challenged the assumption that young people are more likely to produce the most successful new firms. According to their analysis, the most successful entrepreneurs are middle-aged, not younger. The typical age of founders among the fastest-growing new businesses in the study was 45.
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Finding light in dark times
That’s encouraging data for aspiring women entrepreneurs over the age of 40. The risks of starting a business after 45 didn’t deter Mesha Mebane, CEO of Infrared Vision. In fact, a cancer scare, the death of her only child, and an unfulfilling career propelled her to find her passion and purpose.
Mebane felt her life was like Groundhog Day — stuck in the same cycle over and over. She started asking herself whether she was living or just existing. It was at that moment she became aware of the need to for a change. Today, Mebane is a mindset mentor and financial coach for people age 40 and older who are experiencing career difficulties, ageism, financial dysfunction and major life events like divorce. She launched Infrared Vision during the pandemic to help her clients build a second act in their careers.
She says her company’s name was inspired by the properties of infrared light, because it mirrors her personal journey. “Infrared light gives you the ability to see things in the dark,” Mebane says. “I help people discover what they cannot see. I help them create a vision for themselves through the right mindset, to execute their visions.”
Howard, Wright and Mebane’s stories showcase a tapestry of resilience, purpose and redefinition of self when the opportunity arises. For Howard and Wright, the sudden loss of consistent income made it necessary to find a new way to earn money. For Mebane, life challenges brought her to the point of reexamining her needs and goals. The same motivations that inspired these women to start their own businesses also are fueling the Great Resignation at large. With so many women thinking about what they value in their careers, we might soon be at the tipping point of female entrepreneurship.
Interested in starting your own business? Visit the Supporting Women-Owned Businesses section on the Small Business Resource Center for the 50+ website for tip sheets, guides and more information.
Ashley Powdar is employer content lead for AARP's Financial Resilience team. She works with participants in the organization's Employer Pledge Program to promote the value of a multigenerational workforce. She also assists and reports on issues that affect small-business owners.