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  • Writer's pictureVeronica Irwin

Training older entrepreneurs to thrive in today’s tech world

Program focuses on low-income, over-50 demographic


SF Examiner

From left: Solene Oudet of and Karla Suomala of the S.F. Tech Council have collaborated to launch “Kickstart Your Business at 50+,” an entrepreneurship program for older adults. (Craig Lee/The Examiner)

Sometimes you can teach an old dog new tricks.

Small businesses owned by people over the age of 50 in San Francisco generate about 44% more revenue in their first year than those owned by people under the age of 35, according to analysis by JPMorgan Chase. Yet, many older entrepreneurs fail at the outset because they aren’t armed with the appropriate technical skills. A pilot program called Kickstart Your Business at 50+ aims to change that. The program will train two low-income cohorts of 20 people over the age of 50 on skills they need to start new business, like how to use online payment platforms and manage a website. Each cohort will receive 10 weeks of training, with three live, interactive classes per week. The first session begins training Jan. 10, while the second begins April 11.

“There’s many entrepreneurship programs, but none that really focus on the low-income, over-50 demographic,” says Andrew Broderick. He and Karla Suomala are co-project directors for the S.F. Tech Council, a multi-sector collaboration leading the pilot program. They believe giving older entrepreneurs the tech skills necessary to start new businesses will not only propel careers, but also generate more local jobs. “This is a pathway for economic security,” Broderick says.

Kickstart Your Business at 50+ is funded by The City’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development, through a program announced in September which allocated a record $42 million to workforce training programs to aid in pandemic economic recovery. Because of The City’s funding, the program is free and will award at least $150 to each student who completes the program.

The curriculum was initially engineered by the one-year-old private company Blissen, which had already created a bootcamp program for older entrepreneurs but that wasn’t tailored to a specific geographic area or income level. However, if the program proves successful, Blissen’s CEO and founder Solène Oudet hopes The City will fund larger sessions in the future. “There’s a big opportunity to scale up this program, focusing on the low-income population, which I’m really passionate about serving,” she says.

In order to target these populations, the S.F. Tech Council is working with the Office of Economic and Workforce Development, S.F. Public Libraries and nonprofits in their network that work specifically with older San Franciscans. There are no strict quotas for how many participants are certified low-income, though Broderick and Suomala say they will be prioritized when choosing between applicants, each of whom are asked to complete a short application and an interview.

But training a low-income, older population comes with challenges. That’s because low- and middle-income people are less likely to have the time for a 10-week bootcamp. One would need to work four minimum wage jobs full-time in San Francisco to afford median rent for a two-bedroom apartment, according to analysis by the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

Additionally, according to a 2018 Digital Divide Survey operated by The City, people over the age of 65 are 26% less likely than the rest of the population to have high-speed internet at home. To avoid these roadblocks, the S.F. Tech Council says they weed out applicants who may not have the time necessary during the interview process. However, they will work with motivated applicants to ensure they have access to necessary devices.

There’s other hurdles, too. The program’s technology trainer, Vicki Soll, who has experience training older adults through the online senior education platform GetSetUp, says the demographic is more likely to have anxieties about learning tech skills. Classes need to proceed in bite-sized chunks, she says, and host a supportive, community-centric environment. The program has deliberately recruited an ethnically diverse group of teachers, many of whom are over 50 themselves, so that students feel included and comfortable.

But Soll says this demographic has distinct advantages in starting their own businesses, too. “They’ve been working for years, and they know what they like and they don’t like,” she says. “They really have a desire, a hunger, to succeed and start something new for themselves.”

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