Mary Martin-Somers

(WOMENSENEWS)–Being a recruiter in a struggling national economy was not exactly the best situation to be in, as Mary Martin-Somers, 45, of Lancaster, Mass. found out in October 2002 when she was downsized.

She was working for three years as a human resource recruiter for a finance and insurance company when she got the ax. Faced with a tough economy and industry, Martin-Somers took a whole new approach. She decided to start her own business.

"Even though some people may not take you seriously if you are a woman in your 40s starting a business, I figured that this would be my opportunity to become an entrepreneur," Martin-Somers says. "So, I decided to do something that I always wanted–I opened a tearoom."

A report released last month by the National Association for the Self-Employed indicates that Martin-Somers is part of a general trend among women. (NASE has been involved in several state probes and lawsuits regarding its promotion of healthcare insurance policies, according to several news reports.)

In the past 24 years the report’s authors found a marked rise in self-employment for women, with the number of self-employed women reached 3.8 million in 2003, more than double the 1979 level.

"I’m getting more and more calls from women starting their own businesses, especially compared to about four or so years ago, when the economy was better and there wasn’t the loss of jobs that you’re seeing today," says Gene Fairbrother, lead business consultant for the Dallas-based National Association for the Self-Employed.

Experience, Advice, Savings and a Loan

With a wealth of working experience behind them, older women in their 40s and 50s like Martin-Somers are leaving the corporate world and becoming their own bosses. The tough economy of the past few years and continuing downsizing that have made it harder to get the kinds of jobs they desire have contributed to this, noted David McKeon, president of Success Planning Associates, an executive business and career coaching firm in Berlin, Mass.

In addition to downsizing, burnout and frustration in the corporate world are prompting more women to choose entrepreneurship, Fairbrother points out. And, some women who would have otherwise retired are finding that they still want to remain active and also need to keep earning money because of sluggish retirement savings. Compared to about five years ago, about 20 percent more women in their 40s and 50s are becoming entrepreneurs, he adds.

Armed with part-time work experience as a cook in a nearby tearoom, some business guidance from a small business development office at Clark University, $65,000 in savings and an equity loan, Martin-Somers opened the Colonial Tea House in Clinton, Mass. in June 2003.

Ever since then, she and three employees are kept busy serving up 22 kinds of teas, as well as sandwiches, salads and quiches to an average of 30 customers a day in the 1,500-square-foot eatery. She is paying herself a salary of $30,000 after expenses and now reports that her 2004 earnings were 25 percent higher than what she made in 2003. She is thrilled with her thriving business.

"Some of my vendors said I wouldn’t be around for very long, especially being a woman who’s never been in business before," says Martin-Somers. "But, it was time for me to do something that was really important and just ignore the nay-sayers. That’s what you need to do if you’re going into business for yourself at this point in life."

Making the Most of Experience

While some women, like Martin-Somers, are veering off their career paths to do something totally different that they have always dreamt about, many are turning experience into consultant work.

For Harriet McCreary, 62, president of Hobbs and Ford, Inc., a Sarasota, Fl., high-tech and telecommunications firm, using her background as a systems engineer enabled her to launch her business at the age of 57 after she retired.

"I wanted to do something like this and also needed to still bring money in," McCreary says. "It can be intimidating to take this on at this point in life, but you need to follow your dream and have enough confidence in yourself."

But, starting a business, especially if one is a bit older, has its own set of challenges, Fairbrother says. There are the physical demands and stamina needed to get a venture off the ground, which can easily involve 12-hour or more workdays. "You have to have an open mind and understand that it could take up to a year to establish a steady client base and start making money. You need to be flexible and not expect immediate gratification."

Less Time to Care for Others

Many women also have to reduce the time they spend taking care of family members and friends, McKeon says.

"While women a bit older may have grown children, they still may have a lot of responsibilities and can’t give everything to everyone as they are starting a business," McKeon says. "When you first go out on your own, you are either working 50-hour weeks or thinking about your business in the waking hours that you’re not working. It is going to take all your energy and effort."

 Brigitte Casemyr

Brigitte Casemyr, 51, is a partner of Turfbuilder Marketing LLC, a marketing strategy company started in Westborough, Mass. in 2002 after she had been downsized from a software company. Casemyr has 25 years of high-tech experience. She joined various organizations and the local Chamber of Commerce to network to bring in business. While she now earns one-third of what she had been earning in her corporate position, Casemyr is rapidly growing her business. She has 23 clients and works about 10-12 hours a day. She currently works out of her home, but is looking to move into office space.

"You have to surround yourself with people who will be positive and supportive; that is especially important when you start your business," Casemyr says.

Older women should seek to make the most of the contacts that they have made over the years in the corporate world, says Sharon Hadary, executive director of the Center for Women’s Business Research in Washington, D.C.

"This is an advantage you will have over younger women, who haven’t been working as long as you have been," Hadary says.

Laura Koss-Feder is a freelance business and features writer who covers small businesses and career/workplace topics. She has written for The New York Times, Business Week, Time, Money, Investor’s Business Daily, Newsday, Family Circle,, and Self.



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