Defying Silicon Valley's ageism

March 27, 2014: 1:13 PM ET

How older entrepreneurs are starting businesses, too.

By Lea Elaine Green

Two businesswomen leaning on a table discussing architectural plans in an office

Two businesswomen leaning on a table discussing architectural plans in an office

FORTUNE -- Recently, there's been much conversation about how Silicon Valley has become one of the most ageist places in America, where twentysomethings rule the startup scene. While that might be true, that's not necessarily the case across the rest of America.

In fact, 35-to-44-year-olds hold the highest level of participation in entrepreneurship in the U.S. as a whole, according to a 2012 Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM) U.S. Report by Babson College. Though that's not exactly old, the report does suggest that there are a surprising number of small companies springing up under the leadership of older entrepreneurs who fall outside the twentysomething visionary we often hear about in Silicon Valley.

A few factors may explain the underlying complexities of this trend: The nation's transition from a manufacturing-based to a service-based economy in the 1990s saw the exit of many older employees from the workplace. And in the years following the Great Recession and subsequent massive layoffs, older employees -- out of either necessity or desire -- began seeking opportunities outside traditional office environments. "Almost without fail, people in the 45-55 age range get to a place where they go through a professional midlife crisis. They know that once they get to older they are less marketable so they make a move," according to Sharon Hulce, president and CEO of Employment Resource Group.

Older entrepreneurs with their vast experience and networks and mature perspectives represent a vital resource for shaping America's commerce. In the technology sector where youth is so often valorized, Jim Clark formed Shutterfly at the age of 55, Kevin Ryan of Gilt Groupe was in his 40s and Mike Ramsay was 47 when he co-founded TiVo. In addition, Phillip James of Lot 18, Reid Hoffman of LinkedIn (LKND), and Mark Pincus of Zynga (ZNGA) defied the model of the youthful startup by establishing new business models later in life.

Beyond tech, there's Zipcar founder Robin Case, who was 40 when she launched the company and Ely Callaway, who formed Callaway Golf Company at the age of 63.

The Babson College report also highlights a growing number of so-called opportunity entrepreneurs, including Americans who are leaping into entrepreneurship based on their perception of promising opportunities ahead. This trend also marks a direct contrast to the 2008 economic recession, a time when the primary motivation behind entrepreneurialism was loss rather than gain -- a reaction referred to as "necessity entrepreneurship."Given our ever-changing economy, entrepreneurial ventures have become not only a sensible life choice, but constitute viable solutions to the ageism that can undermine many traditional workplace environments.

Technology fuels Americans' appetite for entrepreneurship. Budding business owners of any age can easily start an online business without much overhead at all. There's no need to begin with a physical, brick-and-mortar location right away -- even if selling physical items. Products or services can easily be tested, evaluated, and experimented with before the budding entrepreneur commits to larger expenses, such as an office lease or an advertising budget.

Above all, it's essential to realize that the key to success is not having the "right" personality or being the "right" age; it's aligning one's skill set with the right opportunity.

Lea Elaine Green is a senior content specialist at Volusion, an Austin, Texas-based e-commerce platform provider. 

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