On Being a Social Entrepreneur at Age 60—and Beyond

Many of us have pivotal moments in contemplating aging. Mine came one day while reading Joseph F. Coughlin’s work, wherein he told the story of executives (gold mines of life and leadership experience) who moved to Florida and in retirement largely focused on perfecting their golf swings. Why does this happen? Coughlin asked. Why not enlist that talent to move the needle on social change?

Though still a stay-at-home mom with the last of my brood heading to college, the question resonated with me: Why not apply ourselves in our later years to support social change? At age 60, the odds are that we will live to 80 (and beyond). With focus, intention (and a little luck), I wondered, what might be accomplished in 20 years?

Launching Teens Into Tech

Based upon my experience in the past two years, I hope that many of us explore these questions and challenge ourselves, as we have much to offer. Two years ago, as a doctoral student at our local university, I worked to support a local charity that was taking on significant change, writing more than 1,000 emails in the process.

‘We became semifinalists at CodeLaunch, a tech “Shark Tank”-type event for coders.’

This experience, focused on helping low-income people, helped me wake up to the challenges facing low- and fixed-income households. At the same time, I was helping my college-age son start his first business and became aware of the profound ability LED (light emitting diode) technology has to reduce electric consumption.

The two experiences combined into my founding a nonprofit, LED Brighter Communities, that helps local teens undertake LED projects (converting homes over to LED lighting) with a project-based learning approach. Soon I realized that these teen activities satisfied requirements of the Congressional Award, an incredible program supported by Congress for youth ages 14 to 24 that helps to build citizenship skills.

Before I knew it, I was serving as an advisor for the award and now I help the kids achieve these awards and will be presenting several in the spring. I use my contacts in our Iowa community to help teens learn about professions and how our community works. The work is incredibly rewarding and fulfilling.

Our Own LED Project

My opportunities continue to evolve. Laura Dobson, 57, a friend, geophysicist by training and also a mother of four, has joined the quest to create apps and tools that can help homeowners convert their homes to LED. This Fall, we became semifinalists at CodeLaunch, a tech “Shark Tank”–type event for coders. Never would we have expected to find ourselves there. To get to the semifinals, we engaged in a month-long competition that included creating strategy write-ups, social media posts and a marketing plan.

The “age thing” is in my head, not in others.’

Produced by Improving, CodeLaunch is a unique type of accelerator driven by the idea that professional consulting agencies can and should collaborate by donating tech expertise to foster tech startups from an early stage. Most projects in the semifinals are in the “social impact category,” in line with Improving’s focus on conscious capitalism. We are the first in CodeLaunch history to represent a nonprofit organization.

We have learned several truths along the way, which may be worth exploring as we uncover new frontiers in aging. These include:

  1. Everything you need to learn is on the internet. In the 1990s, I achieved an expertise in CTI (Computer Telephony Integration) by reading every manual AT&T placed on my desk. Company resources were proprietary and highly guarded. Today, you may have to Google a query two or three times using different search phrases, but the answer is there.
  2. The technology space doesn’t care what you look like, your gender or how old you are. Access to information is an equal opportunity for all.
  3. The difference is in applying yourself. Read. Think. Learn. Do. Though I am the age of many of my tech cohorts’ mothers (and possibly grandmothers) my experience is that looking forward and wanting to contribute, with a dash of creativity, is what helps me fully participate and flourish within the group.
  4. The “age thing” is in my head, not in others.’
  5. Having a purpose adds to my vigor and zest for life. Some mornings I wake up and shiver at the challenges ahead, but I look alive, act alive and am thrilled at our progress daily. Instead of doing crosswords to keep minds active, I thoroughly encourage joining causes or becoming an entrepreneur as an incredible way to engage one’s mind.
  6. Being active as older adults—as leaders, organizers and entrepreneurs, may be better for one than medication or diet changes. Science may benefit by studying the impact of these processes.
  7. Young adults embrace older adult participation. After meetings I am frequently told “I wish my mom/dad would understand that working as you do is an option. They are talented and I worry about them at home all day.” They see value in our talents and want to work together.
  8. Ask others to join in your efforts. Some will say no, others will say yes and even more will “come around” after you start to have successes. Don’t be afraid to start small. Some days will be frustrating, but a year or two down the road you will be surprised at what has been accomplished.
  9. The world needs us all. Raise your hand. The current worker shortage creates a perfect opportunity for us as elders to contribute, with the possibility of creating new opportunities or negotiating new work conditions along the way.

It will be a year before we’ll know if Laura and I succeed in winning CodeLaunch, and even longer to know if we succeed in creating technology to help reduce America’s consumption of electricity for lighting. No matter where the project goes, the experience we have gained and the growth in our friendship has helped us feel more alive and been an incredible workout for our brains. We’ll probably live longer because of it, while we work to help make the world a better place. It’s a prescription I plan to take daily in the years ahead.

Glynis Worthington and Laura Dobson both live in Cedar Falls, Iowa.

Photo: Glynis Worthington, left, and Laura Dobson on stage at CodeLaunch.