These entrepreneurs are redefining middle age

New breed of entrepreneurs

Jay Lichty's big business idea came to him in a dream, playing a very specific ukulele.

"I had a dream one night where I was playing a small bodied guitar," he said in an interview last year. "I decided if I was ever going to have a custom ukulele, I was probably going to have to build it myself."

The musician turned his hobby into a full-time gig, and in 2009 launched Lichty Guitars. He works from his Tryon, North Carolina, home with his wife. They build custom ukuleles and guitars for customers all over the world.

Jay Lichty, founder of Lichty Guitars.
Photo: Frank Nester

At age 59, Lichty is more than twice the age of some millennial entrepreneurs. But with an uneven economic recovery, more Americans are taking the plunge into entrepreneurship later in life, according to recent data.

Most workers of all age brackets have experienced lower entrepreneurial activity in recent years, except for those ages 45 to 54. That group saw an increase, according to 2014 data from the Kauffman Foundation, which studies entrepreneurship.

The rise in entrepreneurial activity comes as America's workforce ages. Nearly a third of workers over 50, and employees over age 65 outnumber teenage workers for the first time since 1948, according to a recent study by Aon Hewitt for AARP, the nonprofit membership organization for people age 50 and over.

The older workforce includes post-World War II baby boomers, born between 1946 and 1964. By 2020, 35 percent of the labor force will be over 50, according to the study for AARP.

Just a few years ago, Lichty was building homes, and his business took a turn for the worst in 2009. He picked up the instrument to pass the time.

Lichty says he's earning six figures in sales, comparable to when he was running his home-building business. "Money is not our carrot; anytime I have tried to do something for the money, it's been very unsatisfying," he said. "I've always been the type that worked better for myself."

To mushrooms from health care

Sandra Carter is co-founder of Mushroom Matrix.
Photo: Will Pupa

Older entrepreneurs often have greater success than younger workers given their connections and financial stability, said E.J. Reedy, senior fellow at Kauffman, in an interview last year.

"One of the biggest assets is a very deep industry understanding; older entrepreneurs have these ties and connections, and are able to take advantage of those," Reedy said.

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Age and experience are helping Sandra Carter, co-founder of Mushroom Matrix and M2 Ingredients in Carlsbad, California. She launched the organic, medicinal mushroom companies in 2010. The powdered mushroom products for people and pets are sold in stores nationwide, even landing a spot in Whole Foods.

At 60, Carter says her age has given her perspective and allowed her to leverage connections she made in her first career in health-care promotions.The two companies are on track to do $15 million-plus in sales this year.

"One of the wonderful things of aging is that as you go through life, you learn a lot from others and from your own mistakes, as well," Carter said. "Of course there's always risk, but I felt tremendous confidence in the decision."