When I was a much younger woman, sometime in my early twenties, I recall my mother telling me that the ideal job for a woman who wanted children was to be a teacher. She spoke as a teacher herself, having taught Home Economics in an American High School when I grew up before moving into marketing in my teenage years. ‘Teaching,’ she said, ‘allows you to do a job that fits alongside childcare and enables you to take holidays simultaneously as school-age children. It’s perfect if you’re planning to be a mother.’
Frankly, I could not imagine a less desirable job. Working with children sounded like my idea of hell. All that paperwork and standing on one’s feet in front of a classroom. No, thank you. I have very few pleasant memories of my school days, and my interest in academia ended as soon as I completed university. I couldn’t wait to put my classroom days behind me and work, preferably in a glamorous job such as TV or Film, which I did for nearly a decade. Although I quickly discovered that it was not glamorous but tedious, with many hours spent waiting around for lights to get rigged, make-up to be applied, and crews assembled.
Now, thirty-five years later, I’m a teacher of sorts, and I love it. However, I suspect anyone on the course, Startup School for Seniors, I co-run with my colleague Mark Elliott, would say that neither of us is reminiscent of the people you would encounter in most schools or colleges. Firstly, we’re the same age as our students. There’s no classroom hierarchy of us versus them. I still have no academic qualifications, but I’ve earned my stripes, having started multiple businesses with varying degrees of success. What I ‘teach’ comes from experience and the desire to ensure that our students progress through our eight-week programme with the confidence and skills to understand how to create a successful business. Mostly, I’m keen to make the learning fun and effective.
Whether you want to look at it as a positive or a negative depends on your point of view, but had it not been for the pandemic, there’s every chance Startup School would not exist. In December 2019, I held down multiple jobs, including hosting events at Soho House on behalf of Advantages of Age, working for a co-working space in Croydon on events and PR, and singing blues in pubs and clubs. I’d run a version of Startup School called the Advantages of Age Business Academy a couple of years earlier with Yvonne Fuchs. We found funders had limited interest in supporting it as people over 50 didn’t appear to be particularly needy and participants wouldn’t pay for it. Rose and I were ticking along with Advantages of Age, hosting the occasional event or party, moderating the growing Facebook group and maintaining the website.
By March 2020, nearly all my work had dried up, as did many others that I knew of a similar age. Within three months, three quarters of my income had completely evaporated. However, unlike my peers, I had a lifetime’s worth of experience of starting again or starting over. Having a knack for discovering routes to money, I found a fund seeking to help social enterprises like Advantages of Age move their work online. I filled in a short application and, within three months, it provided us with a grant enabling the creation of the eLearning programme Startup School for Seniors. Mark Elliott joined me, we’d met a year earlier at a dinner party where we were the oldest attendees and bonded over our interest in supporting older people with the skills to set up their businesses.
Over three months, we worked day and night, creating videos about ideation, customer discovery, branding and marketing, and the legal aspects of running a business. I interviewed lots of people over 50 who had set up both large and small enterprises for themselves. Paul, a recently retired policeman turned video editor, offered to help edit the content and flung himself into the project, not quite anticipating the enormous amount of material we would be producing in a short time! Determined to make the course as accessible as possible – we captioned and transcribed everything we created – which contributed to the vast workload. In hindsight, it was a monumental task.
The first course launched in October 2020 with over 50 students, and by the end of the eight weeks, we knew we were onto something special as the glowing testimonials from our first guinea pigs flooded in. We both broke down in tears from exhaustion and pride at what we had achieved during the cohort’s final session.
We are now on our eighth and most significant size group of Startup School for Seniors, having won funding from multiple local authorities and grants from trusts and foundations who now recognize the need to support older people into self-employment. Recently we were shortlisted for a People’s Choice Award from Work for Tomorrow and the West London Business Awards. We’ve had inquiries from people in the U.S., Italy, and Norway who want to attend the programme or work with us. I’m most proud that we now have two part-time staff, one a former Startup School student and another who is a member of the Advantages of Age Facebook group. We’re our own best advertisement for the programme, having only got going roughly at the same time as we delivered our first programme. We’re keen to stress to anyone who comes on the course; we’re learning as we go along.
Entering ‘teaching’ in later life may not have been many benefits when looking after my children, who flew the nest five years ago, but it has its upsides. Last winter, due to the course being remote, I was able to escape to a warmer climate and carry on delivering the course from Las Palmas, Gran Canaries. It’s a joy watching my peers learn how to become financially self-sufficient doing something they enjoy. Like all the best jobs, it rarely feels like work, as Mark and I get so much from meeting and working with people for whom we can make a genuine difference to their lives.
If you have an idea, you’d like to turn into a business, or too many ideas with no clue which one to choose or an existing business that isn’t making enough money, come and join an upcoming cohort. We run the programme throughout the year and have sponsored places available for people who fit our funder’s criteria. You’ve nothing to lose and everything to gain!
We run courses throughout the year. Sign up here to find out more: