Working for another person or company in a recession-battered economy is similar to “driving with your knees,” says Steve Felix, an expert in real-estate investment management. He worked in that field for more than 30 years before getting laid off in 2011.
“When you’re driving a car while putting on makeup or drinking a cup of coffee, you sometimes drive with your knees and believe you’re in control.” It’s no different, he says, than the employee who, in the months before his layoff, believes he’s secure and in control of his own destiny, he adds.
It’s an analogy that intrigues David Grupper, an art director and graphic designer who, like Felix, was recently laid off from his job. But Grupper would use a slightly different one.
“If you’re working for someone else, you’re in the back seat,” he says. “You’re not even at the steering wheel.”
Both men are in their 50s — Grupper is now 59, while Felix admits only to being in his fifth decade — an age when landing a new job after losing one is especially tough, according to figures compiled by the AARP’s Public Policy Institute. The average time between jobs for adults 55 or older is 51.5 weeks, the institute reported in early November — a figure that compares to 30.6 weeks for those under 55.
But both Grupper and Felix have gained control of the steering wheel, each launching a business for the first time in his life. And both of them did so after taking a course to train unemployed or underemployed baby boomers in the Jewish community who are interested in creating or growing their own ventures.
Offered by the Hebrew Free Loan Society, an agency of UJA-Federation of New York, “Encore Entrepreneurs: Basic Business Training for Baby Boomers” began its third year this week. But for the first time the agency is able to trumpet how successful it has been, having compiled outcome data from two of the course’s three iterations.
“We had a 38 percent launch rate for the first course, and a 50 percent launch rate for the second one,” says Shana Novick, HFLS’ executive director. The “launch rate” refers to the percentage of participants in each class who created a business within six months of taking the course. That means that after the first class, offered in the fall of 2012, 10 of the 27 graduates launched their own ventures, while after the second class, led in the spring of 2013, seven of the 14 graduates started a business. (The third class took place last spring, making it too early to report outcome data from that session.)
To place those numbers in perspective, Novick turned to officials at Kauffman FastTrac, the nonprofit organization that provides the curriculum and other material for the HFLS course and similar programs around the world, including one offered by the City of New York. The organization, which also licenses and trains facilitators for each class, has collected its own data to measure the success. But coming up with a single yardstick is tough because the courses vary from each other, as do the participants they attract. HFLS’ course, for instance, is one of the few in the country aimed specifically at unemployed or underemployed baby boomers — those born between 1945 and 1965 — while the city’s course is open to adults of all ages, regardless of employment status.
Nevertheless, Alana Muller, president of Kauffman FastTrac at the time, recalls that she and her colleagues “were delighted” about the figures from HFLS, which were among the highest they saw.
HFLS’ success stories include Steve Felix and David Grupper, Felix, a resident of the Columbus Circle area, took the agency’s course in the spring of 2013, nearly two years after he lost his job in a massive round of layoffs at a global real-estate management investment firm, where he was the head of client relations.
“I was married at the time, and I had substantial obligations, as we all have at that time of life,” says Felix, who added that he has two sons. “So it was frightening.”
So, too, was the job market, where he experienced the “draining exercise” of making it as a finalist at two different companies only to see the positions go to someone else — the point at which Felix decided to launch his own consulting business.
Felix learned about the HFLS course through Liz Weiner, whom he met at an outplacement service center after she was laid off as a vice president for human resources at a large financial firm. The two took the course together and, while taking the class, formed what’s now called the Felix/Weiner Consulting Group, which coaches executives in a variety of high-stakes industries in how to present themselves more effectively.
“Our first client together was in April 2013, while we were in the program,” recalls Weiner, a resident of the Upper West Side. “We actually had to miss a class for the meeting,” which took place in Chicago, “and when we came back, we felt like superstars,” even winning applause from classmates.
The applause points to one aspect of the course that participants find so valuable — how, in addition to the instruction it offers, it creates an automatic support network of a dozen or more people who share similar life experiences, face the same predicament and share the same hope to become entrepreneurs. The result is a “safe environment” in which participants are “open to giving and receiving feedback” without judging each other, Weiner says.
That aspect of the course is what also attracted David Grupper, who participated in the program last spring, only months after losing his job at the American Civil Liberties Union.
The layoff led to a “tough time” for the Midwood resident, a divorced father of two grown children, and to months of concern over how he would make a living. Despite his position at the ACLU, as director of marketing and publications, and his years of experience in graphic art, Grupper found that many of the jobs for which he was most qualified “were going to much younger applicants” — people in their 20s or 30s willing to work at a much lower salary.
The idea of launching a business sprang from discussions he had with David Klein, a college classmate who is co-owner of Point Made Animation, Inc. The firm specializes in whiteboard animation, a style of video in which the artist’s hand appears in the frame and begins to draw “while the narrator explains what needs to be explained,” Grupper says. “It’s all over the Internet” and is “used to explain ideas, introduce new businesses, and train employees.”
But Grupper’s business would never have gotten off the ground if it weren’t for HFLS’ course, which Grupper, like Weiner, learned about through Connect to Care, UJA-Federation’s initiative to help members of the Jewish community hurt by the recession.
“I had had no business experience before,” Grupper says, “and I thought that if I was going to do this, let me do this right.”
The success of the course’s participants doesn’t surprise Tiffany Golberg, HFLS’ director of entrepreneurship education, who co-leads the program with John Childress, an entrepreneur. “They know they have something to offer,” she says — a lifetime of experience, a string of achievements and “an understanding that it takes a lot of work to get something.”
Each of the course’s 12 weeks tackles “a different aspect of business ownership and what you’d find in a business plan,” Goldberg says. The subjects include identifying your market, reaching your market, pricing your product or services, and managing your cash flow. The program also devotes an entire session with an outside expert to the subject of social media and website design.
But Goldberg also defines success in broad terms, saying that even the participant who chooses not to create a business has benefited from the course, saving thousands of dollars and huge amounts of time and energy that may have been invested for naught.
Meanwhile, Felix is thinking of writing a book that draws on his own experiences to help others who want to start a business. His working title? “Driving With Your Knees.”