Switching careers: A mission to be entrepreneurs

Changing the direction of your career can be scary. Obstacles litter the path, from a mortgage to uncertainty about what that new profession should even be. But 13 people over 60 took the leap in Bruce Frankel's inspiring book, What Should I Do with the Rest of My Life.

At an age when many of us are contemplating retirement, they found success in their second, even third, careers because "their new careers became personal missions," explained Frankel. "Many of them began in curiosity, without knowing where they were going. They set goals and worked them step by step. When people are unable to suffer the uncertainty of moving step by step, they often foreclose possibilities."

Added Frankel, "The people were aware, to greater and lesser degrees, that their missions were also meant to redefine them."

Alicia Sable-Hunt and William Von Hagel Jr. may be only in their '30s but they are well on their way to second careers. They share their tales of how they became accidental entrepreneurs with the aim to build small businesses that would make a difference.

Alicia Sable-HuntAlicia Sable-Hunt: Cooking up a new direction
It all started with a dare. While working at the Multiple Myeloma Research Consortium as a program manager in 2006, Alicia Sable-Hunt was confronted by a cancer patient unhappy with the recommendation to rely on Ensure to regain the weight she had lost from chemotherapy.

"She slammed her fist down on the desk and said, 'I am not walking around with a can of Ensure,'" recalled Sable, a registered oncology nurse. "She was in her '30s. So I asked her, 'What do you eat?' She opened her bag and it was full of athletic bars. But one was too hard. Another did something to her digestive system. I said, 'What if I made nutrition bars designed for you?' It was that moment that I stepped into the kitchen."

Sable, now 39, had no food experience. But she's a risk taker and had boundless confidence in herself and her mission. That has sustained her through the two years it took to find the right partners and get her bars into the marketplace.

"The first food consultant laughed at me," said Sable. "You're surrounded by negative energy. And I told everyone who would stop long enough at Starbucks that I was doing this. Humility goes out the door. Your ego is gone. You are literally begging. But for every door that is slammed in my face, a window would open."

It helped that she had just gotten her master's in business administration in 2006 from the University of Phoenix, where she also got her nursing degree. She embarked on the MBA, which costs about $24,000-$36,000, after she moved from the bedside into research, where she had to keep an eye on costs and budgets. She graduated from the online program with a marketing plan for her nutrition bars.

"Getting that MBA gave me the confidence and foundation to know what the business terms are," said the Boca Raton Fla. resident. "It also gave me critical thinking skills. It gave me the ability to research things and question the advice I was given. It taught me running your own business doesn't mean you're the boss. You're now responsible to your investors, customers, vendors and yourself. I went from one boss to five."

Her persistence paid off. A friend of a friend invested $50,000 in 2007. By 2009, she had raised – and gone through -- $350,000 to launch Sable's Foods, which offers nutrition bars in summer berry and tropical fruit flavors. She's cooking up a third flavor right now and hopes to soon add breads to her line.

William Von HagelWilliam Von Hagel, Jr.: Making a calculated change
William Von Hagel Jr. is a big fan of small businesses. He loves how their focus is as much about their employees as it is about customers. But after working for three companies where "when they get above $20 million, the focus is less about employees and more about ratcheting up profit numbers," the software engineer decided to go out on his own in 2008.

He and a colleague with more than 30 years of IT experience started Eclipse Engineering LLC, an Odenton, Md-based contracting company that works primarily with the intelligence community.

"We spent the entire first year coming up with a benefits package and putting everything in place so we could be an employee-focused company," recalled the 30-year-old. "We hired our first employee in October 2009. We're now up to eight employees."

The idea came to him while he was finishing up a $15,000, 3-year doctor of management program at the University of Phoenix. "I already had a master's degree in computer science. I liked the doctor of management program because it was more about leadership than a traditional MBA," said Von Hagel, who graduated in June 2009.

These days, he wakes up at 4:30 a.m. in order to get into the office at 5:15. He works with clients until 2 p.m., then puts on his corporate hat and works with his co-founder to keep on top of matters like HR, security clearances for employees, and audits.

"It's a ton of work," he said with a laugh, but worth it.

You don't need a lot of capital to launch a business successfully. Von Hagel and his partner spent about $500 to register the company name, living off of savings for nearly two months before income started coming. But an understanding of how you will get revenue is crucial.

"What do your customers need and how can you plug into those customers," explained Von Hagel. "Make sure you know how to find good people. On a softer note, have a very strong attention to detail. There are so many things, like finance, payroll, contracts and negotiating terms and conditions, that it's easy to get overwhelmed. Being detail oriented but being able to say, 'what are the top 20 things that need to get done today'' is key."
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