Second-Career Startups


Marc Miller is hoping to start a venture involving hydroponics, the process of growing fruits and vegetables in nutrient solution rather than soil.

Michael Takiff, a published historian, has already begun a new business in which he’d put together oral histories or biographies for companies, nonprofit organizations and families.

The ideas sound as different as night and day, as do the professional backgrounds of those who gave birth to them, but these New Yorkers have more in common than might be thought: Both have been affected in some way by the recession. Both are “baby boomers” — an age when looking for a new job could be a difficult proposition — and both are signed up for a course this fall that could take their lives in a new direction.

Offered by the Hebrew Free Loan Society, an agency of UJA-Federation of New York, the Entrepreneurship Program for Baby Boomers is a 12-week course aimed at training adults in the Jewish community to create and grow their own businesses.

Similar courses are offered throughout the country, including one sponsored by New York City, said Shana Novick, HFLS’ executive director. But this one is believed to be the first in the country designed especially for underemployed/unemployed baby boomers, Novick said. In contrast, the city’s course is open to adults of all ages, regardless of their employment status.

Reflecting that mission, UJA-Federation’s Caring Commission is funding the agency’s course for two iterations — the class this fall and another in the spring — and is promoting the course to clients of Connect to Care, its program for members of the Jewish community hurt by the recession. The yearlong grant is close to $69,000, said Alexandra Roth-Kahn, the commission’s managing director.

Those applying to the course must be between the ages of 48 and 64, and either unemployed or underemployed, said Tanya Figelman, HFLS’ assistant executive director. They also have to submit a “credible” business idea.

Discussing the demographic targeted by the course, Novick said “the people most at risk for long-term unemployment or underemployment are mature workers — highly educated professionals who’ve worked for companies large and small that have laid off employees or shut down completely.”

They’re not poor, she continued, but they’re part of what communal professionals are calling the “distressed middle class” — a group for which there are no firm numbers in the Jewish community, but which Connect to Care is aimed at helping. Moreover, said Novick, if the baby boomers among them can’t find another job at the same level — often because of age discrimination — “they’re at risk of poverty later in life.”

The good news, though, is that those “who actually launch businesses and keep them open tend to be over 45,” said Sevanne Kassarjian, one of two people hired to lead the HFLS course and a facilitator for the city’s course, as well.

Baby boomers also bring “an incredibly rich, diverse experience to the classroom,” said Kassarjian, who, as a communications coach, runs her own business in addition to teaching. As a result, those in the classroom “will be able to access each other’s contacts, knowledge and experience. It’s like a treasure chest.”

Kassarjian’s words could certainly describe the rich, diverse backgrounds represented by Miller and Takiff, two of the roughly 30 participants who’ll eventually be chosen for this fall’s course.

A resident of the Upper West Side, the 60-year-old Miller is a database manager for a financial company, a job he’s held for the past 10 years. But the industry “is going through a rough stretch,” Miller said, adding that he doesn’t earn as much money as he previously did.

Even before the downturn, Miller found himself pinched by medical costs, the result of a chronic pain condition from which his wife suffers. Those expenses now come to “20 [percent] to 25 percent of your salary right off the top,” he said, “and that’s before taxes.” Add to that the looming cost of college for his 12-year-son, and the Millers have had to live frugally.

In fact, it was the high cost of food that prompted Miller two or three years ago to begin researching hydroponics, which allows an urban resident to grow certain fruits and vegetables in his or her own apartment.

“It’s not that complicated to have hydroponics in your own home,” he said. “All you really need is a light source” to raise the crops, which can be grown in a vertical manner.

With food costs high and with much of the country caught in a record drought, Miller believes hydroponics is the wave of the future. He could see his company engaged initially in educating people, perhaps by offering classes and distributing toolkits to grow crops at home. Later, if and when the company grows, he envisions the possibility of creating hydroponic farms on rooftops and selling the food to local restaurants and grocery chains.

While Miller is venturing into a new field, Takiff, 57, is creating a business built on what he’s done for many years — chronicling the lives of other Americans, both ordinary and famous, through oral histories and biographies. Those works include “Brave Men, Gentle Heroes: American Fathers and Sons in World War II and Vietnam” and, more recently, “A Complicated Man: The Life of Bill Clinton as Told by Those Who Know Him.”

Takiff’s background also includes a lengthy stint as a stand-up comedian, as well as stints as an actor and a classical singer — a memory that prompts him to joke that his combination of talents, plus $2.25, “will get you on to the subway.”

Indeed, Takiff has discovered that the marketplace for the kinds of books he’s done is downsizing considerably as the publishing industry falls victim to both the recession and e-books. “Advances are not what they used to be,” he said, “and nonfiction doesn’t sell as well as fiction.”

The result is that Takiff and his wife have had to dip into savings, as the Millers have done, and Takiff has had to hustle for work, like other writers. The father of a 13-year-old son, he now does some ghostwriting, writes the occasional op-ed piece and takes editing jobs.

Describing his family’s financial situation, Takiff said, “We’re hanging on, but we’re not able to get ahead” — words that could also describe Miller’s situation. But the Upper West Side resident sounds passionate as he describes his new business, History Speaks, which he launched with two colleagues and which now has a website.

The course is designed by Kauffman FastTrac, a nonprofit organization based in Kansas City, Mo., which provides the curriculum and other material for participants, and trains the facilitators. Organizations that offer the course, like HFLS and the city, purchase a license from Kauffman FastTrac to do so.

As they prepared for the course, which begins in mid-October, Miller and Takiff told The Jewish Week that they’re looking forward to learning what they don’t know about business.

Miller, for instance, said he hopes to learn how to launch a business, how to gauge the market and how to anticipate expenses. “If hydroponics doesn’t work out,” he added, the tools taught by the course “would still be incredibly useful.”