Want to start a business in your fifties? A ‘wisdom school’ in Mexico will give you faith.
It’s a bright, fresh morning at the Modern Elder Academy, a cluster of villas on Mexico’s Baja peninsula, where the “bread ceremony” is about to begin. Ran Fridman, an Israeli-Ukrainian entrepreneur, has spent the past few hours baking for his fellow “compadres”, as students at the academy are known. “Bread is very connected to Ukrainian culture,” he says, also cracking open a bottle of vodka, undeterred by the fact it’s only 11.00.
After all, some of the compadres may need a stiff drink. These 25 late-career consultants, former media chiefs and second-retirement ceos have spent five days getting to know each other, breaking bread and swapping stories of triumphs and travails from their working lives. They emerge from one of these sessions in a nervous flurry. There’s clapping and singing as Fridman hurls himself into a traditional Ukrainian hopak dance, complete with squat kicks and rounds of vodka.
It gets remarkably rowdy – at their age, supposedly, they should know better. Yet the Modern Elder Academy (mea) is all about getting participants grappling with midlife to “reframe ageing”; to get people to see ageing not as decline but as an accumulation of wisdom and worldly acumen that has value.
The average age of mea’s 3,000-strong alumni is 54 and many of the week-long courses are geared to budding entrepreneurs with a business idea they have long nurtured or a new venture that they are trying to get off the ground. (A forthcoming workshop is led by Kerry Hannon, author of Never Too Old to Get Rich.) Others are returning to work for the first time in years. A week’s course is $5,500 (€5,400), with grants and scholarships offered, and much of the actual teaching emerges from group chats led by invited speakers. mea co-founder Chip Conley, an American hotelier and serial entrepreneur, says that demand has prompted the building of two new campuses, north of the border, both in Santa Fe. The third, however, isn’t in downtown but intead in the Museum Hill district of the New Mexico city.
That’s happening against the backdrop of a shift in how we work, as people live longer and continue working into later life. The so-called Great Resignation of the past two years has seen workers quitting their jobs in Europe and America; while it was first driven by younger people seeking better pay, it is increasingly spread to older, tenured workers. Many are taking early retirement, encouraged or otherwise, and companies are shedding decades of experience overnight. Others are stepping out of the office to reassess what it is they want to do with the next stage of their lives.
That’s where mea comes in. Conley believes that he would have been its perfect customer: he launched Joie de Vivre, a group of boutique hotels across America, in 1987 but sold the business as he was nearing his fifties after being hit by a string of personal tragedies. He began writing books but it was only when he joined Airbnb, intially as a strategic adviser, that he found direction. “I was 52, mentoring the three founders, who were between the ages of 29 and 31,” he says. “They began calling me a ‘modern elder’. At first I didn’t want to be that but they described it as someone who is both curious and wise. I felt regenerated by the experience [of being a mentor]; I had meaning but also I could see my value.” This is an insight that underpins the academy’s wider ethos.
Many of the people on the course were just setting out on a venture. “I have a side hustle that’s turning into a business,” says Dominique Mas, a leadership coach from France who currently slogs it at an early-stage start-up in New York. “But what also brought me here was exhaustion.” For all the wisdom-swapping, the mea is still a place to relax, situated on the Tropic of Cancer where desert cacti butt up against oceanside palm groves – there are home-cooked Mexican meals, sundowners on the terrace and, of course, a lot of yoga.
The past few years have seen a profusion of retreats, supercharged by the pandemic, with North America leading the way on a lucrative “wellness tourism industry”. But how much value is there in a getaway geared to older entrepreneurs? “It was perfect timing for me,” says Amelia Leme, who runs a Brazilian athleisure brand called Mana Threads that makes clothes using biodegradable materials. After moving 80 per cent of her production to the US, she was at a loss for where the business went next and has found inspiration in Baja. “The first two days does involve quite a lot of shedding layers and bonding.”
Indeed, the mea is mysterious about exactly what happens on that first day. According to several people who did the course, there’s an expectation to rigorously open up about yourself, which is enough to remind you that this is still a retreat only a two-hour flight from Los Angeles. (There was apparently a shaman on-site at one point.) Kathleen Cacouris, a lifelong marketeer, came to mea looking for ideas for her new business making travel slippers but, on the sidelines, infers that there was too much feelings-sharing and stick- passing in the early sessions. “I kept wondering whether I had signed up for a 12-step programme?” says Cacouris.
The late morning workshop we attend, however, is more down-to-earth: it’s led by Tim Parr, who held senior posts at Patagonia before starting the California-based brand Caddis, making reading glasses with design nous and not for “the $10 rack at the pharmacy”. Parr shares a list of essential lessons from various businesses that he’s built over the years with the group: regard your ideas as cheap and not to be treated preciously, for instance, which gets the group talking. Scribbling away in their notebooks, they interject with their own experiences and linger on the question of how to avoid killing the culture of a business as it grows. Everyone has a story: the former MD who turned around a toxic office, the 70-odd-year-old lawyer who started a Cheap Thrills Committee to keep team morale up. Much of it is useful.
“Our culture is punchdrunk on youth,” says Parr, during a break. “Less than 10 per cent of marketing budgets are dedicated to those who are 50 and older, yet they’re the ones with the money who are not slowing down on spending.”
Quite a few participants at mea have started businesses aimed at an older clientele and Parr points to investors such as Alan Patricof, who launched a new fund in 2020 backing start-ups looking to serve a coming “silver tsunami” of purchasing power. He believes that a business needs people in the room with the lived experience to understand this market. “In the next two years, we’re going to see an intergenerational mash-up happening in the workplace.”
David Stewart, founder and director of Ageist, a magazine of ideas and culture aimed at over forties, is wry about some of the goings-on at mea. “Stop the naval-gazing and get to work,” he says. But sees it as part of a deeper social shift as we rethink getting older.
“Our culture is punchdrunk on youth. Less than 10 per cent of marketing budgets are dedicated to those who are 50 and older”
“The Great Resignation should be renamed the great realignment,” says Stewart. “If you think you’re going to live not just longer but healthier for longer, that changes everything: your consumer buying habits, your future ambitions. The key is to understand how people see themselves in the future because that’s the pivot everything rests on.”
Over pizza and drinks that evening in Baja, there’s an upbeat mood on campus. The compadres have been out learning to surf and have toured the academy’s farm. Kathleen Cacouris, who came here seeking inspiration for her travel-slippers company, is still not convinced by everything she’s done that week but says that she’s ending it feeling positive and energised. “My mind is open to things, certainly,” she says before turning to a barman. “And now I’d like a margarita please.”