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Making a New Start in a Business of Their Own

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In April, Dave Summers lost his job as director of digital media productions at the American Management Association, a casualty of layoffs brought on by the pandemic.

Mr. Summers, 60, swiftly launched his own business as a digital media producer, coach and animator who creates podcasts, webcasts and video blogs.

And in September, he and his wife, who teaches nursery school, moved from Danbury, Conn., to Maryville, Tenn., which they discovered while visiting their son in Nashville. “My new work is all virtual, so I can live anywhere,” he said. “Not only is it a cheaper place to live, we love hiking and the outdoors, and our new town is in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains.”

Droves of small businesses have been shuttered by the economic fallout of the coronavirus, but for Mr. Summers, starting a new one was the best option.

“I’m not sitting on a massive nest egg, so I need to work to keep afloat,” he said. “It’s also about being healthy and happy. I can’t just retire because underneath it all I’m creative, and I have to be busy doing stuff and helping people tell their stories.”

While the coronavirus pandemic is causing many older workers who have lost jobs, or who have been offered early retirement severance packages, to decide to leave the work force, others like Mr. Summers are shifting to entrepreneurship.

In fact, older Americans had already been starting new businesses at a fast rate. In 2019, research from the Kauffman Foundation, a nonpartisan group supporting entrepreneurship, found that more than 25 percent of new entrepreneurs were ages 55 to 64, up from about 15 percent in 1996.

Across the age spectrum, there has been a rise in new business start-ups since May, according to the Census Bureau. The surge is likely “powered by newly unemployed individuals opting to start their own businesses, either by choice or out of necessity,” according to the Economic Innovation Group, a bipartisan public policy organization.

“Older women, in particular,” said Elizabeth Isele, founder and chief executive of the Global Institute for Experienced Entrepreneurship, “are highly motivated to start their own businesses to foster their own economic self-reliance, support their families and also provide employment for others in their communities.”

Losing his position during the pandemic was a blow for Mr. Summers. He was depressed for a day or two, he said, but he already had been doing what he calls “out of school projects” and had a personal website that he quickly remade into a professional one.

Start-up costs for his virtual business were under $2,000. The biggest challenges, he said, were “finding time to keep my technical skills up-to-date, and pricing my services right.” The biggest reward? “It is a freedom I could not have imagined.”

For many retirees, or those nearing retirement age like Mr. Summers, “starting a new business by repackaging the skills and experience honed for decades into a new career is exciting,” said Nancy Ancowitz, a New York City-based career coach.

“It hits you, especially during the coronavirus crisis, that time no longer feels unlimited,” she said. “You’re aware of your own clock ticking. Since you don’t have a seemingly endless vista of work ahead of you, you may be motivated to finally retool and learn a new trade, or just try something different.”

For some of Ms. Ancowitz’s clients in their later working years, a buyout from an employer is “the seed money to fuel the venture they’ve been hankering to launch,” she said.

They see it as “a treat to get that kick-start rather than have to hunt for a job, with all of the loneliness and fear of rejection that comes with it, especially when they haven’t looked for a job in ages.”

Two years ago, Vanessa Tennyson, 62, retired from her job as a human resources officer at a large consulting engineering firm in Minneapolis where she had worked for 32 years.

To find her footing, Ms. Tennyson enrolled as a fellow at the University of Minnesota’s Advanced Careers Initiative. It was the push she needed to begin an executive coaching business.

Before she hung out her shingle, though, she went back to school to obtain certification in executive and organizational coaching from Columbia University’s Teachers College and a graduate certificate from Columbia Business School’s Executive Education platform in business excellence. She also made sure her credentials met the standards required by the nonprofit International Coaching Federation.

“I didn’t want to be retired,” she said “Retired implies done. When I moved on from my job, it wasn’t completely on my own terms. The firm changed management, and I was out faster than I had planned.” But at 59, she said, she wanted something new. “I longed for something more purposeful, more meaningful, more challenging.”

Money, too, played a role.

“I had saved quite a bit of money, but I had also spent quite a bit of money,” said Ms. Tennyson, who realized she needed to keep earning.

Start-up costs for Ms. Tennyson were around $50,000 for tuition and to set up a home office so she could coach virtually.

“The positive result of the pandemic,” she said, “is I can work with people anywhere.” But the coronavirus has also taken a toll on her business, and in June she took a job as director of human resources at an addiction treatment center. “I continue to run my business on the side and coach clients. I expect that to bounce back next year.”

It turns out that the importance of entrepreneurship, or self-employment as a form of work, increases significantly with age, according to a report by Cal J. Halvorsen and Jacquelyn B. James of the Center on Aging & Work at Boston College.

According to the report: “While about one in six workers in their 50s are self-employed, nearly one in three are self-employed in their late 60s and more than 1 in 2 workers over the age of 80 are self-employed.

Joe Casey, an executive coach, advises his older clients to focus. “The sooner they’re clear about their ‘Why,’ the easier some of their decisions will be.”

ImageRati Thanawala’s new nonprofit aims to help women entering the technology field, where she spent her career. 
Credit…Kayana Szymczak for The New York Times

For Rati Thanawala, 68, it was her time as a 2018 fellow at Harvard’s Advanced Leadership Initiative, which helps professionals apply their skills to social problems, that led her to start a nonprofit, the Leadership Academy for Women of Color in Tech, this summer.

“As a fellow, I did research on why the careers of so many women and minorities get stalled in the tech industry,” said Ms. Thanawala, who spent 39 years working in technology, the last 17 as a vice president at Bell Labs.

After she retired three years ago, Ms. Thanawala sold her car and home and moved to Cambridge, Mass., for the Harvard program. “My husband had passed away, and our two children were grown,” she said. “I wanted to get rid of the old to make room for the new relationships and new people who can teach me.”

For Ms. Thanawala, the central issue for her next chapter was clear — she wanted to have an impact on the industry she had been immersed in. “I had tremendous knowledge in the tech area, and I saw firsthand how few women of color were in leadership positions,” she said.

Her pilot program, which she designed as a fellow, was funded by a $20,000 grant from Pivotal Ventures, an investment and incubation company created by Melinda Gates.

And this summer, Ms. Thanawala partnered with faculty members at the University of Massachusetts and the Harvard Kennedy School to create a free six-week, 120-hour Virtual Summer Leadership Academy taught via Zoom for 54 women undergraduates. Most of the students were sophomores or juniors pursuing degrees in technology and engineering at schools in Massachusetts, including the University of Massachusetts, Harvard, M.I.T. and Boston University.

Ms. Thanawala said she hoped to expand the program and make it available to all women of color who declare a major in technology across the country.

In devising her business, money was not a stumbling block. “I didn’t need a start-up that was going to make me millions of dollars,” she said. “And I didn’t need money to support me. I could focus on changing the culture in tech and change the mind-set about women of color.”

Embarking on social entrepreneurship has been a one-woman show in many respects, she said. “I had to do everything myself. It was not like at Bell Labs when I had all of these people around me to bounce ideas off. It was harder than I predicted.”

Her mantra: “At this stage of life, it is really important to focus and not spread myself too thin. I picked something that is transformative, game-changing and innovative. I don’t need it for my ego. I don’t need it for my credibility. I don’t need it for money.

“But it is going to be the best chapter of my life in terms of the impact that I will have had in this world. People will remember me for this.”

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The Trump campaign celebrated a growth record that Democrats downplayed.

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The White House celebrated economic growth numbers for the third quarter released on Thursday, even as Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s presidential campaign sought to throw cold water on the report — the last major data release leading up to the Nov. 3 election — and warned that the economic recovery was losing steam.

The economy grew at a record pace last quarter, but the upswing was a partial bounce-back after an enormous decline and left the economy smaller than it was before the pandemic. The White House took no notice of those glum caveats.

“This record economic growth is absolute validation of President Trump’s policies, which create jobs and opportunities for Americans in every corner of the country,” Mr. Trump’s re-election campaign said in a statement, highlighting a rebound of 33.1 percent at an annualized rate. Mr. Trump heralded the data on Twitter, posting that he was “so glad” that the number had come out before Election Day.

The annualized rate that the White House emphasized extrapolates growth numbers as if the current pace held up for a year, and risks overstating big swings. Because the economy’s growth has been so volatile amid the pandemic, economists have urged focusing on quarterly numbers.

Those showed a 7.4 percent gain in the third quarter. That rebound, by far the biggest since reliable statistics began after World War II, still leaves the economy short of its pre-pandemic levels. The pace of recovery has also slowed, and now coronavirus cases are rising again across much of the United States, raising the prospect of further pullback.

“The recovery is stalling out, thanks to Trump’s refusal to have a serious plan to deal with Covid or to pass a new economic relief plan for workers, small businesses and communities,” Mr. Biden’s campaign said in a release ahead of Thursday’s report. The rebound was widely expected, and the campaign characterized it as “a partial return from a catastrophic hit.”

Economists have warned that the recovery could face serious roadblocks ahead. Temporary measures meant to shore up households and businesses — including unemployment insurance supplements and forgivable loans — have run dry. Swaths of the service sector remain shut down as the virus continues to spread, and job losses that were temporary are increasingly turning permanent.

“With coronavirus infections hitting a record high in recent days and any additional fiscal stimulus unlikely to arrive until, at the earliest, the start of next year, further progress will be much slower,” Paul Ashworth, chief United States economist at Capital Economics, wrote in a note following the report.

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Black and Hispanic workers, especially women, lag in the U.S. economic recovery.

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The surge in economic output in the third quarter set a record, but the recovery isn’t reaching everyone.

Economists have long warned that aggregate statistics like gross domestic product can obscure important differences beneath the surface. In the aftermath of the last recession, for example, G.D.P. returned to its previous level in early 2011, even as poverty rates remained high and the unemployment rate for Black Americans was above 15 percent.

Aggregate statistics could be even more misleading during the current crisis. The job losses in the initial months of the pandemic disproportionately struck low-wage service workers, many of them Black and Hispanic women. Service-sector jobs have been slow to return, while school closings are keeping many parents, especially mothers, from returning to work. Nearly half a million Hispanic women have left the labor force over the last three months.

“If we’re thinking that the economy is recovering completely and uniformly, that is simply not the case,” said Michelle Holder, an economist at John Jay College in New York. “This rebound is unevenly distributed along racial and gender lines.”

The G.D.P. report released Thursday doesn’t break down the data by race, sex or income. But other sources make the disparities clear. A pair of studies by researchers at the Urban Institute released this week found that Black and Hispanic adults were more likely to have lost jobs or income since March, and were twice as likely as white adults to experience food insecurity in September.

The financial impact of the pandemic hit many of the families that were least able to afford it, even as white-collar workers were largely spared, said Michael Karpman, an Urban Institute researcher and one of the studies’ authors.

“A lot of people who were already in a precarious position before the pandemic are now in worse shape, whereas people who were better off have generally been faring better financially,” he said.

Federal relief programs, such as expanded unemployment benefits, helped offset the damage for many families in the first months of the pandemic. But those programs have mostly ended, and talks to revive them have stalled in Washington. With virus cases surging in much of the country, Mr. Karpman warned, the economic toll could increase.

“There could be a lot more hardship coming up this winter if there’s not more relief from Congress, with the impact falling disproportionately on Black and Hispanic workers and their families,” he said.

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Ant Challenged Beijing and Prospered. Now It Toes the Line.

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As Jack Ma of Alibaba helped turn China into the world’s biggest e-commerce market over the past two decades, he was also vowing to pull off a more audacious transformation.

“If the banks don’t change, we’ll change the banks,” he said in 2008, decrying how hard it was for small businesses in China to borrow from government-run lenders.

“The financial industry needs disrupters,” he told People’s Daily, the official Communist Party newspaper, a few years later. His goal, he said, was to make banks and other state-owned enterprises “feel unwell.”

The scope of Mr. Ma’s success is becoming clearer. The vehicle for his financial-technology ambitions, an Alibaba spinoff called Ant Group, is preparing for the largest initial public offering on record. Ant is set to raise $34 billion by selling its shares to the public in Hong Kong and Shanghai, according to stock exchange documents released on Monday. After the listing, Ant would be worth around $310 billion, much more than many global banks.

The company is going public not as a scrappy upstart, but as a leviathan deeply dependent on the good will of the government Mr. Ma once relished prodding.

More than 730 million people use Ant’s Alipay app every month to pay for lunch, invest their savings and shop on credit. Yet Alipay’s size and importance have made it an inevitable target for China’s regulators, which have already brought its business to heel in certain areas.

These days, Ant talks mostly about creating partnerships with big banks, not disrupting or supplanting them. Several government-owned funds and institutions are Ant shareholders and stand to profit handsomely from the public offering.

The question now is how much higher Ant can fly without provoking the Chinese authorities into clipping its wings further.

Excitable investors see Ant as a buzzy internet innovator. The risk is that it becomes more like a heavily regulated “financial digital utility,” said Fraser Howie, the co-author of “Red Capitalism: The Fragile Financial Foundation of China’s Extraordinary Rise.”

“Utility stocks, as far as I remember, were not the ones to be seen as the most exciting,” Mr. Howie said.

Ant declined to comment, citing the quiet period demanded by regulators before its share sale.

The company has played give-and-take with Beijing for years. As smartphone payments became ubiquitous in China, Ant found itself managing huge piles of money in Alipay users’ virtual wallets. The central bank made it park those funds in special accounts where they would earn minimal interest.

After people piled into an easy-to-use investment fund inside Alipay, the government forced the fund to shed risk and lower returns. Regulators curbed a plan to use Alipay data as the basis for a credit-scoring system akin to Americans’ FICO scores.

China’s Supreme Court this summer capped interest rates for consumer loans, though it was unclear how the ceiling would apply to Ant. The central bank is preparing a new virtual currency that could compete against Alipay and another digital wallet, the messaging app WeChat, as an everyday payment tool.

Ant has learned ways of keeping the authorities on its side. Mr. Ma once boasted at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, about never taking money from the Chinese government. Today, funds associated with China’s social security system, its sovereign wealth fund, a state-owned life insurance company and the national postal carrier hold stakes in Ant. The I.P.O. is likely to increase the value of their holdings considerably.

“That’s how the state gets its payoff,” Mr. Howie said. With Ant, he said, “the line between state-owned enterprise and private enterprise is highly, highly blurred.”

China, in less than two generations, went from having a state-planned financial system to being at the global vanguard of internet finance, with trillions of dollars in transactions being made on mobile devices each year. Alipay had a lot to do with it.

Alibaba created the service in the early 2000s to hold payments for online purchases in escrow. Its broader usefulness quickly became clear in a country that mostly missed out on the credit card era. Features were added and users piled in. It became impossible for regulators and banks not to see the app as a threat.

ImageAnt Group’s headquarters in Hangzhou, China.
Credit…Alex Plavevski/EPA, via Shutterstock

A big test came when Ant began making an offer to Alipay users: Park your money in a section of the app called Yu’ebao, which means “leftover treasure,” and we will pay you more than the low rates fixed by the government at banks.

People could invest as much or as little as they wanted, making them feel like they were putting their pocket change to use. Yu’ebao was a hit, becoming one of the world’s largest money market funds.

The banks were terrified. One commentator for a state broadcaster called the fund a “vampire” and a “parasite.”

Still, “all the main regulators remained unanimous in saying that this was a positive thing for the Chinese financial system,” said Martin Chorzempa, a research fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington.

“If you can’t actually reform the banks,” Mr. Chorzempa said, “you can inject more competition.”

But then came worries about shadowy, unregulated corners of finance and the dangers they posed to the wider economy. Today, Chinese regulators are tightening supervision of financial holding companies, Ant included. Beijing has kept close watch on the financial instruments that small lenders create out of their consumer loans and sell to investors. Such securities help Ant fund some of its lending. But they also amplify the blowup if too many of those loans aren’t repaid.

“Those kinds of derivative products are something the government is really concerned about,” said Tian X. Hou, founder of the research firm TH Data Capital. Given Ant’s size, she said, “the government should be concerned.”

The broader worry for China is about growing levels of household debt. Beijing wants to cultivate a consumer economy, but excessive borrowing could eventually weigh on people’s spending power. The names of two of Alipay’s popular credit functions, Huabei and Jiebei, are jaunty invitations to spend and borrow.

Huang Ling, 22, started using Huabei when she was in high school. At the time, she didn’t qualify for a credit card. With Huabei’s help, she bought a drone, a scooter, a laptop and more.

The credit line made her feel rich. It also made her realize that if she actually wanted to be rich, she had to get busy.

“Living beyond my means forced me to work harder,” Ms. Huang said.

First, she opened a clothing shop in her hometown, Nanchang, in southeastern China. Then she started an advertising company in the inland metropolis of Chongqing. When the business needed cash, she borrowed from Jiebei.

Online shopping became a way to soothe daily anxieties, and Ms. Huang sometimes racked up thousands of dollars in Huabei bills, which only made her even more anxious. When the pandemic slammed her business, she started falling behind on her payments. That cast her into a deep depression.

Finally, early this month, with her parents’ help, she paid off her debts and closed her Huabei and Jiebei accounts. She felt “elated,” she said.

China’s recent troubles with freewheeling online loan platforms have put the government under pressure to protect ordinary borrowers.

Ant is helped by the fact that its business lines up with many of the Chinese leadership’s priorities: encouraging entrepreneurship and financial inclusion, and expanding the middle class. This year, the company helped the eastern city of Hangzhou, where it is based, set up an early version of the government’s app-based system for dictating coronavirus quarantines.

Such coziness is bound to raise hackles overseas. In Washington, Chinese tech companies that are seen as close to the government are radioactive.

In January 2017, Eric Jing, then Ant’s chief executive, said the company aimed to be serving two billion users worldwide within a decade. Shortly after, Ant announced that it was acquiring the money transfer company MoneyGram to increase its U.S. footprint. By the following January, the deal was dead, thwarted by data security concerns.

More recently, top officials in the Trump administration have discussed whether to place Ant Group on the so-called entity list, which prohibits foreign companies from purchasing American products. Officials from the State Department have suggested that an interagency committee, which also includes officials from the departments of defense, commerce and energy, review Ant for the potential entity listing, according to three people familiar with the matter.

Ant does not talk much anymore about expanding in the United States.

Ana Swanson contributed reporting.

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