From Crunching Numbers to Chopping Veggies: How a 40-Something Found Her Calling

By Lynne Beverly Strang

Colette Wilson, ColMoni’s Catering

For 20 years, Colette Wilson earned a good living as an accountant who did work for the federal government. Now she’s found joy in pleasing taste buds through scrumptious hors d’oeuvres and mouthwatering sweets.

Wilson is a co-founder of ColMoni’s Catering, a Lorton, Virginia-based business that caters a full range of events throughout the Washington, D.C. area. ColMoni’s creations include a full array of specialty cakes and other desserts as well as pre-made meals for busy families and professionals who don’t have time to cook.

How did Wilson make the leap from accounting executive to culinary entrepreneur? Smart financial planning, a strong work ethic and a willingness to ask for help (even when she didn’t want to) all came into play. So did a desire to identify and pursue her true passion. This wasn’t a top priority at the beginning of her career, however.

After graduating from Mary Washington College, Wilson took a job with a CPA firm in Alexandria, Virginia. She worked her way up the corporate ladder as a CPA, making partner before she turned 29. Along the way, she married and had two children.

Wilson was good at what she did, as evidenced by her appointment as Chair of the Virginia Society of Certified Public Accountants in 2012.  By then, she was in her early 40s and had a long list of clients. But she also had an exhausting schedule and yearned to spend more time with her children.

After a talk with her husband and a meeting with her financial advisor, Wilson made a life-changing decision. She sold her partnership interest and left the accounting firm that had been her home for so many years. “I wasn’t sure where I was headed but knew I needed to take a break and wanted to do something different,” she says.

During that time, she gave herself permission to explore her interests. She began cooking for others because it was something she had always enjoyed doing.

The ColMoni’s Catering team: Monica Yates (left) and Colette Wilson (Photo credit: Frontier Kitchen)

In June 2013, a former colleague hired her to cater an event, marking her first paid gig. Another pivotal moment occurred in March 2014. That’s when Wilson met Brenda Brown, who was in the early stages of opening a business incubator for culinary entrepreneurs.

While Brown searched for an incubator location, Wilson prepared food in her own kitchen and developed a following as a caterer. She also recruited Monica Yates, her longtime friend and college roommate, to be her business partner.

In 2015, Brown found space in Lorton and opened Frontier Kitchen. That March, Wilson and Yates – both in their mid-40s – put in $10 thousand each and combined their first names to found ColMoni’s Catering, LLC. They joined Frontier Kitchen as one of its first startups.

The move provided access to a commercial grade kitchen as well as training in marketing, pricing and other aspects of running a culinary business. It also enabled Wilson and Yates to join a supportive community where they could learn from other food entrepreneurs.

ColMoni’s Catering has seen steady growth since its launch three years ago. Sales increased 18% from 2015 to 2016, and 19% from 2016 to 2017. As of the third quarter in 2018, the company had matched 2017 revenues and expects to do well over the holidays.

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“My God-given gift is my desire to serve people. And my passion is cooking. When you can combine your natural gift and your passion, that’s the best of all worlds.” — Colette Wilson, ColMoni’s Catering

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Wilson’s journey offers useful lessons for those seeking to leave a traditional job and become an entrepreneur. Here are some key takeaways:

Plan ahead. Wilson and her husband began saving money towards long-term goals several years before she went out on her own. As a result, the couple had sufficient reserves to tie them over while ColMoni’s Catering found its footing.

Get a financial advisor. The Wilsons already had an advisor whom they liked and trusted. When Colette Wilson decided to leave her accounting firm, the advisor devised a financial plan based upon her husband’s income. A portion of the accounting firm’s payout funds was used to create a “salary” for Wilson as she explored career options.

Choose business partners who have different strengths. ColMoni’s two partners each have clearly defined areas. Wilson handles the logistics, contracts and client interaction. Yates is in charge of baking, food presentation and various behind-the-scenes duties. “Monica is a calming influence and I’m an energetic worrywart,” Wilson laughs. “We have different personalities and different strengths, yet we still come together for success.”

Have a safety net.  While she builds the catering business, Wilson is maintaining her CPA license and her professional contacts in accounting. This gives her peace of mind should she decide to switch gears again in the future.

Get help. Initially, Wilson was reluctant to reach out to others but soon realized that she couldn’t start a business by herself. “The more you know, the more you realize you don’t know,” she acknowledges.

Compartmentalize your time. Like many late-blooming entrepreneurs, Wilson has both professional and family responsibilities. She organizes each day by blocking hours for different areas of her life. This lets her focus on one task at a time, whether it’s preparing a contract for a client or ordering uniforms for her children’s soccer teams.

Going forward, Wilson wants to increase revenue and hire staff to prepare recipes so she and Yates can concentrate on running the business. Her long-term goal is to open a brick-and-mortar café one day.

In the meantime, Colette Wilson is enjoying her entrepreneurial ride, which she’s doing at her own pace. For her, one of the best parts has been building a business on referrals.

“I love to help my customers bring their vision to life,” says Wilson. “I remember each and every client and what he or she likes.”

“My God-given gift is my desire to serve people,” she adds. “And my passion is cooking. When you can combine your natural gift and your passion, that’s the best of all worlds.”

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Can a Childhood Dream Become a Business?

Photo by Rod Long on Unsplash

In August, my family and I traveled to Asheville, North Carolina with a stopover in Abingdon, Virginia. We took advantage of our night in Abingdon by seeing a performance of The Lemonade Stand at the Barter Theatre (a charming place, by the way).

In the show, a 50-something named Garret gets fired from his job.  So he decides to start a lemonade stand in front of his house in an upscale, suburban neighborhood.  Along the way, he meets Rachel, the college girl next door who wants to be his lemonade-stand intern and handle his social media.

At one point, Garret explains his choice of business to Rachel. “I wanted to build something where I’d be happy working each day,” he says. “What better than a lemonade stand?”

The real world has people who, at a later age, built their own lemonade-stand type of a business – one based upon a passion or interest from their youth.

Take Annie Margulis, who dreamed of becoming a fashion designer at a young age. Eventually, she founded Girls Golf – a clothing line for women golfers — after a long career in nursing.

Rory Kelly wanted to drive a limousine at age five. In his 40s, he left the steel industry – where had worked for more than 25 years – to found Prestige Limousine.

Then there’s Cherry Harker, who wanted to design bikinis when she was a teenager.  Almost 60 years later, her vision became a reality when launched ZwimZuit at age 76.

Not every childhood dream can be turned into a business, of course. In some cases, the idea lacks a market – or is just too weird to be viable. In others, procrastination gives someone else the opportunity to swoop in on the idea.

Still, if you’re an aspiring entrepreneur seeking sources of inspiration, don’t overlook the early years of your life. They can be a great place to mine ideas for a product or service that lets you fill a need and have fun at the same time.

Successful business ownership depends upon a combination of factors but a passion for what you do is what enables you to persevere.  And that most certainly will determine whether you make it as an entrepreneur.

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News Roundup for 40-and-Older Entrepreneurs

Photo by Roman Kraft on Unsplash

As summer passes by, older entrepreneurs continue to write or serve as the inspiration for  various articles.  Here’s a look at a few recent stories and tidbits that may interest you.

Peter Thomas, a Canadian serial entrepreneur who will be 80 in September, offers these tips for those who want to start a business.

Chris Farrell, an “unretirement expert,” writes about Startup!, a course from Senior Planet geared toward aspiring 60-and-older entrepreneurs who want to become savvier about technology and online marketing.

Bizstarters’ Jeff Williams weighs in on the same topic, offering five simple digital marketing tactics for people over 50.

Why do baby boomers start their own businesses later in life? Casey Dowd of FOXBusiness explores this question in an interview with David Nilssen, the co-founder of a company that surveyed more than 2,600 small business owners and entrepreneurs.

Morningstar columnist Mark Miller writes about how to blend work and retirement.

Kristen Edens, associate editor for Boomalally Bzine, writes about the evolution of entrepreneurship.

Are you a woman over 50 who wants become a successful entrepreneur?  Here are eight tips from Kerry Hannon, an author who writes about careers after 50.

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What’s Different About This Couple’s Cabinet Design Business

Ross and Trivonna Irwin aren’t your garden-variety cabinet designers.

For one thing, both are late blooming entrepreneurs. Ross was 59 and Trivonna was 56 when they founded Cabinets by Trivonna, a Lacey, Washington-based business that custom designs kitchens for homeowners and contractors in the state of Washington and Northern Oregon.

They opened in 2007, which turned out to be the start of a recession. While many housing-related businesses folded, Cabinets by Trivonna managed to survive.

“We made it through by not just putting our customers first, but by truly getting to know them and their families and designing a product truly meant to fit their needs,” says Ross in this news release.

Today, Cabinets by Trivonna employs four full-time designers and refers all their construction work out to other local contractors, creating more local work and profit. Their commitment to supporting the local business community is one reason why they received the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) 2018 Seattle District Encore Entrepreneur of the Year award this spring.

Cabinets by Trivonna abides by four core values: “integrity,” “respect for others,” “teachable spirit” and “team player.”  The company’s mission is to “create nurturing environments for our customers with carefully thought-through designs that are planned around the lifestyle of the family.”

In this article, Trivonna explains how her life experience contributes to her ability to help her customers.

“I’ve gone from not knowing how to cook when we first got married to having kids (under foot, or learning to help) to being empty nesters,” she says. “I understand all those phases.”

Here’s a video that tells more about Cabinets by Trivonna’s philosophy and services.

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5 Uplifting Stories About Dad Entrepreneurs

Photo by Sabine van Straaten on Unsplash

This month is Father’s Day.  Maybe it has you reflecting on the lessons your dad taught you.  Or maybe you’re thinking about your own kids and what they might get you this year (hopefully not another tie).

Any way you look at it, family tends to be a very big deal for 40-and-older entrepreneurs.  Shown below are a few past posts about entrepreneurs who embraced parenthood fully.  Some of these dads wanted to help their offspring (or other family members) and created a new organization along the way.  Others used uncommon approaches to manage the struggles of work-life balance.

Here’s hoping these stories make you smile.  Happy Father’s Day to all you dads and granddads out there.

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Social Entrepreneur Helps Fathers Become Great Dads – A one-time economist starts a nonprofit that provides fatherhood training worldwide.

How One Dad Teaches His Kids About Entrepreneurship – A father starts an initiative with a simple goal:  to have fun as a family while learning how to run a business.

Entrepreneur Bikes for a Bigger Cause – A son’s cancer diagnosis leads an entrepreneur to found a nonprofit and take on a grueling physical challenge.

Father-Son Entrepreneurial Team Helps People with Autism – A family starts Rising Tide Car Wash to employ a son and others with autism.

From Groceries to Garden Ponds:  John Olson’s Journey – A business owner converts a former executive retreat into both his company’s headquarters and his family’s home so he can spend more time with his kids.

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Successful Entrepreneurs Likely to be Older, Finds New Study

Photo by Matthias Zomer from Pexels

As much as we love reading about young entrepreneurs who create killer businesses, these cases are the exception rather than the norm, says a new report.

In reality, the average age of the most successful entrepreneurs is 45, according to “Age and High-Growth Entrepreneurship.” The research team that prepared the report used U.S. Census Bureau data to analyze all businesses launched in the U.S. between 2007 and 2014 (which encompassed 2.7 million founders).

The study also found that middle-aged founders dominate successful exits.  A 50-year-old founder is 1.8 times more likely than a 30-year-old founder to create one of the highest growth firms.

While these findings may not come as a surprise to readers of this blog, the release of a report confirming the success and value of older entrepreneurs could be beneficial on several fronts.

“If venture capitalists and other early stage investors take our findings to heart, they’ll consider founders from a broader age range and thereby back higher-growth firms,” write Benjamin F. Jones and J. Daniel Kim in this article.

The two researchers also point out that a shift in the narrative about founder age could make older aspiring entrepreneurs “feel more confident about their chances – and more likely to win the resources they need to bring business visions to life.”

Let me add another thought: If the spotlight intensifies on successful older entrepreneurs, younger ones may become more interested in partnering with them. Whereas 40-and-older entrepreneurs have many years of work experience, more extensive networks and (usually) greater financial resources, 20- and 30-somethings tend to be tech savvy, energetic and fresh thinkers. An older-younger combination of founders can be a beautiful thing.

Here’s a link to the full report for those who might like to read it.

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Remembering an Icon in the Beauty Industry

By Lynne Beverly Strang, Late-Blooming Entrepreneurs

Mary Kay Ash

Mary Kay Ash

Vision, drive and tenacity.

Entrepreneurs who want to build sustainable businesses need these traits. Mary Kay Ash had them, plus the self-knowledge that comes with being older.

This month marks the 100th birthday of Ash, who founded Mary Kay – a multibillion-dollar direct seller of cosmetics – at age 45.

Ash was born May 12, 1918 in Hot Wells, Texas as Mary Kathlyn Wagner. Her upbringing wasn’t exactly glamorous. As a girl, she ran the household and took care of her ailing father while her mother worked. Shortly after high school, she married her first husband, with whom she had three children.

A Pivotal Moment

Her determination to get ahead surfaced early in her life. In 1939, the 21-year-old Ash went to work for Houston-based Stanley Home Products. Three weeks after joining the company, she heard about its annual convention in Dallas – and made up her mind to go.

But there was a problem. The cost for the roundtrip train fare and hotel stay was $12. And Ash didn’t have the money.

As recounted in this article on the Mary Kay Foundation’s website, Ash asked every friend she had before one agreed to lend her the $12. The event didn’t include meals – so for three days, she lived on crackers and cheese that she packed in her suitcase.

At the convention, Ash watched as the top saleswoman was crowned queen of sales. Afterwards, she sought out company president Frank Stanley Beveridge and said, “Mr. Beveridge, next year I am going to be queen.” Beveridge looked into her eyes and replied, “Somehow, I think you will.”

“Those words changed my life,” said Ash. “I could not let him down.” Sure enough, she became the new queen of sales the following year.

In 1952, Ash moved to the World Gift Company, where she became its national training director. She quit in protest when she was passed over for a promotion in favor of a man she trained.

The Advantage of Life Experience

Mary Kay Ash greets a group of admirers

After she left, Ash began working on a book to assist women in business. As she wrote down her ideas and analyzed the strengths and weaknesses of her previous employers, she inadvertently created a marketing plan for her ideal company – one where women would have unlimited earning potential and growth opportunities.

Ash’s collective life experience influenced her entrepreneurial choices in a couple of key ways. One, she focused on direct sales since that’s what she knew. And two, she opted to create a business to help other women because of what she went through herself.

As a working parent who married three times, she understood the struggle for work-life balance long before that phrase came into vogue. And as someone who experienced sexism for decades, she shared the frustration and anger felt by workers whose gender kept them from advancement.

With her life savings of $5,000, she bought a formula for skin lotions from the family of a leather tanner who developed the products while he worked on hides. In 1963, she and her son Richard opened Beauty by Mary Kay (as it was then called) in a small Dallas storefront with nine salespeople.

A Legacy Continues

Fifty five years later, the company is in nearly 40 international markets and has millions of consultants worldwide. According to its website, Mary Kay also has more than 1,300 patents for products, advanced technologies and packaging designs in its global portfolio. To date, Mary Kay and its foundation have given a combined $76 million to combat domestic violence and cancer.

Mary Kay Ash passed away in 2001. Although it’s been over a half century since she set out to help women fulfill their potential, that objective remains in place for the consultants who work with the company today.

“I’ve really grown as a person and traveled to places I never would have seen had I not joined Mary Kay,” said Independent Sales Director Anna Sempeles. “It’s provided a great platform for both me and my family.”

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Mary Kay Ash had a way of words.  Here are a few of her sayings:

“Pretend that every single person you meet has a sign around his or her neck that says, ‘Make me feel important.’ Not only will you succeed in sales, you will succeed in life.”

“Sandwich every bit of criticism between two layers of praise.”

“Most people live and die with their music still unplayed. They never dare to try.”

“A good goal is like a strenuous exercise — it makes you stretch.”

“Don’t let the negatives in life control you.  Rise above them.  Use them as your stepping stones to go higher than you ever dreamed possible.”

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