Intergenerational partnerships fuel success in metro Detroit companies

"Mixing one's wines may be a mistake, but old and new wisdom mix admirably."
-Bertolt Brecht

Sometimes, the chemistry that results from mixing gray-haired wisdom with bold youthful ideas and energy creates a robust start-up. That’s the experience of a small but growing number of intergenerational ventures.

Geoff Horst, 35, a marine biologist, and a couple University of Michigan graduate students had just won a $70,000 DTE Clean Energy Prize for converting algae into biofuel, allowing them to establish Algal Scientific in Northville, which now produces a nutritional supplement for livestock from algae. They needed a partner who knew how to start a business.

"We had a total of two employees: me and a technician, then Paul came on to serve as a 'gray-haired executive.'" Paul Horst, 64, Geoff’s father, is an experienced entrepreneur. "We asked Paul to join the company because none of us had started companies before," says Geoff. "You can’t just walk into a venture capitalist’s office and say, ‘Give me money,’ but not have any business experience. Paul brought 30 years of experience in one person."

Paul adds, "Geoff and his team were technology-based." His job, he says was to "fill in everything other than the biology."

"Paul provides the checks and balance," Geoff says. "He has helped prevent us from making fatal flaws, even if it’s has meant putting a little bit of a throttle on some of the projects -- not too much. I’m very persuasive. There are a lot of start-ups in Ann Arbor relying on more part-time, or even unpaid advisors to provide a little of that gray hair and experience. There’s something to be said about having someone on the team full time that can provide that experience that you need on a more frequent basis than just once a week or once a month."

Randal Charlton, a director of Everist Health likes to walk around the office and talk to younger colleagues at who would rather communicate through email and texting. A serial entrepreneur in his '70s, Charlton struggles with the latest trends in technology. He's a respected writer, but is uncomfortable with blogs. 

Rachael Redouty, 25, office manager, teaches Charlton about Twitter and using a smart phone, but "he offers things that I don’t have in other areas. He has wisdom and knowledge. He offers constant advice on how to handle situations. He’s been there, done that at different times, whereas I’m new to situations. I’m able to teach him certain things and he can teach. ... He has so many connections; he knows so many people. You just Google his name; he’s on the Internet. He’s helping this company succeed with all his connections in Canada. He brings people into the office who we wouldn’t be able to reach out to."
In a hyperactive world, "you can get caught up in the rush," says Andrew Hertig, 27, marketing manager. "Sometimes you’re knocking off 20 emails at a time. You’re meeting deadlines. Then someone like Randal comes along and slows down the pace and interrupts you... and really puts things into perspective. It’s not all about crunching. It makes you feel better when you see what’s really important -- that’s growing the business, taking a step back. Maybe he might work a little slower, maybe he might need a little help with technology. You need to slow down. If you go too fast you might trip up. Slowing down your pace is an important lesson that only the older generation can teach you."

They may be slow, but older colleagues communicate well, Hertig says. That pays off as Charlton cultivates international clients. "They use their years of experience to bring their points across. Young people leverage technology because it has become such an enormous part of our social lives. Using this technology in business, combined with, say, Randal’s excellent writing style with something like a blog or social media platform where we can get his messages out," Hertig says.

Intergenerational entrepreneurship is a relatively new trend in which "second career" entrepreneurs, also known as "encore" entrepreneurs, team up with younger partners to form a dynamic work engine that isn’t common with start-ups. In a sense, it’s an age old match up -- except in the past, it’s been a hierarchy, with the older entrepreneur training the younger partner. In this case, they come in as equals with complementary skills.

Elizabeth Isele, founder of Senior Entrepreneurship Works, an international advocacy agency, says "young entrepreneurs think of themselves in their own silos," unaware or unwilling to connect with potential older partners. Those who do, realize immediate benefit in the formation of their venture and the cross-mentoring that occurs between generations, she says. "There's a tremendous amount of age bias in incubators and (business) accelerators."

Youth-orientation, while good for encouraging young entrepreneurs, dissuades many older startups, she says,  Incubators "should open the doors and not be adverse to 50+ entrepreneurs... once they open their doors hey will see the benefit of cross-generational collaboration."

"Young (professionals) always benefit from (the) work life experiences” of older partners. “"t’s hard to get that unless you’ve lived through the experience."

Don't assume that because an older partner is more cautious that they’re risk-adverse. Charlton says in his case the conflict is not in age, "because I’m a risk-taker. I have been all my life. I’m with the guys who want to get it (the product) out there."
Contrary to the impression one might have of elders, they're "less risk-adverse than Millennials," Isele says. "I think (it's because) we’ve tried and failed many times."

With failure comes knowledge and resilience, if you've survived to tell the tale. Some young people, particularly the generation entering college, have trouble with failure. They've been programmed and driven to excel at everything from infancy. To take a chance, to allow the mind to wander, is an experience many young people don’t have. The idea of them risking their grade point average on something that is not certain is foreign to their experience. ... Older people encourage young people to check out an idea."

Isele, who posts commentaries in the blog recently returned from a consulting trip to Europe where she says the European Union is focusing on intergenerational entrepreneurship in its economic revival strategy.

In a way, there's nothing new about this dynamic -- except with intergenerational entrepreneurs, the two come together as partners. The creative tension between partners of two radically different age groups often results in explosive, positive human chemistry, Isele suggests, fueling a new company’s growth and development. One ignores history to move a new idea forward. Another draws on history and experience to guide development of an idea.
Geoff Horst contends that start-up companies run by young entrepreneurs have been successful "because they don’t care what anyone has told them (or) what others have done before." They’re going to do things in their own way, often reinventing the rules. “People will tell you all day long to buck the trend and do it this way, even though I have people 30 years older than me saying, I wouldn't do that if I were you.”

Paul Horst, who came of age in the 1960s, is haunted by an ethic of his generation: "Don’t trust anyone over 30."

Geoff Horst may not know the quote, but he’s rephrasing it: Maybe there are times to trust the gray-haired executive.

Dennis Archambault is a Detroit-based freelance writer and regular contributor to metromode and Model D.
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.