Starting a new business from scratch after you turn 50 takes energy. Doing it in another country and a different language requires self-confidence. Deciding to press ahead with the project despite a global pandemic requires courage — lots of it.
Joy Howard has it all.
In 2020, after nearly 15 years as a marketing executive for some of the world’s most recognizable consumer brands — including Nike NKE,
Then came COVID-19, sending France (and the rest of the world) into an extended lockdown. With schools, offices and restaurants closed, and the disruption to the global economy only beginning to make itself felt, Howard had a vivid now-or-never feeling and made what felt like the only real choice: She launched her business anyway.
The company, called Early Majority, makes technical outdoor-wear — coats, rainwear, shirts and other clothes that put function before fashion by emphasizing breathability, movement and water-resistance.
Make only what you’ve sold
A pioneer in the emergent “degrowth” movement, which seeks to shrink the use of energy and resources, Early Majority sells its goods on a membership model, making exactly what its customers want and nothing more. Its goal is to establish more environmentally sustainable practices in the notoriously high-impact apparel industry.
Early Majority also had a pop-up store in the Marais district of Paris that was intended to raise its profile as well as those of two female artists, the photographer Zaineb Abelque and the visual artist Louise te Poele.
The pop-up is a tangible sign that, despite an unforeseeable post-launch chain of catastrophes — from Britain’s exit from the European Union to the pandemic to the protracted disruption of global supply chains — Early Majority and Joy Howard are still standing.
How did she realize her dream? And what can other women and older entrepreneurs learn from her experience?
Putting ideas into practice
Having a clear vision, paired with an inexhaustible drive to see it come to life, are crucial to entrepreneurial success. Early Majority co-founder Dmitri Siegel, who had previously worked with Howard at Patagonia and Sonos, says she has those traits in abundance. “She’s an especially inspiring person and leader,” he says.
“I think Early Majority fulfills a lot of things that Joy has had percolating in her mind since I’ve known her,” Siegel continues. Moreover, Early Majority addresses serious problems that need solving, and people find that compelling.
“[Howard’s] experience of working in the outdoor industry really brought into stark relief the way that industry does not always serve women very well,” Siegel says. Even the design process for clothing and gear can be male-centric. “It’s very man versus nature,” he adds, “and then, ‘Oh, we’ll make a pink version of it as an afterthought.’”
Howard’s desire to make gender-neutral outdoor gear — while prioritizing sustainability, activism, environmentalism and mutual aid — gives the company a cohesive purpose. Howard’s ability to communicate that goal is key. “She has this effect on people, because she’s so purpose-driven,” Siegel says. “You feel like, I just want to help make this happen…I just want to see this vision come to life.”
Becoming a 50+ female founder
Beyond convincing friends and colleagues that she could realize her vision, Howard had to sell the idea to venture capitalists, a process with its own challenges.
“There’s a certain stereotype of who gets venture capital,” Howard says. “People say startups are a young man’s game. It’s perception, but it becomes self-reinforcing. Something like 3% of all venture funding goes to women.” The most recent figure is 2%; for women over 50, it is even lower.
But female founders over the age of 50 are out there. Howard points to Martha Stewart, who was 56 when she founded Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, and Arianna Huffington, who started the Huffington Post at 54.
“Statistics show that you’re more likely to be successful in your 40s and 50s,” Howard says. Research published in The Harvard Business Review supports that assertion. “Statistically speaking, the failure rates for younger people are much higher.”
When you don’t fit the mold, self-belief — backed up with research — is key.
“I was lot more cynical about investors before I started raising money,” Howard says. “The people who’ve given us money to start the business are very important to me; they are in the foxhole with you.”
‘Is this really going to work?’
Even after securing several rounds of funding, hiring a team, and seeing the initial Early Majority products through design, manufacture, and shipping, Howard still has nail-biting moments. Asked if she ever wonders if it is really going to work, she responds: “All the time!”
For companies like hers that make and ship clothing and gear, there is sometimes no workaround for supply chain problems. “We thought it would be over quickly,” Howard says of the global logistics logjams, “but it’s been one shock wave after another through the supply chain.”
She lists Britain’s decision to leave the European Union, the six-day shutdown of the Suez Canal after a container ship ran aground, the protracted COVID pandemic, the Russian invasion of Ukraine and recent pandemic-related lockdowns in Shanghai as just a few of the obstacles that have cropped up.
She does it her way
Despite the struggles, Howard says she’s not likely to return to another corporate role — or to working for someone else. The risk and uncertainty of owning her own company are worth the satisfaction of running her own show.
“When it’s very scary, when it’s so hard, that is the thing that I take great comfort in: not having a boss,” she says. “It’s a dream come true.”
Part of her satisfaction comes from building a better workplace culture. As founder, Howard draws on past experiences to create a good environment for her team. “The most meaningful thing would be that everybody there loves their job,” Howard says. “Can you imagine? If you created a workplace where everyone wanted to be there?”
What if you’re not pursuing venture capital, but dreaming on a smaller scale — say, opening a cafe in a favorite vacation spot, buying a franchise, or marketing your services so you can work from home? Howard says the lessons of her experience still apply. Remember that finding the right time to make the leap isn’t just about adding up the numbers, she says. Assess your emotional readiness, and be prepared to work through some fears. Make sure your family is on board.
Scale your dream
Dream big, but be practical. “I’m not one of those people who is like, ‘Put your whole life savings on the line,’” Howard says. “I don’t think my husband could take it!” She adds: “I’ve worked with founders who put everything they had into the company, and I found them very brittle and fearful and just, like, white knuckle all the time.”
That said, the dream of launching a business in Paris might not be as remote as it seems. Howard says France and other countries have programs that encourage entrepreneurs to move there.
In France, she adds, “there’s this huge social infrastructure that you get to benefit from.” During the pandemic, many American women with school-age children made a forced choice to leave the workforce, but ample daycare and the relatively quick reopening of schools in Paris let her avoid that. “I had childcare the whole time,” she says.
Cost of living is another plus: “It’s 40% cheaper to live in Paris than New York or San Francisco,” Howard says. “You can live very cheaply. But doing that here, you can have a quality of life that’s still good. You don’t feel like you’re missing out on a lot.”
Kris Herndon is a longtime freelance writer whose byline has appeared in the New York Times, Newsweek, Entrepreneur and many other publications. She writes frequently about entrepreneurship, sustainable design, and environmental issues.
This article is reprinted by permission from NextAvenue.org, © 2022 Twin Cities Public Television, Inc. All rights reserved.
More from Next Avenue: