One man’s retirement crusade to help Detroit and baby boomers

November 3, 2011

Randal Charlton (REUTERS/handout)Randal Charlton has had a long, colorful career with plenty of ups and downs. In his 71 years, he’s done everything from tending dairy cows for a Saudi sheik to starting a jazz club in Florida. And as a lifelong entrepreneur, he has bought and sold 14 different companies.

Charlton’s last venture was a Detroit-based biotech company called Asterand, which he co-founded and then merged in 2006 with a U.K.-based competitor. He was 67 years old after the deal closed – a time when many would hang up their spikes and take it easy.

Instead, Charlton took on a daunting new challenge: fighting Motor City’s economic blight by building a successful business incubator for entrepreneurs called TechTown. Charlton raised $24 million from foundations and government, gathered together an impressive array of resources for training and start-up funding and recruited a small army of start-ups that have created a total of more than 1,800 local jobs.

TechTown is located in an old five-floor automotive plant with 130,000 square feet. When Charlton took over, just one floor was built out, and the center was running on loans guaranteed by nearby Wayne State University. Since then, the incubator has been home to 250 companies, and more than 2,200 entrepreneurs have graduated from its training programs. Last year, 14 TechTown companies received capital infusions totaling more than $1.35 million. The incubator has invested $700,000 directly in early-stage businesses and helped clients raise $14 million in follow-on funding.

Charlton’s work has just been recognized with a 2011 Purpose Prize, announced today. The award, given annually by the Encore Careers campaign, recognizes older career trailblazers who have demonstrated creative and effective work tackling social problems. Now in its sixth year, the prize was created to promote and encourage civic engagement among baby boomers. It’s a program of Civic Ventures, a nonprofit that works to engage boomers in encore careers combining personal meaning, income and social impact.

Each prize winner receives $100,000. The other winners this year include a San Francisco-area screenwriter who adopted two daughters from China in her fifties, then found a way to partner with the Chinese government in efforts to transform the care of 800,000 orphans there; an Oregon woman who produces and distributes low-cost, safe, fuel-efficient cookstoves in Latin America; and a Santa Fe, New Mexico architect working to improve energy efficiency and reduce emissions in buildings.

A native of England, Charlton started his career after college as an agriculture journalist, and then worked for an agricultural export company. His work has taken him to 40 countries and many adventures, including living for weeks in a Saudi Arabian desert nursing a sheik’s herd of cows back to health. Later he acted as a consultant for cattle breeding associations and for the European Development Fund, and as an executive for several global biotechnology companies.

A personal turning point came when Charlton was in his fifties. Several business ventures failed in a short period of time. He was divorced, and worst of all, he was devastated in 1998 by the loss to suicide of a daughter who had suffered from schizophrenia.

Charlton subsequently rebounded in his sixties when he co-founded Asterand, an ethically sourced human-tissue sampling business that found a home at the then-struggling TechTown.

“All these things combined left me with some very tough emotional and mental challenges.The choice was to indulge myself or do something useful with my life,” he says. “Thank God, one way or another I managed to take the second route.”

“One of the things I learned and applied [from starting Asterand] was how to access advice and support that is sitting in plain sight that most entrepreneurs don’t consider or use. That includes universities that can be quite intimidating from the outside, and the business incubators that a lot of people drive by everyday, where a great deal of support is available.”

The economic devastation stemming from the decline of the U.S. auto industry continues to pummel Detroit. The metro area’s jobless rate was 14.4 percent in September – more than 5 percentage points above the national 9.1 percent rate. And those numbers under-estimate the real jobless rate, which Charlton pegs at closer to 20 percent. The metropolitan area’s population was just 714,000 in 2010, down a peak of 1.8 million during the heyday of the 1950s.

“We’re on the front lines of economic war here,” says Charlton.

Charlton’s TechTown growth plan relied on attracting foundation grants and tenants. “We came up with a Robin Hood business plan – rob a few rich to support the poor,” Charlton says. That meant luring a handful of established companies to serve as anchor tenants that would pay market rents, “with little startups in between them who come and go,” he says. The incubator’s graduates are a diverse lot, ranging from downsized auto company executives and managers to an artist interested in launching a virtual art fair.

Today, the incubator is cash-flow positive from rent and foundation support. It houses under one room an array of training programs, including those of the Kauffman Foundation, the U.S. Small Business Administration and others.

Charlton plans to plow his award money into a new offshoot of TechTown – a program focused specifically on helping adults over age 50 transition to new careers, entrepreneurship and volunteer service. Charlton recently resigned as CEO of TechTown to help lead the new venture, dubbed BOOM! The New Economy.

The idea for BOOM began to germinate after Charlton noticed the outsized number of older adults attending TechTown conferences and entrepreneur training. “Boomers are going to be part of the problem that drags America down, or they will help bring it back to prosperity,” he says.

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This is a great idea. It is such a common perception among the majority of people that Baby Boomers do not use technology or “want” to use technology. I strongly disagree with that misconception, and have seen the evidence play out in my business. Not only CAN Baby Boomers use technology to start entrepreneurial pursuits and advance their careers, they generally speaking, want to do so. GB, Owner, and

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