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‘Go For It’: America’s Richest Self-Made Women On Founding Businesses After 40

Cathie Wood decided to take the biggest risk of her career at age 57, leaving her chief investment officer position at mutual fund and investment firm AllianceBernstein to start her own firm. She came up with the idea in 2012 when her three children—ages 15, 19 and 21—were away, leaving the house unusually quiet. “I realized I was alone for the next two weeks, which had never happened to me before,” Wood, now 64, recalls. “As soon as I was thinking that, this idea came to me. I wasn’t even thinking about work, but I thought, ‘You’ve been a student of disruptive innovation all this time. Why don’t you take those learnings and disrupt the financial sector in some way?’”

When Wood’s idea for actively managed exchange-traded funds, or ETFs, did not catch on at AllianceBernstein, she left to found Ark Invest in 2014. It took three years to break even and Wood sunk more than $5 million of her savings into the business. “Most people thought I was nuts because active management was dead,” she says. “A close friend of mine called it a vanity project.… That threw me, but it also made me even more determined to prove him wrong.” Now Ark is one of the fastest-growing and top-performing investment firms in the world. Wood’s stake in the $29 billion (assets) firm puts her net worth at $250 million. One of her mentors had encouraged her to found a business a decade before she started Ark, but Wood doesn’t think it would have worked out. “At the time I didn’t think it would be right, to not be at home at night,” she says. “By the time I started Ark, my children were quite capable of taking care of themselves. Ark was my new baby.”

Wood’s origin story clashes with the narrative of the plucky young founder that makes for buzzy headlines, but her trajectory is far more common. The average age of American entrepreneurs founding businesses is 42, according to a 2019 MIT-Northwestern study of U.S. Census Bureau data. The average age for the fastest-growing startups is even higher, at 45. In North America, a higher percentage of men started new businesses than women in every age bracket—except from 55 to 64, according to a report by Global Entrepreneurship Monitor. Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that Wood is one of 23 members of Forbes’ 2020  list of America’s Richest Self-Made Women who started businesses at age 40 or later. 

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