After being fired from her job at 58, Nancy listened to her calling to provide a service to seniors and launched her business, Memoirs Plus, where she captures elders’ stories in a beautiful memoir keepsake.
Tell us a little about your background.
I grew up in northern New Jersey and was the third of four children. I was a quiet and shy child who often sat in the kitchen listening to the adults (including my grandparents) talk and watching them cook. I loved listening to stories at a young age.
My next-door neighbor, Mrs. Blanchet, was well into her 80s and lived in a large Victorian house. She would give out butterscotch candies right before dinner to the neighborhood kids. Most would ring her doorbell, get the candies, and run away. But I was drawn into her Victorian parlor where she would transport me back to the nineteenth century when she had lived in that house on a farm. Always an avid reader, I quickly learned to enjoy time-travel fiction. Historical biographies were also my favorites. I always loved stories.
I graduated from Skidmore College, where I majored in American Studies, and then completed a master’s degree in History Museum Studies at the Cooperstown Graduate Program. Part of the curriculum in graduate school was a Folklore class. We had to go into a small town in upstate NY and interview a total stranger for two hours. The objective was to let them do most of the talking.
My original career was as a museum curator; I worked for several years at the Museum of the City of New York. In that role, I initiated, researched, and prepared exhibitions, preserved the archives, and assisted researchers. Two successful exhibits were “Gotham in Gridlock” (a history of traffic congestion in NYC) and “Daring New Yorkers” (a study of people who had performed daring acts in NYC). The French high-wire artist Philippe Petit opened the exhibit: We closed Fifth Avenue and he opened a bottle of champagne on a high wire above the museum.
After the museum, I worked for Mayor Ed Koch’s administration in the Commissioner of Transportation’s office. Other jobs in my life included a short stint owning a catering company, working for a publisher creating children’s book catalogs, program director at a high-end independent senior living facility and adult day care program, and working with an architect/professor as his personal assistant—all varied positions that helped me accumulate the skills I need to run my current endeavor. While my resume may seem disjointed to others, I use all of the skills I acquired on a daily basis today, especially the bookkeeping/Quickbooks I learned.
I have been a single mother since my daughters were 1 1/2 and 3 1/2. They are now 29 and 31 and are my biggest supporters and my pride and joy.
When did you start to think about making a change?
My “aha” moment was being fired from my job at age 58 and feeling certain that I had “aged” out of most job opportunities. I now have that date (December 19th) permanently listed on my calendar as “FREEDOM DAY.” While I’ve described my many different careers, my heart was always with seniors and I decided to find a meaningful way to reconnect to this population in an authentic fashion. My affinity for seniors was evident, but I needed to find a unique business that would be profitable.
My idea for starting a business helping seniors was brewing for several years, but after losing my job, I immediately enrolled in a 60-hour entrepreneurship program through WEDC, Women’s Enterprise Development Center. It was an excellent program that helped me write a business plan and learn about marketing, branding, financials, etc. I often say it was like getting an MBA in just the things I needed to know to run a small business.
I also started networking with any person or organization that was helping seniors in my area (as well as some national efforts). I educated myself on the status of seniors in Westchester, NY and around the world. I researched a number of areas before I decided on the memoir writing business. I am, by nature, a networker, connector, influencer.
In fact, my first business idea was to become a concierge for homebound seniors. My instructor at WEDC told me that was boring and sent me back to come up with something better suited to my skills. At the same time, a geriatric care manager called me and asked if I would be able to help a woman she knew (who was living in a facility) tell her story.
Germaine, originally from Iran, had owned and operated a Max Factor cosmetic business under Ayatollah Khomeini as a single widowed mother of two young children. Her voyage to the United States was an amazing story and she told it with flair. It was a fantastic and incredulous story that we produced into a book, despite the fact that most of her photographs and other memorabilia had been left behind. We called her book The First Ninety Years to celebrate her 90th birthday. Unfortunately, she took a fall shortly after her memoir was published and she only spoke in Arabic after that. I saw how important it was to capture one’s life stories, honor the living, and integrate the children and grandchildren into the process. Working closely with Germaine’s children and grandchildren, I realized this was the business I wanted to start.
What is your next act?
I am the owner of Memoirs Plus. We help you tell your own story, in your own voice. Without the worries of organizing and editing yourself, we create a beautiful book to share with family, friends and future generations.
The most joyous moments in my business are when I sit with clients and watch them open their finished book for the first time. Although they have seen many drafts and proofs, there is nothing like holding their life stories in a beautifully bound edition. The excitement and emotion of holding this special book with their name on the cover can be overwhelming.
These legacy books are often created for a life celebration. I have been included in many a family gathering and watched the reactions of family members receiving this gift. It is truly a treasure and my clients always feel honored by their family’s reaction.
My background is as a museum curator and I often tell my clients that I am making an exhibit out of their lives. A curator researches and learns, culls and edits, writes, and designs. All this, and more, is done when helping my clients create their memoir.
As their biographer, I help clients recapture and articulate in their own words their family traditions and key moments, with all their emotional peaks and valleys. While we sort through decades of photos and memories, a deep relationship is formed.
Some of my subjects don’t like the spotlight and are uneasy about being the protagonist of their own story. My job is to assure them that their stories and memories have meaning and value to the next generation. When my clients see their grandchildren and great-grandchildren’s faces as they pore over the pages of their book, the modesty seems to dissipate. Pride and legacy prevail.
My gift to my clients and their families is helping them preserve the essence of the person for future generations to know and love. It’s also my honor.
When I was starting my business, my children were grown, and my father had passed away a few years earlier. I was the primary caretaker for my 84-year-old mother who lived 1.5 hours away from me in New Jersey. I handled all of her finances and visited often to help her with doctors’ appointments and shopping. I was immersed in the business of helping seniors and decided to start my company in an effort to engage active, alert elders in an intellectual activity that both honored and stimulated their minds through the telling of their stories. I often say that my clients are the ones who “won’t get on the bus.” They don’t often go to planned activities and are sitting at home, isolated socially. My visits offer an opportunity for community, friendship, and conversation.
My style of interviewing is based on my unique skills as a curator. I ask my clients to tell me short stories, vignettes, and other tales about their lives in no particular order. It’s my job to string the stories together and edit the memoir. Some of my clients prefer to do some of the writing themselves; others allow me the opportunity to tell their stories in their own voice. I help people in all phases of memoir writing produce their books in a handsome, hardcover issue.
I am currently working on 15 active memoirs and I have hired staff to help me produce the books in a timely fashion. I always envisioned how to grow the business by beefing up the production team. I like to sell the projects, explain the process, and do the interviews. While I might be able to teach others my technique, I prefer to keep it small enough to maintain my style.
I have also added cancer survivors’ memoirs to my repertoire. As a very recent survivor of breast cancer (I was diagnosed in October 2018), I am offering two complimentary e-book memoirs to survivors who apply on my website: www.survivorsmemoirs.org.
In addition, I teach memoir writing and find that the group classes are a wonderful way for the average person (maybe a bit younger than my typical client) to start writing a memoir. My services are an expensive, luxury item so I feel that by taking an adult school class, more voices can be heard.
How supportive were your family and friends?
My family and friends were extremely supportive of my efforts to start my own business. I think everyone around me has seen how authentic I feel in this position and how much I enjoy my work. It’s sometimes difficult to call it work, I like it so much. And, of course, I love my new boss. I recognize now how I wish I had thought about being an entrepreneur earlier.
What challenges did you encounter?
Like most new entrepreneurs, I expected the phones to start ringing right away. Most people told me it would take 18 months to three years, but it really took a full three years. The hardest part of starting my business was finding the funds to keep me afloat during the first three years when I wasn’t making a salary. While I didn’t have any startup costs (except forming an LLC and producing collateral materials), I really didn’t have much income during that period. I was fortunate to have some angels in my life and I was able to live within my means.
Another challenge was building a team to help me get the books out of the door. I use independent contractors as proofreaders, copy editors, book designers, photoshop experts, photo scanners, and “fresh eyes.” I learned early on that the designs are complicated and easier/faster for me to hire out. Because it’s not steady work, I have had a number of designers; I’m hoping to work closely with the two new designers I have and come up with some styling templates we will use on most books.
One of my biggest challenges was preparing a book, from start to finish, for a very special client in six weeks. I had to drop all other projects and interview him for a solid week, write the stories, collect the photographs and family comments, and produce the book in time for his 94th birthday party. Gus was very pleased with the end product and signed copies for his friends at his party. Sadly, he passed away about a month after that party. At his funeral, his book sat on the pulpit and many of the eulogies referred to his stories. His family felt pleased that he had captured his stories in his own voice.
Looking back, is there anything you’d have done differently?
If only I had the confidence to start this business when I was 40 years old! But, with young children and my status as a single mother, I had limited choices and needed the security of a paycheck/benefits. Going out on your own is scary and not as reliable. That said, I don’t think I would ever go back to a 9-to-5 job as I love the flexibility of being my own boss. And I feel the most authentic I have ever felt.
What advice do you have for women seeking reinvention in midlife?
Go for it! Reinvention is necessary for many women in midlife because ageism is so prevalent. Starting a career helping seniors is important work and it’s okay to have gray hair! I started a networking group of my own (www.wedcseniorprovidersnetwork.org) for women business owners who provide services to seniors in Westchester and Rockland counties (NY). We meet monthly to discuss small business issues, promote our businesses for referrals, and educate the public about our services. An added bonus is that many of these women have become good friends and integral parts of my support system. I have made so many acquaintances that have become important people in my life.
What advice do you have for those interested in launching a service business later in life?
Take a business class. The success rates are staggering: Business owners who attend classes and make a business plan are 80% more likely to succeed.
And make sure you are networking all of the time and in the right places. When you go to a networking event, try to have at least one meaningful conversation and follow up with someone for a one-on-one meeting. I’m basically a shy person who likes to walk into a room and see a familiar face. Networking, which I did by having cups of coffee with over one hundred people in the first year, gave me a chance to introduce myself and my products to someone in a very personal way. I feel like the fact that they got to know me, my motivation, ideals, and passions, made it easy for them to refer me to others and feel comfortable knowing what I do.
What resources do you recommend?
Women’s Enterprise Development Center – Business classes and mentoring for men and women. Learn how to plan a winning strategy, grow with discipline, and achieve smart business goals.
Twisting the Plot – New possibilities for women over 50.
US Small Business Administration – Government assistance for small business growth.
If you’re in the New York area:
Element 46 – Incubator program for Westchester-based small businesses, sponsored by the county.
Score Westchester – Classes and mentoring for small businesses.
What’s next for you?
I expect to be writing memoirs well into my old age. I can slide into retirement by limiting the number of books I produce a year. But I expect to be working with and for seniors when I am old myself!
Connect with Nancy Kessler:
Wow, Nancy, this is a great article!!! I’m so pleased that you’re flourishing and thriving, and I loved seeing the pics to accompany the article, especially with those special souls you helped to tell their stories. I will always treasure the time we spent doing the Mastermind work those years ago…you go, girl!