By Susan Amat
A few months ago I was in Cleveland for the opening of the Blackstone LaunchPad program at Case Western Reserve University. One of the VIP guests is a businessman who has become a prominent figure in the state. When we were introduced, he said he drove two hours to the event knowing he would be able to speak with me. And, no, I didn’t owe him money. He wanted to ask me for advice about his son.
Like many successful immigrants, this father came to the United States with nothing and spent decades building several businesses, accumulating great wealth and access to the best for his family.
He sent his son to enrichment programs, gave him the newest technological gadgets as they came out, brought him to the company over school breaks to intern in the departments of his choice, again getting to play with the tools of tomorrow at his dad’s high-tech R&D labs. These parents hoped their son would become a doctor or a lawyer and did everything to prepare him for a good career.
Now, their son wants to be an entrepreneur and no one in the family wants to accept it.
Our VIP wanted me to meet his son and hear his plan and help him realize he should go to law school now.
This is something I have experienced dozens of times. The first-generation immigrants make great sacrifices so that their children will have a better life. They want their children to have stable professional careers with advanced degrees or to join the family business. When their child, usually the eldest, wants to begin a venture of his own, the parents are challenged to find the balance between being supportive and protective. No parent wants to see a child struggling.
My dad started a publishing company in the ‘60s so I grew up going to his meetings and the warehouse. The foundation of his business was to empower people through education, his passion seeped into every facet of his life. His eternal optimism made every problem seem like it was a gift to learn something new. Even at a young age, challenges were fun and exciting puzzles; "failure" was part of the experimentation to not simply find something that worked but to develop the optimal solution. And that process never ends, continuing to test and innovate since the environment is always changing; exhausting to some, but exhilarating to others.
When you grow up in a family with someone working 18 hours every day, on nights and weekends, because they want to, because their employees and family are counting on their leadership and dedication to that business, that work ethic in imprinted — that becomes your standard. The research says that the only predictor for who becomes an entrepreneur is having a parent or other close family member who acts as that role model. It all comes back to exposure, seeing someone who you know to be a normal person but with a passion and determination that lead to self-realization.
If you want your children to be more entrepreneurial and don’t have your own business, here are a few tips to start getting those neural networks connecting in new ways:
1. Talk about everyday things in new ways, such as when reading a book before bedtime, talk about the author and the publisher and the process of getting a book into your hands, including the book store owner, like our local hero Mitch Kaplan from Books and Books.
2. Discuss different ways of solving a problem, even if it is getting to camp earlier, write down multiple ways to solve the same problem and discuss pros and cons. Even when a solution works, that isn’t always the best way so "failure" can become a positive as a learning experience.
3. Use local trips to restaurants and stores as an opportunity to meet entrepreneurs, explain how your local entrepreneurs start businesses and have your kids meet them and ask questions. When children are exposed to a career by someone to whom they can relate — that looks and acts like they do — then that path becomes an option, and their dreams may be forever changed.
The VIP dad and I spent two hours talking that day, and I met with his son. Giving him the room to try, and potentially fail, that was the show of love, support and respect that every child wants to earn.
He is now working full-time on his startup and will start part-time working on a masters degree in engineering in the fall. This may be the best gift his son ever receives — whether the business is a success or failure.
Susan Amat is the founder of Venture Hive and co-founder of The Launch Pad. Follow her on Twitter @susanamat.