I recently sat next to the founder of two successful startups as he spoke to his 11-year-old daughter about her class fundraising project. He asked her two friendly yet pointed questions: Would kids outside her own grade be interested in her offer? And could it be easily duplicated? The dad then suggested that she start by making a list of people who might be able to help her get her project under way quickly and effectively.
In less than 10 minutes, he’d taught her three core business lessons.
While it’s not the whole story, research shows that the most common factor shared by successful entrepreneurs is ready access to capital. In other words, the startup world favors those from privileged backgrounds. But the children of successful businesspeople gain an important non-financial advantage, too: informal training in entrepreneurship from a very young age.
That, however, is something that parents don’t need to be especially well-off to provide. If you’re an entrepreneur yourself, all it takes is sharing your experience with your children as your business journey progresses. If you aren’t, the conversations you have with your kids can still get them thinking about ideas and values they can later carry into their professional lives.
Researchers have long understood that parental involvement deeply shapes a child’s personal, intellectual, emotional, and academic development. After all, most young children spend an enormous amount of time with their parents and guardians. It probably feels like much more, but in reality, North American kids spend less than 15% of their time in school.
New research also shows parents play a huge influence in determining a child’s work ethic and habits. This means that how you talk to your kids about your work and job, including your satisfaction (or lack thereof) with it, directly shapes the ideas about work that your children are likely to adopt.
Professor Wayne Baker at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business who has studied the phenomenon simply advises parents to “be conscious about the messages [they] send.” Speaking of his own young son, Baker adds, “I do want him to know that whatever he does, it’s possible to love what you do, like I do. Because when you love your work, it doesn’t seem like work.”
Research also shows that conversation itself gives kids an advantage. Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education found that parental conversation shapes “academic socialization,” setting kids’ expectations, and helping them draw connections between current behavior and future goals.
Why cultivate an entrepreneurial mind-set in your kids? All signs point to the rising likelihood that they’ll need it more than previous generations did. The nature of work is evolving rapidly, with the ranks of so-called “contingent workers” swelling fast. It’s been estimated that just five years from now, more than 40% of the American workforce will be freelancers, part-timers, contract workers, or otherwise self-employed. Regardless of what your kids grow up to do, they’ll need an entrepreneurial skill set in order to do it well.
If you’re an entrepreneur yourself, explain how to your kids how your business works–the same way you’d explain other things they don’t understand. Share how and where you find business opportunities. Make a family game of encouraging them to look at situations and imagine what it would take to make improvements.
Talk about what you’re learning and why that matters. Demonstrate the importance of never-ending self-education by living it. Let your kids see you reading books, listening to podcasts, taking courses, or doing research, and involve them in it; explain what ideas and skills you’re picking up and why they interest you.
Be candid about the reality of the day-to-day journey, no matter what business you’re in. The sexy startup story we often hear about–quick, massive rounds of funding and lucrative exits–can give kids a false impression of the long, incremental, arduous process of starting and running a business. Michael Carter, cofounder of Kahuso, a soon-to-launch marketplace for interim and part-time executive talent, says he’s used the experience of founding his second startup to share with his teenage kids not just the excitement, but also the sacrifice, chaos, and uncertainty of launching a business.
“I spent over nine years developing my first company, but my kids were too young to appreciate the development journey” at the time, he recalls. “But then [they were] suddenly old enough to enjoy the rewards of a successful exit. As a result,” Carter says, “I’ve felt that the whole ‘work/making money’ thing looked pretty easy to them, [and that’s] something I’m actively looking to change this time around.”
The key, in other words, is to be open and honest with your kids about all the financial decisions or lifestyle changes (age appropriately, of course) that come with pursuing your own ventures. Tell them about personal and financial sacrifices you’ve made, how you decided to make them, and what they’re worth to you.
Dr. Roshini Raj already had a successful medical practice and media career when she also became the cofounder of TULA, a probiotic skincare line that recently won the QVC’s Customer Choice Rising Star award.
“Being a founder in a startup is completely different from the rest of my professional life,” she says.
Creating a product completely from scratch was fascinating and exhilarating! I really looked to share that excitement with both my boys. Of course, a skincare line may not be as wildly exciting [to them] as a robot or video game company, but my older son especially was interested to learn how I decided on what to put in the product, what to name the brand, and how we would “convince” people to actually buy it.
There’s no reason why parent entrepreneurs can’t share that process–and all its unglamorous nuts and bolts–with their kids. “Throughout, I’ve been trying to show the boys how being an entrepreneur is about taking a dream or idea and breaking it down to into tasks,” says Raj.
“For instance, in the early days of product development, I had to try out tons of creams to see what kind of texture, feel, and fragrance appealed to me–and I brought my son with me,” she says. “Whenever I put a dab of lotion on, he insisted on trying some also, and told me what smells he preferred or, more often, disliked.”
The point, as Raj sees it, isn’t necessarily to encourage her kids to become entrepreneurs themselves. It’s to teach them the values that enable it. “In any career you need to embrace hard work, creativity, and, above all, passion.”