Supporting a Young Entrepreneur in the Family

I come from a family of paycheck lovers. I can’t really
say there’s not a single entrepreneurial bone in our
bodies, but when I look around at my close relatives, I
do see a flood of regular paychecks feeding the family
coffers. And then there’s Kate, my 23-year-old niece,
who has a different vision – of one day being the one
who hands out the paychecks.

Patricia Kitchen-

An accomplished pastry chef in Brunswick, Maine, she
sees herself owning her own restaurant. She wants to
order supplies, manage employees, cater to
customers, do all those behind-the-scenes jobs that
make the likes of me run and hug our office-supply
cabinets. Which raises an interesting question: how to
support and encourage a young entrepreneur when you
are yourself apprehensive about this more chancy work

Step one, says Mary Jacobsen, is to examine the
underlying dynamics. She’s a social worker in
Arlington, Mass., and the author of "Hand-Me- Down
Dreams: How Families Influence Our Career Paths"
(Harmony Books, $11.77). One dynamic has to do with
how we define security. Many of us may still hang on
to the idea that the good life means having a good
employer. But look at how that notion of security has
shifted as mighty rocks of the corporate world shed
thousands of employees or even crumbled themselves.

Young people have been exposed to "different models
of how to navigate," Jacobsen says. Granted, the
dot-com bubble is long burst, but kids still have seen
the pluses of running their own shows. And, of course,
those failures are an important lesson, too.

She also points to the danger that young people feel
they are "betraying" their families’ traditions. But
squelching their aspirations by taking a paycheck job
just might rob them of their "sense of vitality and
creativity," she says. And the next stop on that train
could well be depression.

Of course, no one wants young people to dash blindly into any endeavor. Indeed,
a self-proclaimed "rah-rah" guy, Steve Mariotti, says it’s healthy for young people
to have their ideas scrutinized a little. If they can’t stand up to skepticism from
their family, he says, they may not be cut out for the entrepreneurial route, where
rejection and negativity abound. Mariotti is founder of the National Foundation for
Teaching Entrepreneurship, a Manhattan nonprofit that has worked with more
than 40,000 low-income, underserved youth worldwide.

It’s also useful for parents to know that millions of Americans do make a living
this way – and that there are plenty of educational opportunities and resources,
such as mentors and advisory boards, to help young people make a go of their
own businesses.

For some – women and minorities, especially, he says – it can be a more
rewarding route than battering themselves against all those corporate ceilings,
glass or concrete.

So how do you support someone in an endeavor you don’t have a clue about? Be
a good questioner and a good listener, say the entrepreneurs I consulted. But,
stay away from probing their choice to become an entrepreneur. "That strikes at
the core of their identity," says Russ Kendzior in Dallas, founder of Traction Plus,
a producer of slip and fall prevention products. "Most entrepreneurs do not take
risks for the sake of money, but rather to build something they can call their
own," he says. That’s a message he’s had trouble getting across to his brothers,
two of whom are executives, the other a recruiter. "They just never understood
why anyone … would not take the corporate path," Kendzior says.

As for my niece, I have finally stopped pushing her toward all the resources I’ve
found so useful, such as formal education and networking. Instead, I smartened
up and gave her a job this summer – to plan and cater our first family picnic at a
state park near her hometown. She scouted the location, planned the menu,
delivered an estimate of food costs, plus her own time. Then she executed
everything brilliantly, right down to the spinach artichoke dip.

What did she learn from the experience? That she underestimated the research
and the preparation time. Nor had she done any research into what to charge, so
she came in far lower than the going rate. (Aunties, of course, are glad to
encourage adjustments in such matters.)

Next I’m inviting her to an exhibit, "Enterprising Women: 250 Years of American
Business," developed by the Schlesinger Library of the Radcliffe Institute of
Advance Study. It premieres in October at the National Heritage Museum in
Lexington, Mass., and coming to Manhattan’s New-York Historical Society March
25. We may have no other women business owners in our family, but there’ll be
plenty of role models there.

Apart from that, I’ll be following some advice from Jacobsen: Give up the notion
you’re a failure if you can’t pass along contacts and tips about the corporate
world. Instead, take on new roles for yourself – those of "witness and

Copyright © 2002, Newsday, Inc.

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