Margot Machol Bisnow's older son, Elliott, fell in love with tennis at age 12 — a relatively late starting point for anyone interested in reaching the sport's elite ranks. "He just kept losing and losing," but eventually fought his way up to rank at number 35 in the U.S., she recalled recently.
Her son, realizing he lacked the physical reach of the world's top players, gave up tennis several years later. But he credits the sport with teaching him grit, focus and hard work, said Bisnow, who wrote "Raising an Entrepreneur: 10 Rules for Nurturing Risk Takers, Problem Solvers, and Change Makers," based on interviews with her son and more than 60 other entrepreneurs and their parents.
Elliott Bisnow pivoted into entrepreneurship in his early 20's, co-founding Summit, a global conference series for social entrepreneurs, among other ventures. He also formed a partnership to purchase Summit's home base, Utah's Powder Mountain ski resort. His brother, Austin, is a musician, record producer and the lead singer of indie folk band Magic Giant.
Author Bisnow's sons share a key characteristic with the entrepreneurs she interviewed for her book: A parent or mentor who told them they could do anything they put their minds to.
“Every single person that I asked told me the same thing, that they had someone who believed in them," she said. Though usually a mother, that critical individual was sometimes a dad, uncle, neighbor, coworker or coach.
Bisnow interviewed "a very, very diverse group" of entrepreneurs from different gender, socioeconomic and racial backgrounds — people from small towns and big cities, large and small families of various configurations, immigrants and those whose ancestors came to the United States generations ago.
Regardless of these differences, she found that successful entrepreneurs, whom she defines as "anyone who starts something," all had families who followed 10 core principles in raising them.
What's not on that list? Encouraging a child to open a lemonade stand or other business venture — unless the youngster comes up with the idea and possesses the drive to pursue it. Neither is the tough "tiger mom" approach to child-rearing: pressuring kids to strive for perfection in school or competitive activities and shaming them for falling short.
Here are Bisnow's key lessons for parents who hope to raise entrepreneurs — and, even more important — caring people who will thrive regardless of their chosen path.
"Almost every one of the entrepreneurs was passionate about something outside of school," said Bisnow.
While those passions often involved sports, not all the entrepreneurs she interviewed had been athletes. The passion could arise from music, computers, volunteering or something else requiring dedication and hard work.
By pursuing these activities, she said, the entrepreneurs developed grit. "Nobody becomes an entrepreneur without grit."
How you show support as a parent depends on your child's passion.
"Crazy Rich Asians" director Jon Chu, the son of immigrant restaurateurs, wanted to make films since childhood. When he was in high school, his mother recognized his passion and brought home film-making books, telling him to be the best.
Michael Chasen's mother ignored friends' suggestions to limit the time her son spent playing video games, Bisnow wrote. Years later, Chasen founded education tech firm Blackboard, which went public and then sold to a private equity firm for more than $1.5 billion.
Another mother in Bisnow's book, Susan Braun, a physician and the mother of two entrepreneur-philanthropists — Scott "Scooter" Braun and Adam Braun — recently explained that she regarded her children early on as individuals. She expected them to be "unknown people I kind of had to get to know," not people "created in my or my husband's image, and not having the same likes and dislikes that we had."
Braun and her husband, both dentists, considered it their responsibility to help their children find their paths "and be the best possible versions of who they are."
Your child needn't have been born with natural prowess to pursue a favorite competitive endeavor. If they love the activity — whether it's a sport, theater, chess, debate, art contests, student government or sales competitions — they'll learn how to get better at something they care about.
"They're learning to get results," to pick up and try a new approach when they encounter setbacks, said Bisnow. "They're learning not to be afraid to fail."
She cited tennis champion Billie Jean King's philosophy: "We don't call it failure, we call it feedback."
Letting children compete in a favorite activity also gives them someone other than their parents saying, "You know, you just didn't put in the work, we're not starting you this week." That may motivate them further to continue trying until they achieve success.
Bisnow advises that parents judge kids for their effort, not the outcome. If you praise children only for their successes, she said, “you get timid children who are never going to take risks" and be bold enough to start something.
At one time, Bisnow said, she knew all the top 50 youth tennis players in America, and not one of them became top 50 in the world. Chances are small that even successful child athletes will become Olympians or professional athletes, she noted. But who's learning better life skills, she asked: the ones who win easily or those developing grit from setbacks?
The successful entrepreneurs she interviewed had another insight: “When they screwed up their parents never got angry."
In the Braun family, children had to finish any activity they signed up for. Once the class or season was finished, they could switch to something else if they didn't like it.
One of Braun's sons excelled at basketball but decided he didn't want to play during a key season. His parents supported the move — he needed a break, his mother said — but encouraged him not to give up basketball when he'd invested so much time and effort in it. He ultimately returned to the sport and played in college.
Bisnow recommends putting children in schools where they can flourish and not pushing them to be academic superstars.
“Don't worry about straight A's. As long as your child is thriving and happy with something, it's all right," she said, noting that academic success isn't necessarily indicative of future success.
Academics weren't a strong point for many successful entrepreneurs, Bisnow noted.
“They ended up finding something they loved and their parents supported that and were proud of their success, and because of that these kids gained confidence and skills and developed what they needed to go on and succeed," she said.
She cited hit songwriter and music producer Benny Blanco, who has worked with some of pop music's most famous artists. Benny's kindergarten teacher called his mother repeatedly to report that the boy wouldn't stay seated in the reading circle, she said.
From then through his high school years, Bisnow wrote, most of his teachers found him annoying. His mom, however, knew he loved music and found an outside music teacher who recognized Benny's extraordinary talent.
"It changed Benny's understanding of who he was," said Bisnow. "So his mom's believing in him led her to get him a teacher who believed in him, and that combination gave him the self-confidence to become one of the country's top music producers."
Bisnow believes the "tiger mom" approach can lead to children who are depressed and afraid to take risks. “As long as your child is trying their best, it's their effort that matters, not the outcome."
Many of the entrepreneurs Bisnow interviewed had significant mentors in their lives as children. They valued having somebody outside their family who believed in them and thought they were fantastic.
Benny Blanco's music teacher, for instance, thought he was great — one of the most talented students he'd ever seen.
“That meant more to him than all the teachers who thought he was annoying," Bisnow said.
Parents can instill confidence by trusting their children and giving them some freedom, according to Bisnow, who wrote that parents should praise youngsters for their perseverance in the face of difficulty rather than for their intelligence or achievements.
Children need confidence that they can earn a living doing what they love, she wrote.
Braun encouraged her children to take risks as young adults, before they had big responsibilities. She and her husband weren't necessarily supporting them beyond their educations, but were supportive and consulted with them on their endeavors.
“All of my kids, they have a sense that failure is not a big deal, that it is part of the learning curve. They're all very resilient, they all feel very empowered to believe in themselves," said Braun, who believes entrepreneurs need that mentality.
Children can develop confidence and resilience by overcoming adversity, so parents should resist the impulse to clear every obstacle from their path, said Bisnow.
Otherwise, she said, "you end up with timid children who don't know what to do when they experience a roadblock."
Bisnow pointed to the recent college admissions scandal as an extreme example of "snowplow parents" who go too far to ease the way for their kids; in this case, wealthy parents were accused of illegally cheating the college admissions process to get their teens into top schools.
Those parents sent a terrible message to their children — that they couldn't do it on their own — said Bisnow.
Teach your children not only to show kindness, but to learn to think about something other than themselves, Bisnow advised. People think of entrepreneurs as selfish, but successful ones often see their role in a bigger context and want to create something helpful.
She cited Eric Ryan, who co-founded environmentally friendly cleaning products brand Method, and Blake Mycoskie, who, through his socially conscious shoe company TOMS, pioneered the "One for One" business model of helping someone in need with every sale.
"Sometimes thinking outside yourself and thinking outside the box can be not only the right thing to do but can help you become more successful," said Bisnow.
A great family can take many forms — blended, divorced parents, many kids, one child — but they have one thing in common, said Bisnow: mutual support.
Successful entrepreneurs, who give their employees the freedom to spend a portion of their time on non-job activities — which can uncover opportunities to develop new products or services — or who successfully manage their ventures with an empathetic "servant-leader" approach, learned from their families to trust people, she said.
Most of the entrepreneurs Bisnow interviewed believed in something bigger than themselves — a faith, religion or ethical belief system — she said. “They all believe that the world isn't just about them, and I think that's very important."
She recommends that parents share their higher ideals and values with their children.
In the Braun family, those values included respect for hard work, no matter the job.
"I think it's important for people to have worked a minimum wage job at some time in their life," said Braun. "I wanted them to understand that working a minimum wage job is hard, respectful work" and that they should appreciate and respect people doing jobs such as waiting tables.
Braun's children worked summer jobs as teens. In middle school, Scott — now an entertainment executive — DJ'd parties for friends and Adam gave basketball lessons to younger kids. Working as teenagers helped her kids learn good work ethics, like showing up and being good employees, she said. "You're a better boss if you know how to be a good employee."
The power of story has always been important for the Braun family, particularly stories about different generations of the family overcoming obstacles. “My kids, they always seem to want to have their own story line, " she said.
Susan Braun's in-laws survived Nazi concentration camps, a piece of family lore "that definitely has had an overreaching impact on my kids."
Let your child figure out what's important to him or her, and support the youngster in that pursuit, even if it's not what you would have chosen, Bisnow advised.
“This is all about letting your child learn to take risks, learn to fail, not judging them for failure, not even judging them for success — judging them for effort and what they've learned."
Of course, not all of this is easy for parents.
"Having a child who is an entrepreneur can be very anxiety provoking. When both my boys set off on their paths it was terrifying," said Braun. "Thankfully it worked out well for both of them but in the beginning I used to say to my husband, who was much more encouraging, 'Can't he get a 9-to-5 job with health benefits?'
The overarching rule that Bisnow focuses on in her book: Believe in your child.
These rules, said Bisnow, are good for anyone, regardless of a child's eventual career path. They all need to find ways to solve problems, work with single-minded determination to achieve goals, and to take risks on worthwhile projects.
"All children thrive if they learn to believe in themselves, to pursue their passions," she said.
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