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Is Entrepreneurship Hereditary?

April 12, 2018

"Every life a legacy, every small business a school." - Michael E. Gerber

 

When I was growing up, I didn't see a lot of my father.  He was often gone in the mornings before my brother and I left for school, and didn't come home until 7:00 or even 8:00 at night.  Saturdays, too, he often worked full days, and until he moved his office into our basement sometime around my middle school days (and then out again sometime during my high school years), he would often put in hours away on Sundays "doing paperwork."  I didn't really understand what that meant, but all I knew was that he worked a lot, and that he loved us a lot.  I suppose that's all I really needed to know.

 

He was a small business owner.  And to anyone who was or is the child of a small business owner, this is probably a familiar scene.

 

My father started his landscaping business right out of high school after his counselor suggested that he wasn't really "college material," largely due to his grades and English as a second language status.  I've always been very proud of him, even during lean years.  A Mexican immigrant who struggled with severe dyslexia and a strong Spanish accent, he's had to deal with many obstacles on the way to business owner success.  As an English teacher who often teaches American Literature, I tell my students that if you look up the term  "American Dream" in the dictionary, you'll see a picture of my father there, slim mustache and all.  Like a Mexican Jay Gatsby...of...lawn maintenance.

 

My childhood was not filled with fluffy aphorisms like "if you work hard you can achieve anything" or "believe in the power of your dreams."  But it was filled with positive and realistic examples of hard work and ingenuity.  And not making excuses.  My brother's ingenuity tended much more towards the sciences and he would often have experiments set up all over the house.  My ingenuity tended much more towards music and literature, and yes, business.  In middle school I sold beaded and woven jewelry to my school friends after reading a book on how to make it until the school said I had to stop.  I began making money as a solo pianist in high school marketing myself as an accompanist for other student instrumentalists, giving piano lessons, and playing for local Christmas parties and other events.  I began freelance tutoring not long after my teaching career started.  My mother's intense sense of personal industriousness combined with my father's traditional entrepreneurship have created a personal drive to simply do.

 

In a conversation with a friend during college who was both a business major and an education major, he once stated his concerns about an increasing mix of the two.  The first concern of business, he told me, was "screw the other guy before he screws you", and he felt this notion had no place in running a school where arguably, your students and their parents are "the other guys."  I agreed wholeheartedly, but this notion of business stuck with me.  I understood competitiveness, but in my understandings of how my father did business when I was growing up, this kind of cutthroat ideology never felt in sync with the quiet man with permanent crow's feet who loved watching Beauty and the Beast and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.  I'm sure I never truly knew the inner workings of his business (though I did work in the office on billings for a few summers), but in conversations around the dinner table, there was never a triumphant sense of "winning" or "waging war" or screwing over anyone: competitors, clients, or workers.  This was the small business school I was taught in.

 

I don't know how long I will continue to make and sell my paper flowers; after all, lots of business owners went to schools that encouraged the same ruthlessness mentioned by my friend.  I know that I love doing it and making people happy with unique gifts crafted by a person making it for them, not just for somebody.  I know that the business school that I attended was unaccredited and the classrooms were underfunded and sometimes the teacher was late or tired and he spoke with an accent.  But if every small business is a school, then I earned my degree at home.

 

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