How do you get kids ready to become entrepreneurs?
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The classic answer, of course, is the lemonade stand: Encourage your kids to start a homespun business instead of just bugging you for money. But entrepreneurs and educators say the real solution goes much deeper than that. There are crucial psychological traits an entrepreneur needs to succeed, they say, and parents should help kids develop them at every opportunity.
Here’s a look at those attributes—and how to foster them.
Parents should urge kids to explore their environment—and don’t let them get too comfortable, advises Arthur Blank, co-founder of Home Depot Inc. and owner of the National Football League’s Atlanta Falcons. That means urging them to ask questions constantly and develop an inquiring mind. For instance, “get them the right kind of toys—in which kids must figure out for themselves what to do,” he says. And “on vacation, try different restaurants outside their comfort level.”
Pierre Omidyar, founder of eBay Inc., agrees that exploration and inquiry are crucial lessons. “Our kids seem to thrive in situations that engage their curiosity and allow them to explore and discover the world around them on their own terms,” Mr. Omidyar says.
In his own childhood, he was immersed in both Persian and French culture thanks to his parents’ backgrounds. “Being exposed to and learning about these cultures taught me early on that there are different ways to think about any single situation, and that you don’t always have to do things the way they’ve always been done,” Mr. Omidyar says.
Dependable and Stable
Pramodita Sharma, a visiting professor at Babson College and director of the school’s STEP Global Project for Family Enterprising, also advises parents to help their kids develop an inquiring mind. But she says a couple of other traits are just as important: conscientiousness and emotional stability.
Parents should insist that kids deliver high-quality work at the promised time, whether it’s chores, homework or extracurricular activities. And parents should model good behavior, demonstrating control when emotions run high. They should also urge their children to take steps such as waiting to respond when they lose their temper.
Parents should help kids recognize that their world is full of business opportunities, and finding them just takes some careful observation and creativity.
Christine Poorman, executive director of the Chicago office of the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship, which provides an entrepreneurship course for at-risk youths, says students are encouraged to walk around their communities and evaluate business needs. One student found her neighborhood’s bodegas and hardware stores didn’t have an online presence, so she created logos and websites for them.
Real-estate magnate Sam Zell also puts a high value on teaching curiosity and observation. An entrepreneur, he says, is always “seeing problems and then seeing solutions.”
Sometimes those problems aren’t as obvious as they look. “When I was 12, my parents moved from Chicago to the suburb of Highland Park,” says Mr. Zell. Every day, “I would go into the city by train after school to attend Yeshiva school. I noticed that under the L track, they were selling Playboy magazines. I would pay 50 cents apiece for them and then bring them home to the suburbs to sell to my friends for $3—it was my first lesson in supply and demand.”
Sports can be a great classroom for entrepreneurial values. Mr. Blank says his six children, who have all played a variety of sports, have had to learn how to deal with setbacks and how to move past losses. “Sports teach how important teamwork is. The germ of the idea for Home Depot was with Bernie [Marcus] and me, but we also needed the ability to get other people excited about the idea—to get in the game, so to speak,” he says.
His son Joshua is captain of his eighth-grade soccer team, he says—a role that will help the boy learn about leadership and inspiring others, as well as playing his own position.
“Not winning every game and teamwork—these are all good lessons for entrepreneurship,” Mr. Blank says.
Solitary pursuits can instill good values, too. Jim Koch, founder of Boston Beer Co., found climbing mountains a good building block in becoming an entrepreneur. “Climbers are a lot like entrepreneurs. They are willing to put themselves in a risky situation and then once there they become careful and cautious and try to reduce and eliminate the risk,” says Mr. Koch, who taught mountaineering for Outward Bound in British Columbia in the 1970s.
Lead by Example
In the end, many entrepreneurs say the most valuable thing you can do to teach your kids about entrepreneurship is to practice it yourself.
For Mr. Blank, his parents were his biggest influence on his becoming an entrepreneur.
“I saw living examples of entrepreneurs,” he says. “My dad was 39 years old when he started a pharmacy wholesale business. He passed away at 44 when I was 15. My mother, who was 37 at the time, had no business experience but was a risk taker in her own way. She grew the business and later sold it to a larger pharmaceutical firm.”
For Scottrade founder and chief executive Rodger Riney, the entrepreneurial model was his grandfather, who owned several small businesses in Hannibal, Mo., including a fertilizer plant, cemetery, grain elevator, insurance firm, alfalfa plant and trailer-rental business.
His mother’s lessons in the Golden Rule were another big inspiration. “I paid attention to that and tried to treat people the way I wanted to be treated, and that later translated into how I wanted to treat my customers,” Mr. Riney says
Yes, it can be learned, but must be a passion.