Behind every great entrepreneur... is a mom
WELLESLEY, MASS. — College sophomore Missy Fine had just won an entrepreneurship award for her custom-jewelry business. Her mother, Ginny, covered her face with her hands and cried.
Any such occasion would make a mother proud. But this was an especially good day to be a mom. Last month on Founder's Day, an annual celebration at Babson College, the Wellesley, Mass., school honored mothers for cultivating the entrepreneurial spirit in their children. This earlier generation of moms may not have had as much opportunity to become business leaders themselves, but they did have a profound influence - sometimes by simply suppressing their protective instincts so that risk-taking and creativity could flourish.
And this Mother's Day weekend, moms are getting unprecedented attention. "Lemonade Stories," a one-hour documentary sponsored by Babson, presents the stories of a diverse set of entrepreneurs and their mothers. It airs Friday on CNNfn at 9 p.m. EST.
Along with life lessons, the film includes humorous stories of toddlers with sagging diapers or teenagers defying curfews. The moms contributed baby pictures and family movies, and gave moving accounts of their early relationships with the entrepreneurs-to-be. Among the portraits:
• Arthur Blank, cofounder of Home Depot, and his mother, Molly Blank, who was a young woman when she took over her husband's pharmacy business after his death.
• Eve Branson, who once dressed as a man so her instructors would let her pilot a plane. Her son Richard Branson took to the skies, too, as the founder of Virgin Atlantic Airways and more than 200 other Virgin Group companies.
• Russell Simmons, cofounder of Def Jam Recordings, and his entrepreneurial brothers, who pay tribute to the love, financial support, and artistic impulses that their mother, Evelyn, gave them. After brief run-ins with the law, the brothers were able, with family support, to steer away from the only entrepreneurial model they had known as teens: drug dealers in their New York City neighborhood.
Researchers have long said that someone who grows up with an entrepreneurial parent is much more likely to launch his or her own business. "Lemonade Stories" explores the less tangible influences parents have had.
"I loved that all of these women were risk-takers," says Mary Mazzio, director of the documentary. "Some of them were businesswomen, some of them weren't, but it didn't matter - they all had that adventurous spirit."
Ms. Mazzio herself left a partner position at a law firm to make documentaries that herald women's often-hidden contributions. Confessing that her own children are sometimes overscheduled, Mazzio says this project reveals how important it is for kids to daydream, to be left to their own devices.
As a child, Tom Scott, cofounder of Nantucket Nectars, sold drinks to people waiting in their cars during the gas crisis in the 1970s. Later, he ran errands and sold items to boaters on Nantucket Island, a business that eventually led him to create the now-famous fruit juices. His mother, Jane Scott, never doubted he'd succeed.
"The drive came out of a sense of fun as opposed to parental expectations or societal expectations," Mazzio says of Mr. Scott and the other entrepreneurs. "Kids do lemonade stands not really to make money. The real purpose is to give yourself a sense of independence."
The film brings out what can never really be shown on a business spreadsheet: a mom's love - and an occasional wad of cash - when a business was struggling to get off the ground; the refusal to let a child be shy or mope around the house or watch too much TV; the living example of how to pick up and start over when a plan fails.
That spirit echoes among mothers of up-and-comers, such as Missy Fine, the entrepreneurship award winner.
"I always let Missy try everything," says Ginny Fine as her daughter displays jewelry at a student-business fair at the college. In high school, Missy was the only girl to play varsity football, but it was her artistic interests that lasted as she headed off to Babson, a school known for fostering entrepreneurs.
"My parents gave me $500 to start my business," Missy says. "They might not always agree with everything I do, but I'll learn if I make a mistake."
Kay Koplovitz, cofounder of USA Networks, says her mother's unconditional love carried over into the teamwork she's created as an employer. She saw too much gossip and criticism in television networks where she worked, and vowed never to allow such a waste of human talent if she were in charge. "Good ideas can come from anywhere in the company," she says.
Ms. Koplovitz has also set out to boost venture capital for women-owned businesses. Although women lead nearly a third of businesses, less than 10 percent of venture capital goes to female entrepreneurs, according to a recent study by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation in Kansas City, Mo.
Billy Starr channeled his passion directly into the nonprofit world. In 1980, he launched the Pan-Mass Challenge, a bike race across Massachusetts to raise money for cancer research. He started it to honor his mother, Betty, after her death. Since then, the annual event has raised more than $100 million. "Ten years ago, nobody was calling it a career," he says, "but it's what I woke up to do every day." Now it's a prime example of what's known as "social entrepreneurism."
Of course, it's important for aspiring entrepreneurs to realize that they may have to forge ahead on their own. "Most of the how-to books repeat the myth that without family support, you shouldn't even think about starting your own business," says Yanky Fachler, a British motivational speaker and author of "My Family Doesn't Understand Me! Coping Strategies for Entrepreneurs."
Many families actually can't give the kind of support entrepreneurs hunger for, he says, because if they are employees themselves, their sense of security is "threatened by someone wanting to jump off the employment ladder and start something by themselves." In the United States, only about 1 in 10 adults are engaged in entrepreneurial activity, the Kauffman Foundation reports. Mr. Fachler advises that they turn to one another for reminders that they're not crazy.
Even when emotional support is plentiful, it's not always easy for parents to expose children to the concepts and skills of the business world. The National Foundation for Teaching Entrepreneurship tries to fill that gap with programs for low-income youths.
With NFTE's help, Pamela Johnson's three children have turned a painted-ceramics hobby into a business at their home in the Bronx in New York. They've won awards and met mentors who offered them grants after seeing their business plan. Now, Ms. Johnson says, "they don't just talk to people - they always see it as a potential contract." She coaches them and arranges opportunities for them to speak to their peers.
Her advice to other parents: "If [your child] wants to be an entrepreneur, give them lots of support, but don't run the business for them. I tell them, if at any point you don't want to keep doing this, it's OK."