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Please Take it Personally: Why a Focus on the Individual Student is Essential When Teaching Family Entrepreneurship

By Matthew Allen

Family entrepreneurship is Babson’s term for describing entrepreneurial efforts that take place in a family business context. With family businesses representing more than 80 percent of businesses worldwide, it is imperative that we understand how to approach the important topic of family entrepreneurship as we consider entrepreneurship education.

When addressing a topic such as family businesses within the field of entrepreneurship, one might be tempted to start with the question; “How do family businesses differ from nonfamily businesses when it comes to entrepreneurship?” and build the education program from that point. There certainly are plenty of issues and concerns that are unique to family businesses and the way in which they might approach entrepreneurship. Before getting to these important differences, however, there is another question that must be addressed prior to a focus on the family business context. The question is: How does the family business student differ from the nonfamily business student?

Just like the family businesses that they represent, family business students are unique. This stems from the fact that unlike many of their nonfamily business colleagues, students from family businesses bring to class a long history with an established organization to which they have unique personal ties. The vast majority of students interested in learning more about family businesses come from family businesses. Research and experience would indicate that this fact has important implications for how these students can be approached from a teaching perspective.

First, experience in a family business is different from prior work experience you might encounter with nonfamily business students. Family business students possess a longer and richer experience with their family businesses. For many children of family business owners, experience with the business began at a young age and has continued through their entire lives. They have often been involved with various aspects of the business from the lowest levels of operations to being a part of strategic board room decisions made at the highest levels of management. In addition, family ties give them access to a deep understanding of the history of the organization through interactions with grandparents and others from prior generations. The result is a student who has an in-depth understanding of the inner workings of a specific organization from top to bottom and from its inception to the present. This depth of understanding is unique to family business students.

Second, because the relationship that these students have with the business is part of the relationship that they have with their families, it is much more personal in nature. Not only do these students have an in-depth understanding of the nuts and bolts of how the business is managed, they also have unique insight into the emotions and relationships that drive the strategic decision making. Hopes and fears, triumphs and tragedies, friendships, mentorships, and conflicts within the business are part of whom these students are because they have been observed and discussed from the boardroom to the dinner table. The result is a student with an incredibly clear understanding of the business environment combined with a passionate tie to the business itself.

Implications for Teaching

What does this mean for the entrepreneurship educator? The reality is that these students will analyze every piece of information that is given to them in the context of their experience within the family business. They will question everything based on their ability to apply what they are learning to the context of their family business. Changing opinions or assumptions, even if they are incorrect, can be an uphill battle as the beliefs about how things are done or even should be done go deeper than just business decisions and can involve relationships with parents, siblings, or other family members.

One response might be to follow the common adage “Don’t take this personally” in an effort to remove the emotions, history, and passion from the equation in order to focus on the principles being taught. To get the most out of the learning experience, our response should be just the opposite. Please! Let’s make this personal. As family business students return to their family businesses from the classroom to apply what they have learned, they are going to have to apply entrepreneurial principles within the context of their businesses. Why then, would we require them to learn those principles without that context? While there are a multitude of ways that the learning experience can be made more personal, I will focus on three: use student businesses as case studies; ask questions about context; and plan for individual assignments.

First, think of using student businesses as case studies. As was discussed previously, family business students possess significant experience with their family businesses. Finding appropriate case studies for family businesses can be difficult. Instead of looking for outside case examples, use the family businesses that you already have in the classroom. You can ask students to prepare presentations about particular aspects of their family businesses in advance or can draw upon personal examples from the classroom in order to enhance discussion.

Regardless of how you accomplish it, the more you require students to make connections between the material being taught and their family businesses, the more they will personalize the message making them better prepared to apply the principles once they return. Second, instead of avoiding the emotions and relationships that can typify a family business in classroom discussion, embrace it. It is important to figuratively invite the family into the classroom through appropriate questions and discussion. This can be done by asking students contextual questions related to their family businesses such as:

  • How would this particular effort be received in your business?
  • What kind of obstacles will you face when you implement this?
  • What effect will this have on relationships within your family business?

In this way, students are able to see that the context that they face is welcome in the classroom and will be more willing and able to apply entrepreneurial principles to their situation.

Finally, many assignments in business teaching involve the use of teams in order to teach students how to work together in preparation for their business careers. While learning and completing assignments and projects as a team can be important, it can force family business students to apply classroom principles at a general level that relates to all team members rather than to their family business. It is important to provide project and assignment work that is individual in nature where students are required to related concepts from the classroom to problems or goals within their businesses. Again, this gives students the opportunity to personalize the class, and will prepare them to apply what they have learned within the family business.

In conclusion, family business students are unique and possess an incredible amount of knowledge and experience based on the relationships that they have with their family businesses. Embracing this experience by encouraging students to take their learning personally will enhance the classroom experience, but more importantly, better prepare students to apply entrepreneurial principles once they return to their businesses.

 

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