By Margot Machol Bisnow, author of Raising an Entrepreneur- How to Help Your Children Achieve Their Dreams; 99 S%tories From Families Who Did
Entrepreneurs are often asked, “What’s your secret to success?” Answers range from risk-taking and a self-starter mindset to curiosity and imagination. But where did these traits come from, and what conditions enabled the entrepreneurs to develop them to their full potential?
This is the question I set out to answer in writing my book Raising an Entrepreneur- How to Help Your Children Achieve Their Dreams; 99 S%tories From Families Who Did. I interviewed a very diverse group of seventy successful entrepreneurs including Jon Chu, director of Crazy Rich Asians; Paige Mycoskie, founder and owner of clothing company Aviator Nation; Thomas Vu, lead producer on League of Legends; Dhani Jones, former NFL linebacker who went on to host a TV show, co-found a creative agency, and chair an investment fund; and superstar chef and sustainability advocate Nyesha Arrington.
The group was made up of half men, half women, from every race and religion. Every socioeconomic background was represented; there were big families and small families; they came from big cities and small towns; and they had parents who hadn’t gone to college to parents with advanced degrees. Some were born in the U.S., others were born overseas or had immigrant parents.
They went into very diverse fields: They started big companies with a wide range of products and services; they started innovative non-profits and profit-for-purpose that are changing the world; they became artists like movie directors and songwriters writers; and they became activists, fighting for causes they believe in. They fit my definition of an entrepreneur: They are all people who started something.
While I made dozens of eye-opening and heart-warming discoveries about their lives and backgrounds, I also learned — to my surprise — that they all shared three underlying experiences shaped by their families from the time they were children.
They pursued and mastered a passion when young.
As children, they found a passion and were encouraged by their parents to pursue it — regardless of what it was. The key word in that sentence is “they” — it wasn’t something their parents loved, or their parents thought their kids would love. It’s something the kids chose themselves. And because they loved it, they worked really hard at it. And because they worked really hard, they got really good. They were praised for their effort, not their results. So they worked really hard and they learned the trade-off between hard work and results. They developed grit, defined by Angela Duckworth as “passion plus perseverance toward long-term goals.” And that led to their becoming supremely confident.
People often say, “Of course entrepreneurs are confident; it’s because they are successful.” But I strongly believe it is the reverse: They are successful because they are confident. And their confidence stems from having mastered their chosen passion when they were young. Their passions included computers, music, acting, student government, chess, and for many, sports. Their intense pursuit of success in these activities taught them grit, determination, and resilience, which led to developing their confidence.
Simon Isaac was an All-American skier on the Olympic development team. He co-founded Fatherly, a popular daily on-line newsletter, and today, he’s the CEO of TaskForce, one of the world’s top content creators, with over forty-five billion views during the election.
ElizabethMcGee Gore was the national equestrian champion. She’s the co-founder of Hello Alice, a free artificial intelligence platform to help businesses launch and grow.
Eric Ryan raced on the sailing team at the University of Rhode Island. He’s the co-founder of Method products, which makes environmental cleaning products; Olly, which makes healthy vitamins and supplements; and Welly Health, which makes fun bandaids.
Radha and Miki Agrawal were known as the legendary soccer twins when they played at Cornell. The twins are serial social entrepreneurs who have co-founded five disruptive companies (including Daybreaker, Thinx, Tushy) worth half a billion dollars.
They became risk takers because they were not punished for failure or mistakes.
As Billie Jean King says, “We don’t call it failure; we call it feedback.” The entrepreneurs I interviewed were never punished for failing; the parents said, “What did you learn? What would you do differently?” Nor were they punished for making mistakes. They had to fix what they had broken or the problem they created, but they weren’t made to feel bad that it had happened. They learned that when they worked hard at something and failed, and kept trying new approaches, eventually they would succeed. They learned that when they failed, they could work harder and smarter and keep trying, because eventually they would figure it out.
Fast forward to today: because they aren’t afraid to fail, they aren’t afraid to take risks — both of which are key to successful entrepreneurship.
My son Elliott Bisnow fell in love with tennis when he was twelve, long after other serious tennis players were already competing in tournaments. He lost most of his matches for years, but eventually fought his way to thirty-five in the country in the juniors. He started Summit, a global company for entrepreneurs and creatives that has produced over two hundred fifty events in the last decade.
Nia Batts and her best friend, actress Sophia Bush, co-founded Detroit Blows, an inclusive non-toxic hair salon in Detroit, helping to revitalize the downtown. It was a huge success, but during the pandemic it was forced to close. When Nia read that only two percent of venture capital dollars went to women, and the amount going to women of color was “statistically significant” she decided to pivot and became Chief Marketing Officer of Union Heritage Capital, the nation’s leading minority-owned diversified financial services firm.
They were trusted and supported by their families—leading them to treat their employees like family.
The unconditional support from their families while they were growing up is reflected in their businesses today. They honor the differences among their employees. And whether the jobs are remote or in the office, they try to create situations where their employees want to spend time. The founders don’t arbitrarily order around their employees. Just as in the homes where they grew up, the entrepreneurs take care of the people they work with. Even before stakeholder capitalism became popular, these entrepreneurs valued the interests of their employees and their community.
Blake Mycoskie founded TOMS Shoes, the first one-for-one company, providing a pair of shoes to someone in need for every pair purchased. Blake says he called his approach to his job as the company’s leader, “servant leadership.” He told his top people to serve everyone in their group. And he willingly admitted his mistakes to show his employees that failure was acceptable. He says that “if you extend more trust than you might be comfortable with…and even though those mistakes will come with a price, over the long term you’ll be paid back with interest.”
Deena and Jess Robertson co-founded Modo Yoga, a community of independent hot yoga studios in the U.S. and Canada. They are committed to promoting ethical, compassionate living and a more sustainable, environmentally conscious world through their studios. Their motto is “calm mind, fit body, inspired life.” Modo Yoga was the first one-for-one yoga program, where every membership bought became a free membership for someone in an underserved community. The employees love that they are helping create more equality and diversity in the yoga community.
It’s never too early — or too late — to start. Even if you don’t become an entrepreneur, becoming more entrepreneurial will help in whatever you do: It will help if you become more confident because you’ve mastered something you worked really hard at. It will help if you become more risk taking because you’ve learned not to fear failure.It will help if you become more considerate of people you work with. Above all, it’ll help you become more successful at whatever you do.
Margot Machol Bisnow is a writer, wife, and mom from Washington, DC who speaks on raising fearless, creative, entrepreneurial kids who are filled with joy and purpose. She is the author of Raising an Entrepreneur: How to Help Your Children Achieve Their Dreams — 99 Stories From Families Who Did. Margot has a BA in English and an MBA, both from Northwestern, and spent 20 years in government, including as an FTC Commissioner and staff director of the President’s Council of Economic Advisers. Both her kids are now grown: Austin started a popular band, Magic Giant; Elliott founded Summit, a noted international conference series for Millennial entrepreneurs and creatives, and led the purchase and development of Powder Mountain ski resort in Utah as a permanent home for the Summit community. Her husband Mark was a late-blooming entrepreneur, and wishes his parents had read her book when he was growing up, so he might have started his company before he was 50. Margot is on the Board of Capital Partners for Education that mentors low-income DC-area high school kids.
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