How to bring up children to become entrepreneurs

First published in the Sunday Times on 11th December 2016.

Will any of my children become entrepreneurs? It is hard to say, since all three are under the age of 12, but in my experience, the most powerful influence on youngsters’ career choices is their parents’ occupations. If you witness at first hand in the home the dangers and rewards of self-employment, and see a role model entrepreneur at the kitchen table every day, you are much more likely to reject a conventional job in favour of controlling your own destiny. So I suspect the likelihood is at least one of my offspring will run their own business.

However, I am not a great believer in slavishly following in the footsteps of one’s parents — indeed, no one in my family had anything to do with the commercial world. I deliberately chose a different vocation. When my children are older, I will try hard to let them decide their own paths for themselves.

But as a nation we do need to cultivate more founders of successful enterprises. And, of course, the upbringing we give the next generation will make a huge difference as to what sort of work they choose to do. A recent book, Raising an Entrepreneur, by Margot Machol Bisnow, gives guidance about nurturing “risk takers, problem solvers and change makers”. The author’s sons are both entrepreneurs, and she has interviewed more than 60 mothers of high-achieving entrepreneurs, so she understands the territory well.

The conclusions she derives from her research are not new insights, but, nevertheless, several of them bear repeating. She believes parents should support their children’s passions, and allow them to pursue their favourite activity — it might well turn into a company one day. She thinks we should permit our children to win and lose: failing and learning from setbacks at a young age is vital. It promotes resilience, and a dose of reality, which can be absent from households where children are protected from the rigours of the world.

The book argues that parents should not obsess about academic accomplishments: a lot of entrepreneurs rebel against the institutional requirements of mainstream schools; quite a few are dyslexic or have ADHD, or are simply non-conformists who cannot follow, but must lead or plough their own furrow. Tony Wagner, author of Creating Innovators and Most Likely to Succeed, two books on this subject, assert that most innovators are, by nature, disruptive. They resist authority — be it parent, teacher or boss. Consequently they are labelled disobedient, headstrong or insubordinate.

The single most important task for a parent is to imbue their child with boundless confidence: almost all business builders have considerable self-belief. A great deal of this inner strength is instilled when they are still at primary school level. Similarly, children should be encouraged to embrace adversity: they ought to see obstacles as opportunities.

Well-off parents in the 21st century have placed children at the centre of the universe, and are infatuated with obtaining a superior education for their offspring. Families impoverish themselves to pay private school fees, and go into deep mourning if their sons and daughters don’t end up at the finest universities. But is the sacrifice worth it? What is the point of this striving? Formal schooling and higher education do not provide all the answers.

Top marks in the classroom and endless exam certificates are not a cast-iron guarantee for a fulfilling life. I meet increasing numbers of middle-aged professionals who want to jettison their structured existence and embrace the riskier world of entrepreneurship. For some, the illusion of respectability and a safe job has been exposed as a sham: ennui has forced them to reinvent themselves.

I applaud their new-found spirit of adventure. But it is generally easier to make such a move at 21 rather than 20 years later.

I was lucky because I was the third of four children, and left to my own devices a fair amount when young. Consequently I think I took greater risks and became more self-reliant.

I do worry that the widespread adoption of helicopter parenting means that children today are less independent, and slow to welcome adulthood.

Overparenting can definitely inhibit the vital need for children to explore, to get into trouble, and to do reckless things – the same sort of behaviour that leads to new business ventures. By contrast, I suspect over cautious children, wrapped in metaphorical cotton wool, are unlikely to become bold entrepreneurs.

But parents are not the only source of the enterprise gene. Schools, colleges and universities can all help to develop self-starters among their students. At our think tank, the Centre for Entrepreneurs, we are undertaking a study into how well Britain’s higher education institutions support entrepreneurship among their undergraduates. Next year we will report on those universities that offer the best mentoring, incubation facilities, financial backing, competitions, networking and overall experience for students starting a business.

Entrepreneurship cannot be taught but it can be stimulated: parents and teachers should learn how to do it.