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How to be the Mom Whose Kid Goes on to Build Empires

Photograph by Twenty20

Margot Machol Bisnow knows a thing or two about how successful entrepreneurs are made. Besides raising two of her own, she also has spent the last few years talking to dozens and dozens of self-made men and women—some of them pretty well known—and their mothers.

Based on her interviews and research, Bisnow found two key traits that all entrepreneurs possess. She also distilled a set of rules for parents based on conversations with the moms of 60 entrepreneurs, including Kevin Plank of Under Armour, Tom Scott of Nantucket Nectars, Ellen Gustafson of FEED Projects, Zappos, Word Press, 23andMe, Geek Squad, Toms, CVent and Blackboard Inc.

Bisnow, a former Federal Trade Commissioner and Chief of Staff for the President's Council on Economic Advisers, put all the findings in her recently published book, "Raising an Entrepreneur: 10 Rules for Nurturing Risk Takers, Problem Solvers & Change Makers," where she connects certain childhood traits with an entrepreneurial drive that all her subjects and their moms reported.

Mom.me talked to Bisnow about her interest in the childhood origins of entrepreneurs, as well as 10 things all the moms of these successful business founders did while raising their kids.

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Mom.me: What made you want to write this book?

I actually didn’t want to write a book. My son had started a conference company for Millennials, Summit Series, so over the last eight years I’ve had the chance to meet many of the top young entrepreneurs around the country. And, just out of curiosity, I’d ask them how they turned out the way they did, so willing to put everything on the line for an idea, take so much risk and work so hard to turn a passion into a project. And every one of them told me the same thing. They all said, “I had a mom who believed in me.”

I don’t think you can make someone an entrepreneur who doesn’t have the inborn disposition—the stomach—to tolerate that much risk and work that hard to implement an idea.

I was so struck by this, and I kept mentioning it to my kids. They said, “You have to write a book.” And I said, “I don’t know how to write a book.” And they said, “You have to write a book.” And I said, “I can’t write a book.” And they said, “You have to write this book!” And I finally said, “OK.”

That was four years ago, and I threw myself into it because I promised them I’d do it. But the more I got into it, the more fascinated I became.

What are the qualities of a young entrepreneur?

I believe most people who eventually become an entrepreneur have two basic qualities. The first is a passion for something. The second is the urge to compete—which involves grit, tenacity, resilience, the lack of fear of failure and the ability to work really, really hard.

How do you distinguish between passion and addiction—especially in the areas of computers and online activity?

I’m no psychologist and I’ve personally never witnessed this. But I would say that anything that becomes unreasonable, where people stop getting joy and excitement out of something but instead are driven as though they can’t help themselves, crosses the line.

Are kids born with it, or is this something parents can direct?

I don’t think you can make someone an entrepreneur who doesn’t have the inborn disposition—the stomach—to tolerate that much risk and work that hard to implement an idea. Most of the entrepreneurs I talked to have siblings, and most of the siblings are not entrepreneurs. I interviewed only seven families with two entrepreneurs, and even in those families, there was at least one sibling in the family who did not become an entrepreneur. So there must be something in your nature to make you want to thrive on risk. However, there are definitely some things a parent can do to nurture those tendencies, and there are definitely some things parents can do to kill it.

How many kids do you have? How many are entrepreneurs?

My husband and I have two boys and both are entrepreneurs, though in vastly different ways. Our older son, Elliott, started Summit, something between a conference series and a community for young entrepreneurs, which has had 20,000 entrepreneurs come to its events over the last eight years. Three years ago, it bought Powder Mountain in Utah, to turn it into a permanent home for entrepreneurs. Our younger son, Austin, is a very different kind of entrepreneur. He’s the lead singer of a band he founded, Magic Giant.

You might think every parent believes in their child, but no, I think every parent loves their child and wants their child to be happy. But believing in them is quite different.

I should mention that I define an entrepreneur broadly, as anyone who starts something, turns a passion into a project and creates something from nothing. That includes for-profit companies, non-profits, profits-for-purpose, artists, activists, even so-called "intrapreneurs," who start projects within larger organizations. In that definition, both our boys are entrepreneurs.

What was your process, taking an idea, then creating (writing!) and selling a book?

Although I was filled with trepidation, because I’d never written anything longer than three pages before, I actually loved writing the book. It involved talking with 60 inspirational people and then figuring out what the common themes were from the stories they told me. I really enjoyed it.

What did you learn in writing this book that really surprised you?

I thought I would just gather a collection of interesting stories. I chose the most diverse possible group—half men, half women, every race, religion, socio-economic background, type of family, geography. To my amazement, in core ways they were all raised the same—they all had a parent, generally their mom, who truly believed in them.

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You might think every parent believes in their child, but no, I think every parent loves their child and wants their child to be happy. But believing in them is quite different. Many parents believe that if their child follows their passion, they won’t be able to make a living. So most parents with a child like our Austin say things like, “Of course you can take music lessons in high school, but in college you have to take something useful or at least minor in something besides music, so you have something to fall back on when the music thing fails." Incredibly, none of the parents I interviewed did that. They said, "Really? That’s what you want to do?” And then sometimes there was a big gulp. But then they said, “That’s great, we know you’ll be successful, and we will do what we can to help you."

What’s next for you?

I’m on a mission now to change the way parents think about raising their kids. I really feel I’ve stumbled onto something. I would love to start a conversation about how they can change. I want parents to realize that if they let their kids follow their passion, not only will their child be more likely to turn that passion into a successful career, but they will definitely be happier.

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