You work for the family business and are applying for an MBA. Will this background be a net plus for you, or a minus? How can you make the most of this experience?
Whether you work for your family’s tiny startup with headquarters in your home’s basement, at one of the local grocery stores your family owns, or at your family’s multimillion-dollar enterprise with hundreds of employees, you definitely have numerous strengths that you can highlight in your essays.
Benefits of working for your family business
1. You’ve had an immersive experience in all the working parts of a business.
If you’ve grown up in the business, no matter its size, you have probably gained valuable knowledge in many areas, including sales, production, marketing, product research and innovation, customer recruitment and retention, customer service, basic finance, and perhaps even legal some issues (e.g., licensing, leasing). Particularly if you started working for the business on weekends as a teenager – and especially if the business is small – you will have the same advantages as other applicants who have worked at startups or small companies.
Most likely, you have learned how to be flexible, filling different roles as needed and gaining a holistic view of how the business operates. This immersive experience has given you a great deal of knowledge about and appreciation for how various business functions work together for a common goal.
2. You have an owner’s mind-set, not an employee’s mind-set.
As a family member, you have a vested interest in both the ongoing success of the business and its destiny. This is true whether you plan to return to it post-MBA or not. This personal incentive to see the business thrive and grow might have prompted you to work after hours on projects that you initiated. Additionally, with some level of built-in trust from management, you might have been given more leeway to innovate. The potential impact of your contributions will be that much greater, and the lessons learned that much more valuable.
3. You’ve developed communication skills that enable you to influence people who are senior to you.
You are most likely much younger than your relatives who own the company, and you might also be considerably younger than some employees who have management responsibilities. Therefore, you might have introduced tech-savvy innovations, a social media campaign, or another such idea to tap into a new market. Sharing how you have gotten “buy-in” from someone with an “old school” mentality is a way to demonstrate your communication skills and savvy.
4. You have a job when you graduate, if you want it.
The school won’t need to worry about your employment prospects if you want to return to the family business. Nevertheless, you will still need to prove that you’ve enjoyed the level of responsibility that you claim.
Challenges for family business MBA applicants
The adcom might be skeptical that your dad/mom/uncle/aunt really held your feet to the fire in meeting deadlines or proving yourself on the job. Also, the dynamics among relatives who work together can be tricky, and getting letters of recommendation might be a challenge.
Here are some ways you can address these issues:
1. Quantify your achievements, and offer as much anecdotal evidence as possible.
This is strategically important even if you don’t have a family business background, but it’s especially so if you do. Perhaps you successfully negotiated a new lease agreement for the company, saving it $X per month; found a better way to attract job applicants through UpWork, Fiverr, or other gig economy platforms; or brought in new customers through targeted social media ads or posts. If so, write about it. The classic rule of “show, don’t tell” is critical here.
Just as you would with any other company, if you began with a lower-level function but now have a higher-level title, list the different roles, along with your added responsibilities. This will show your professional growth.
2. Demonstrate your ability to navigate the pitfalls of working with family members.
There are often built-in conflicts between and among family members who all have a stake in a family business. One client of ours proved his management chops when he helped resolve a huge, ugly fight over succession. The family patriarch and founder of the business had passed away, and all the siblings were fighting over who was next in line for company control, which had been left unclear legally. Our client convinced everyone in the family to agree to work with a skilled mediator to help reach an understanding. The mediation succeeded, which arguably saved the business from being destroyed by lawsuits. It also preserved family relationships.
What if older family members resisted ideas that you were convinced were necessary, such as introducing new customer relationship management technology or other software program, or adding a new service or product line? What if you had conflicts with a long-term, highly valued employee? If you found ways to overcome these obstacles, you should have substantial and compelling stories to tell in your essays about thriving in this kind of business environment. For example, you might have been able to find research that convinced the business’s decision-makers that your ideas were excellent calculated risks. You might have sought advice from a business management consultant on how to smooth relations with the long-term, valued employee. Identifying creative ways to solve problems will emphasize your skills as a future business leader.
3. Don’t ask relatives, especially those who share your last name, for letters of recommendation.
Even if the relative in question is your direct supervisor and knows your work and capabilities better than anyone, there is simply no way that a letter from a parent, cousin, grandparent, or other family member will seem objective enough to be credible. So, whom should you ask? Consider asking a supervisor from a previous job or from an organization with which you have been actively involved as a volunteer or member. Either one should be able to attest to your maturity, quantitative skills, initiative, and standout achievements.
Still, you need recommenders who can discuss your abilities in recent times – within the past two years. If you’ve worked only for the family business, perhaps someone affiliated with the company might be a suitable recommender — an accountant or attorney, or an important customer or supplier. Remember, your interactions with these individuals must be, or have been, frequent enough and substantial enough for them to be able to comment intelligently and with some specificity on your work and personal character traits.
All in all, working for a family business has probably provided you with extremely valuable experience. It has taught you to be nimble in your abilities to work across different departments and given you a front-row seat in watching your relatives deal with the ongoing challenges of running a business in rapidly changing times. This is not a bad set of experiences with which to apply to business school!
As the former executive director of admissions at Carnegie Mellon’s Tepper School and assistant dean of admissions at Georgetown’s McDonough School and the University of Pittsburgh’s Katz School, Kelly Wilson has 23 years’ experience overseeing admissions committees and has reviewed more than 38,000 applications for the MBA and master’s programs in management of information systems, computational finance, business analytics, and product management. Want Kelly to help you get accepted? Click here to get in touch!