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 your family-owned local grocery stores, or at your family’s multimillion dollar enterprise with hundreds of employees, you definitely have numerous strengths that you can focus on in your essays.
Here are some benefits of working for your family business:
- You have an immersive experience for all the working parts of a business.
If you’ve grown up in the business, no matter its size, you probably have gained valuable knowledge in many areas, which can include: sales, production, marketing, product research and innovation, customer recruitment and retention, customer service, basic finance, perhaps even legal issues relating to the business (licensing, leasing, etc.). Particularly if you started working in the business on weekends as teenagers and especially if the business is small, you will have at least the same advantage as other applicants who also have worked in startups or small businesses.
Most likely you will have learned how to be flexible, filling different roles as needed and gaining a more holistic view of how the business operates. This immersive experience has taught you a great deal of knowledge of and appreciation for how various business functions work together for a common goal.
- You have an owner’s mindset, not an employee’s mindset.
As a family member, you have a vested interest in the ongoing success of the business and its destiny. This will be true whether you plan to return to work there post-MBA or not. This personal incentive to see the business thrive and grow may have prompted you to work after-hours on projects that you initiated. Additionally, with some level of built-in trust from management, you may also 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.
- You’ve developed communications skills that allow you to influence those senior to you.
You are most likely much younger than your relatives who own the company and may also be considerably younger than other employees who have management responsibilities. Therefore, you may have helped to introduce more tech-savvy innovations, a social media campaign, or other ideas to tap into a new market. Getting “buy-in” from an “old school” mentality is another opportunity to show your communication skills and savvy.
- 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. Having said all that, you still need to prove that you’ve enjoyed the level of responsibility that you claim.
Challenges for MBA applicants who work in a family business
The adcom members may be skeptical that your dad/mom/uncle/aunt really held your feet to the fire in meeting deadlines or proving yourself on the job. The dynamics among relatives who work together can also be tricky, and getting letters of recommendation will be a challenge.
Here’s how you can deal with these issues:
- Quantify your achievements and offer as much anecdotal evidence as possible.
This is strategically important even if you are not from a family business background, but it’s especially true here. If you successfully negotiated a new lease agreement for the business, saving it $X per month, found a better way to find job applicants through UpWork, Fiverr or other gig economy platforms, brought in new customers through targeted social media ads or posts, 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 one lower-level function but now have a higher-level title, list these roles, along with your added responsibilities. This shows your professional growth.
- 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 family 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 managed to preserve family relationships.
What if older family members continue to resist ideas you are convinced are necessary, such as introducing a new CRM or other software program, or introducing an additional service or product line? What if you have conflicts with a long-term, highly valued employee? If you find ways to overcome these obstacles you will have substantial and compelling stories to tell about thriving in this business environment. For example, you might have been able to find research that convinced decision-makers that your new ideas were excellent calculated risks. You might have sought advice from a business management consultant to find a way to smooth relations with the long-term, valued employee. Finding creative ways to solve problems will emphasize your skills as a future business leader.
- Don’t ask relatives, especially those who share your last name, for your letters of recommendation.
Even if that relative 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, who should you ask? Possibilities include: a supervisor from a previous job or other organization where you were an active volunteer or member. Either one should be able to attest to your maturity, quantitative skills and initiative, and other achievements.
Still, you need recommenders who can speak about your abilities in the recent past – within the last two years. If you’ve only worked in the family business, perhaps someone affiliated with the business might be suitable: an accountant or attorney, or an important customer or supplier. Remember, your interactions with these individuals must be frequent enough and substantial enough for them 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. Not a bad set of experiences with which to apply to b-school!
If you are applying to b-school with the unique–and uniquely valuable–experience of working in a family business, our consultants can help you present it to a winning advantage. We have teamed up with many clients with this same background and helped them achieve their dreams of acceptance at the MBA programs of their choice.By Judy Gruen, former Accepted admissions consultant. Judy holds a Master’s in Journalism from Northwestern University. She is the co-author of Accepted’s first full-length book, MBA Admission for Smarties: The No-Nonsense Guide to Acceptance at Top Business Schools. Want an admissions expert help you get accepted? Click here to get in touch!