January 16, 2019

How to raise an entrepreneur

When Michael Chasen was growing up in the 1980s, he spent a lot of time at his keyboard, messing around with video games. His mother, Glenda, encouraged this, even when her friends insisted that her son’s habit was a waste of time.

Years later, in 1997, his computer skills helped him co-found Blackboard Inc., an online educational company, which he sold in 2011 for just over $1.5 billion. He is now CEO at another company he helped create: SocialRadar.

Author Margot Machol Bisnow, who explores the parental forces behind entrepreneurs in her new book, “Raising an Entrepreneur: 10 Rules for Nurturing Risk Takers, Problem Solvers, and Change Makers,” believes Chasen’s mother deserves a little credit.

“Glenda did the most important thing parents can do if they hope their children will become entrepreneurs: nurture their passion,” she writes. (“Support a Passion” is rule No. 1.) 

Bisnow and her husband, Mark, a former attorney who also did stints in the airline and tech industries, are the parents of two entrepreneurs, a term Margot defines broadly as anyone who starts something, whether for profit or nonprofit, artist or activist. But they did not consciously groom their children to be entrepreneurs. 

Margot, 67, a New York native who splits her time between Washington, D.C., and Santa Monica, really started thinking about what makes an entrepreneur when she began meeting many young ones through her older son, Elliott. In 2008, the young man was working at Bisnow Media, the company his dad founded in 2005. He was actually the first employee of the real estate-focused digital media and events company, which Mark has since sold. But like his dad, who became an entrepreneur late in life, Elliott wanted to start something new on his own. 

Looking for inspiration, he invited 20 young entrepreneurs on a hosted ski trip to Utah, his mother said. He chose them by researching publications such as Inc., Wired and Forbes. Eighteen of the invitees, including Blake Mycoskie of Toms Shoes and Ricky Van Veen of CollegeHumor, said yes to this rare opportunity to meet and network with other young entrepreneurs. Elliott borrowed about $30,000 from his parents to get the gathering, called Summit Series, off the ground. 

It was a success, and participants told Elliott that he had to do more, Margot said. Soon after, he hosted another, larger event in Mexico. And though he never intended to turn this into a business, he realized he might be onto something with real potential. So after the Mexico event, Elliott stopped working with his dad to focus on Summit along with several partners. Today it is headquartered at Utah’s Powder Mountain, the ski resort it purchased in 2013. 

Margot attended many of the Summit events, and couldn’t help but be inquisitive about these entrepreneurs. “In 2010, I started asking all these young people, ‘How did you turn out the way you did?’ ” she said. “Turns out, they all said, ‘I had a mom who believed in me.’ I was struck by this.” 

Margot, who worships at Hebrew Washington Congregation, a Reform synagogue in Washington, was not looking for a book subject. She had a career in federal government under every Republican administration going back to President Gerald R. Ford, and for the past eight years served as editor and publisher of The Scene Bisnow, an online outlet covering the D.C. social scene that is part of Bisnow Media. She did this through late July, when she stopped to promote her book.

She was encouraged to write the book by her sons — her younger son, Austin, is the lead singer for the band Magic Giant — and started by contacting the mothers of three entrepreneurs she had gotten to know fairly well through the Summit Series: Chasen, songwriter-producer Benny Blanco (Maroon 5, Rihanna, Ed Sheeran), and Wireless Generation co-founder Greg Gunn. Altogether she spoke with 60 individuals for the book, about half moms and half entrepreneurs.

Margot said she started the project with a number of expectations, and, “They were all wrong.” For example, her own family always had dinner together. 

“I was sure this was going to be everybody’s rule,” she said. 

But only three of the 60 families said they consistently had dinner together. Other discoveries included no correlation between birth order and entrepreneurialism. 

“An astonishing number experienced adversity,” Margot said. And, “for a surprising number of these people, faith was very important.” 

She points to two of the California-based entrepreneurs featured in the book as examples: actress Emmanuelle Chriqui (“Entourage” and Hulu’s new “Shut Eye”) and Pencils of Promise founder Adam Braun, both of whom are Jewish.

One of Margot’s favorite stories came courtesy of Nancy Jones, mother of former NFL player, television personality, and VMG Creative co-founder Dhani Jones. It is featured in the section of the book highlighting Rule No. 5, “Instill Confidence.” (But before you start mindlessly cheerleading your kid, keep in mind Rule No. 2: “Let Your Child Learn to Win — and Lose.”) 

Dhani Jones, who grew up on the East Coast, was being recruited by several colleges to play linebacker, and had been offered a full ride at Washington State. But he really wanted to attend the University of Michigan. 

He wasn’t on the team’s radar, so Jones and his mother, Nancy, paid the football coach a visit. They were told Dhani might be able to walk on, but it was clear no one had watched his highlight tape. Nancy told the coach that he would be sorry if he didn’t recruit Dhani because if her son went to Washington State, he would sack their quarterback in the Rose Bowl. A few days later, a Michigan representative showed up at one of Dhani’s games to watch him play, and shortly after, he was offered a full scholarship. 

“When Michigan played in the 1998 Rose Bowl,” Margot writes, “Dhani sacked Washington State’s quarterback — twice.” 

Although Margot penned the book for parents of kids 3 to 16, she has found another group of readers. “To my surprise, about 20 percent of the audience is entrepreneurs who want to read stories of other people they know or have heard of,” she said.

“I think I have stumbled inadvertently into this moment in time,” Margot said. “The tried and true path that worked through the ’90s when you got good grades in all your subjects, did lots of extracurricular activities, attended a good college and got a job for life, that is just done. 

“Kids today are graduating $100,000 in debt and getting offered jobs as baristas. They have no direction. It’s just pointless. On the other hand, it’s the first time in history you don’t have to do that anymore. You can make your own job. You can make your passion a project. The old paradigm is broken, but it doesn’t matter because there is a new paradigm.”

That’s why she hopes parents pay heed to the book’s central message and stop trying to force their kids to be something they’re not. 

“I’m on a mission,” she said. “I want to change the way parents are thinking about raising their kids. All these parents forcing their kids to stop doing the thing they love, and do the thing they hate. … So much pressure is put on children to do what their parents think they have to do. I want parents to lighten up.”