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Lessons in risk

How do parent-entrepreneurs end up hardwiring their children when they risk a start-up and trade comfort for curiosity?

The experience of entrepreneur parents is valuable. Photo: iStockphoto<br />
The experience of entrepreneur parents is valuable. Photo: iStockphoto

The language of the start-up universe is dominated by the lingo of youth. The imagery of brash, ambitious young graduates spinning off successful Internet ventures and becoming billionaires before turning 30 is the poster image of modern entrepreneurship.

That risk, entrepreneurship and smart ideas are the preserve of the young is a romantic idea—but it isn’t entirely true.

In Education And Tech Entrepreneurship, a 2009 study published by The Kauffman Foundation, a not-for-profit that works on entrepreneurship issues, academic and researcher Vivek Wadhwa found that the average age of US-born technology founders when they started their companies was 39. In a follow-up study, on 549 successful technology ventures in Silicon Valley, Wadhwa found twice as many successful entrepreneurs over 50 as under 25. The vast majority—75%—have more than six years of industry experience and half have more than 10 years’ experience when they create their start-up, Wadhwa wrote in an article for The Wall Street Journal in 2013. The Kauffman Foundation called entrepreneurship the new “mid-life crisis", spurred by longer, healthier lives and changes in job markets.

We don’t have similar data for India, but there is definitely a growing trend of mid-career entrepreneurs, those who have spent a decade (often more) in corporate firms, created a financial safety net for their families, and have the networks, managerial experience and business skills to venture forth. Several of them are also parents, often of children in their early teens. How do these parent-entrepreneurs end up hardwiring their children when they risk a start-up and trade comfort for curiosity?

Kaavya Gupta, 24, founder of Alterbeat, a listing platform for creative jobs and non-traditional opportunities, was 16 when her father, Vikas Gupta, made some big career shifts. He gave up his senior marketing position in Coca-Cola (India) to work briefly at an Indian media group, and then co-founded a niche media company, 9.9 Media, with four others in 2007.

Kaavya, who left her corporate job with Godrej Nature’s Basket a few months ago, says hearing her father’s entrepreneurial experiences since 2007 was like an MBA 101. “It trains you because you begin to understand the hardships that can come up as well as what successes feel like."

Her parents had planned their finances well, so Kaavya at 16 didn’t quite understand the financial risk her father took then. What she does remember is that he seemed happier, more excited to go to work and, contrary to the myth of the crazed entrepreneur who has no time for family, was able to prioritize his time better. Today, as someone starting an Internet venture, her context is quite different from her father’s, who become an entrepreneur at 44, with a family and two teenage children to support. “I think the impression that it definitely did leave for her was that life wasn’t about following a safe path; that it was okay to take a chance," says Vikas.

Another entrepreneur, whose father quit his government job for entrepreneurship at the age of 44, remembers that for the first seven years, they stopped taking holidays, and the monetary benefits of becoming a “businessman" seemed limited. The company his father founded has survived, and it has given this entrepreneur the confidence to tackle the low phases in business. The entrepreneur did not want to be named.

The experience can teach lessons of restraint as well, says Ashutosh Garg, founder of Guardian Lifecare, a health, wellness and beauty retail chain. Garg was 46 when he quit as the chief executive officer of Spaceway Asia, the satellite business of Hughes Software System, to set up Guardian. He has faced several ups and downs, including a volatile working relationship with his private equity investors, Samara Capital.

His two teenage sons went abroad to study within a week of his starting Guardian in 2003, and now work in large multinational firms overseas. His journey, he said, had so far kept his sons from being swayed by the glamour of entrepreneurship. “On their visits home, they have seen me go through all the troubles so they don’t romanticize entrepreneurship. If they do end up being founders, I would imagine they would be better educated about the realities," he says.

Every fortnight, Surviving Start-ups focuses on the stories of the people (parents, siblings, spouses and friends) who make up an entrepreneur’s world.

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