Move From Family Business to B-School

Vendors could serve as recommenders for b-school applicants from family businesses.

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Working for your family business can help you stand out, as business schools try to diversify their classes.
Working for your family business can help you stand out, as business schools try to diversify their classes.

Applicants who have worked in a family business sometimes worry that their professional profile won't measure up when compared with other MBA hopefuls with more traditional employment paths. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Every year, top schools accept students who will go back to work for the family business. In fact, 9 percent of the applicants accepted into the Harvard Business School class of 2014 had worked for, or planned to work for, their family-owned company.

Business schools strive to compose a cohort of diverse personalities and backgrounds to guarantee lively discussions, so depending on your role in the company and the type of business itself, your experiences would likely add a unique perspective to the class.

[Decide if business school is the right move for you.]

Family business management has emerged as an important discipline at business schools as second- and third-generation family members realize the need for specialized skills in order to take over the reins and create a more corporate work environment. Over the past decade, schools have introduced courses and clubs on family business, founded centers dedicated to the subject or launched concentrations in this area.

Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management has a Center for Family Enterprises. Columbia Business School, stating that 80 percent of businesses worldwide are classified as family businesses, offered a course this spring on Family Business Management. And students and alumni of the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School can participate in the Wharton Family Business Club.

Part of your school selection research should focus on what types of resources and support for family businesses are offered by your target programs. For many applicants, a one-year MBA program is ideal since you won't need the internship and recruiting opportunities that job-switching students in two-year programs rely on.

I advise applying to the best schools that you think you can get into because they will offer a great education as well as the best networking opportunities. Also, think about whether the school's geographic location will help you build a network which would directly help your family business.

[Find out how to stand out as a b-school applicant.]

If the school offers a student club focused on this group, reaching out to current members for their insight on the program's benefits might prove invaluable in your decision-making process.

As with any winning application, the strategy in this case is to show in detail how an MBA degree will help you further your professional goals. Explain with specifics what you need to learn in order to grow the family business.

Paint a clear picture of your vision for the company's future, and leave no doubt as to how an MBA will help you make an impact on the business after graduation. That way, the admissions committee understands why business school is the logical next step.

For your essays, start brainstorming some of the challenges your business has faced, and come up with examples that show how you as a family worked to overcome those obstacles. Business schools place a high value on teamwork, and what better way to show commitment and follow-through than by demonstrating you know how to work well with others to achieve a common goal?

As many applicants know, the ideal recommender for an MBA application is the manager to whom you report directly. However, if your immediate supervisors are relatives, you'll need to get creative since you cannot have a family member write your recommendation letter.

Can you approach a supervisor or manager from a company you've previously worked for? Or have you worked closely with any clients or vendors that can speak to your managerial or leadership abilities?

Our client Bill had been working for the family business, a manufacturing company in Baltimore, for three years after college.

[Get more MBA application advice from the trenches.]

After brainstorming for recommenders he could approach outside the business, Bill hit upon a retail vendor that had been supplied by his company for more than a decade with whom he'd built a strong relationship. Since this vendor was evaluating Bill on many similar criteria as a direct supervisor and was an objective, outside source, he turned out to be the perfect choice.

In the end, Bill's family business-based application fared well next to candidates coming from a corporate background. He was ultimately admitted to Dartmouth's Tuck School of Business and University of Virginia's Darden School of Business, and chose Darden to be a little closer to home.

Alberto Gimeno, director of Esade Business School's International Family Business Lab, recently noted in the Financial Times that "Concepts such as honesty, pride, loyalty and long-term commitment … are everyday practices of successful family businesses around the world."

If you're planning on pursuing an MBA to learn how to take your family business to the next level, take pride in your professional circumstances and know that business schools will value your accomplishments and responsibilities, whether acquired at a Fortune 500 company or under Mom and Dad's tutelage.