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Does Working For The Family Business Hurt Your MBA Potential?

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Working for the family business can be an incredibly rewarding and fulfilling experience. Building a family legacy that will last for generations is the main goal of many family businesses. And often, to achieve that goal, additional education, such as an MBA, is necessary to move the company to the next level. However, it’s not always easy to head into an MBA program when you work for the family business and plan to continue working for the family business.

Letters of recommendation, work history, application essays, and interviews can all become awkward when you suddenly mention that your experience is all connected to your family. But that shouldn’t stop you from pursuing your MBA. In fact, many MBA applicants that come from family businesses can make their experience work to their advantage. After all, no one can be more difficult to work for than family.

We spoke with Eliot Ingram, CEO of Clear Admit, a leading source of news and information for MBA applicants. To help give you a leg up on the competition, we asked him for his top pieces of advice.

How would you recommend an MBA candidate describe his or her experience in their family business?

“The applicant needs to convince the admissions committee that they would have been just as effective at a business not run by their family,” Ingram says. The key to any successful MBA application is the ability to sell yourself, your skills, and what you will bring to the MBA program. Ingram had this to say, “Like all applicants, an applicant working in the family business should highlight examples of their leadership and accomplishments at work. This way they can show that they are adding value to the organization.”

In addition, you should focus on highlighting how working for the family business provided you more opportunities and challenges than you could have achieved anywhere else. After all, it’s not easy working for the family business. There’s a far greater degree of pressure, and the best thing you can do as an MBA applicant is to focus on your areas of growth and value.

Things to consider:

  • How far did you help the company grow during your tenure?
  • What company goals did you achieve?
  • How did your leadership move the company forward?

Who should applicants ask for a letter of recommendation?

Even if your direct supervisor is a family member, do not ask your family member for a recommendation. Although your family would probably give you a glowing recommendation, they are not the appropriate individuals to contact. Unfortunately, letters of recommendation can be difficult when your parents are the ones running the company, but there are still other options.

Ingram recommends finding a non-family member to write your recommendation letter. Choose someone who knows and likes you who can and will write a good letter that focuses on your abilities. In particular, you can ask:

  • A company board member
  • A supervisor who is not a family member
  • A key client who is knowledgeable about the work completed by the applicant

If your family business is completely run by family members, then it’s best to ask for letters of recommendation outside of the business. You can ask a friend or mentor who successfully attended and graduated from a well-known MBA program. Or, if you volunteer for organizations or hold a leadership position in a club or church, ask fellow leaders or supervisors in those positions for a letter of recommendation.

Are there certain MBA programs well suited to applicants coming from and returning to family businesses?

Many MBA programs have resources that cater to family-run businesses. You’re not alone in your position. The key is to find the programs that best suit your needs and desires. Babson College has a Family Entrepreneurship: Growing the Family Business Across Generations program that runs for a few days and can help you figure out the best way to promote your position within your family business.

As for MBA programs, Columbia Business School (CBS), a part of Columbia University, offers the J-Term Experience. J-Term is a great program for applicants from family businesses who need to get their degree in just 16 months. In fact, this program is an excellent option for anyone who is looking to graduate with his or her MBA in less time.

When it comes to your application, whether you work for your family business or the corporate world, the rules are the same. Always focus on your qualities of leadership and business acumen when talking about your work experience. Every MBA program wants to know what you bring to the table above and beyond other applicants and how you will use the MBA program to better yourself and business position. If you can answer those questions, it doesn’t matter if mom and dad are your bosses; you’re an exceptional candidate.