Entrepreneurship or family business or.... both?

By Daniel Garrett Van Der Vliet


In the United States, a recent count found nearly 4,000 courses and pro­grams in entrepreneurship at schools and universities. By contrast, there are slightly more than 100 programs in family business, although that number is growing. It’s alarming that the mes­sage that leaves one with is that start­ing a business is sexy, but sustaining a business is not so sexy.


David Tingue, fourth-genera­tion CEO of Tingue and Brown, a family business founded in 1902 in the commercial laun­dry industry, notes that a career in commercial laundry may not seem like a glamor­ous option but has offered opportunities for innovation.


“I never considered myself an entrepreneur in the pure sense of creating a new business, but the family business provided me an existing sys­tem to be an entrepreneur and create something that has allowed our family business to survive for over 100 years. I can only hope the next generation is given the same freedom and room to be entrepreneurial,” Tingue explains.


I have been collecting rudimentary research over 20 years of teaching. I always begin with the question, “What is the first word you think of when you hear the term ‘family business’?”


“Small, fighting and entitled” always top the list. The word entrepreneurial does not even crack the top 10 respons­es I receive.


It’s hard to explain why the percep­tion of family business has so many negative connotations. Popular media, such as the series Succession and Arrested Development, depict dysfunc­tional family businesses at their worst, with family members competing for parental favor, privilege or wealth. When family businesses make the head­lines, the stories often involve litigation, larceny or lethal outcomes. See Gucci, Gallo or Guinness.


Family business, which is a broad term that generally includes business, family enterprise, family wealth and even entrepreneurship, aims to under­stand the human elements associat­ed when family and business overlap, regardless of whether that business is a one-person startup or a multinational juggernaut.


Entrepreneurs can learn from fam­ily-owned businesses and families should always be reminded to remain entrepreneurial.

Entrepreneurship and family business are by no means mutually exclusive. “Family entrepreneurship” or “fam­ily enterprise” is more indicative of a practice within a family or a portfolio of businesses or initiatives that a fam­ily may be involved in. This is a more holistic approach to understanding the many ways in which a family and business drive entrepreneurial activity and behavior.

It was once believed that one good idea could serve a business for three generations. Today, it is more likely that each generation needs to champion at least three innovations. Family businesses are a driving force in the world economy, and this will continue to be the case. Moving beyond the notion of “family business” towards “family entrepreneurship” allows for consideration of the many aspects that make these families and businesses so dynamic.


Is it possible to change this negative family business narrative and capture some of the ground that entrepre­neurship has claimed? Focusing on the many positive attributes of family busi­ness is an important first step.

While family businesses will never be immune to scandal or crisis, let us continue to hold up those that survive. If we look a little closer, it is likely we will find that the private nature of fam­ily business often obscures incredible resolve, endless innovation and a quiet determination, all the same qualities that drives any entrepreneur toward success.


Daniel Garrett Van Der Vliet is executive director of the Smith Family Business Initiative at Cornell University.


March/April 2021

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