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Julia Child's Recipe for Entrepreneurial Success

Entrepreneurs can learn a lot more than culinary skills from Julia Child, the American pioneer of French cuisine.
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Not only did Julia Child introduce French culinary skills to America, but she was also a passionate entrepreneur. At the age of 32, Child started to learn about French cooking. By the time she was 40, she had opened up a cooking school, L'Ecole des Gourmettes. But Child's road to success wasn't always easy. Her initial attempts in the kitchen weren't successful, and her forays into the world of publishing weren't always met with enthusiasm. However, she persevered and became a successful author and a beloved television host. 

Besides great recipes, you can learn a lot from Julia Child, including how to become a better entrepreneur and leader. Here are some lessons gleaned from her autobiography, My Life in France

1. Accept criticism with a pinch of salt: Child's defining work, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, was originally an 800-page labor of love created for Houghton-Mifflin. When Child submitted the manuscript, the editors enjoyed the detailed volume, but concluded, "Americans don't want an encyclopedia, they want to cook something quick, with a mix." At first, Child was outraged. She penned a rebuttal, asking to terminate the contract: "It is too bad that our association must come officially to a close." The next morning, she threw her angry letter away and agreed to create a new, simpler version of the book. Child rewrote the cookbook so it would appeal to a broader audience, but it was once more rejected on the grounds that it "might well prove formidable to the American housewife."

However, Child's revision did appeal to editors at Knopf, and the rest is history. 

Entrepreneurial lesson: Beware of overreacting, and make adjustments while keeping your focus.

2. It's OK to muddle through: Child had vague plans to become a professional chef, but she didn't quite know how she'd go about it. All she wanted to do was "make cooks out of people, rather than gobs of money." 

One day, a friend asked her for cooking lessons; then another, and then another. Child and her friends had no menu, no lesson plans, and no kitchen, but they agreed to organize a class. They rented a kitchen and started teaching right away. As the course progressed, they took notes and learned from their mistakes and the mistakes of the students. These notes later evolved into Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Classes were arranged off the cuff and with little methodology. Child would ask local butchers, bakers, and farmers to speak, and they would often do so for free. Even Child's husband organized impromptu wine seminars when he discovered Child's students didn't like French wines.

Entrepreneurial lesson: Don't wait till everything is perfectly organized to start a new project. You have to learn along the way. 

3. Anticipate the agendas of others: Child studied at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris and by all accounts was an excellent, committed student. However, she failed her final exam! She had expected to be tested on esoteric French recipes--but instead she was asked to write out recipes found in Le Cordon Bleu's promotional pamphlets. Child seethed, but she swallowed her pride, studied one of the school's small booklets, retook the test, and ultimately passed her final exam. 

Entrepreneurial lesson: It's not just enough to do your homework--you have to study the agendas of others and anticipate what they want to hear.

4. Rely on others for support: Child and her husband, Paul, had a motto that they had devised when they worked as diplomats, "Remember: No one's more important than people." The bedrock of Child's success was in the people she knew. Her mentor, chef Max Bugnard, taught her to cook, and her writing partner, Simone Beck, helped her compile Mastering the Art of French Cooking and teach her classes. The list goes on, but the point is, Child didn't go it alone. She had a network of people who shared her passion and helped her attain her goals.

Entrepreneurial lesson: It takes others, or coalitions, to get work done. 

IMAGE: Getty Images
Last updated: Aug 5, 2014

SAMUEL B. BACHARACH | Columnist | Director, Cornell's Institute of Workplace Studies

Samuel B. Bacharach is the McKelvey-Grant professor in the department of organizational behavior at Cornell University's ILR School, and is director of Cornell's Institute for Workplace Studies in New York City. Among his books are Get Them on Your Side and Keep Them on Your Side. His latest volume, A Good Idea Is Not Enough: Leading for Change and Innovation, will be published this November by BLG.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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