In his article "Lessons of Innovation for 2017," Robert Safian, editor at FastCompany, shared a story about his family: His grandfather immigrated to the United States in 1917 and started a dressmaking business. He created a unique design that was patented and worn by a Seventeen Magazine cover girl. "He launched his own business, and thrived in the teeth of the Great Depression," said Safian. "But beyond our family, his impact was modest. His business closed when he retired. It never achieved scale or left a mark on our culture."

Safian's look back caused me to reflect in the same way. We're all descendants of people who ran small, family businesses in some form. Though our grandparents and great-grandparents probably didn't call themselves entrepreneurs, they were. Many referred to themselves by their trade. The business aspects of their work were just a necessity of putting food on the table. It was a different time, for sure.

Why does it matter? Intentionally or not, they passed down that drive to start and run a business. And now our entrepreneurial roots are being rekindled by uncertainty and economic forces more familiar to our grandparents than to our parents.

I've heard today's surge in entrepreneurship written off as a fad. Some believe "wantrepreneurs" are people dabbling in business because they think it's cool. But there's another way to look at it. Instead of trying something new, many entrepreneurs today are simply reconnecting with something inside of them that is very old.

Here's one example. I didn't think there was much commonality between my grandfather's tile-setting business and what I'm doing with federal management consulting. Until recently, I also didn't see any tangible benefit to comparing the two.

After spending some more extended time with my grandfather recently, my view changed. I compared and contrasted between his long-retired business and mine that's just a toddler. It helped clarify my purpose and provided a dose of motivation to keep going.

The similarities were that both were and are service focused on the local area. The challenges common to all business such as finding customers, delivering on commitments, managing staff, etc. are, of course, there too.

Our concept of impact is where the paths diverge.

My grandfather's tile business was focused on providing enough money for the house, groceries, education, and a little bit of fun for his wife and ten children. With so many people, this was no small feat. His idea of impact was immediate and personal. When I pressed him a little further, he mentioned his desire to open opportunities for future generations with his work. And by this measure, what a success his business was! The education and values he instilled in his children and employees had a dramatic and positive impact for future generations. Though not one of his 10 children and 40+ grand and great-grandchildren are tile-setters, they are thriving in dozens of different fields, in part because of the resources generated and values demonstrated through his business.

Getting my own business off the ground, I'd thought of the immediate impact on my family too, of course. I needed a job and chose to create one for myself in the form of a small business. Yes, it's about taking care of my family, but it's also about reaching and helping as many customers as I possibly can. It's about growth and scale today. I haven't spent a single moment thinking about future generations.

We all have stories of business successes and failures in our family history. They've been passed down in the form of attitudes and beliefs about the virtues or pitfalls of entrepreneurship. More and more people are reconnecting with their roots and seeing their chance to "give it a go." It's a great time to ask and reflect on how these past experiences can and should shape your future.

Published on: Jun 7, 2017
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