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Family Business applicants: Tips for MBA essays and recommendations

If you are an MBA applicant with a family business, you have an ace up your sleeve that you shouldn’t be afraid to use.

Some applicants might feel sheepish about mentioning their family business ties, but it is a definite advantage, albeit one that has to be navigated carefully.

In this article we will look at:

  • Why schools value family business applicants.
  • What family business applicants ought to be aware of when applying.
  • Some resources for family business MBA students at top programs.


MBA Application Tips for Family Business Applicants

by Yaron Dahan, Menlo Coaching


Why Business Schools Like Family Business Applicants

There are a few clear reasons why an applicant with a family business — especially a large family business—is attractive to a top MBA program.

Even if an applicant is considering working outside the family or has entirely different career goals, the benefits are such that there is little reason to avoid making the family business an important part of the application.

1. Guaranteed Leadership Roles

Family business applicants often have a bright future in terms of leadership. No admissions department will question that the daughter of the current CEO will become CEO herself if she wants to.

Those guarantees are attractive to MBA programs who want to be able to show that their graduates have good jobs with attractive compensation.

2. Donation Abilities

Applicants with family businesses are coming from and entering into stable work environments.

This means they have the ability to become reliable donors or even employers for the school on a faster timeline than many alumni.

3. Great Stories

Family business applicants often have a great built-in story which is always a boon when it comes to MBA applications.

Whether it’s a story about seizing the initiative and bringing a brick and mortar family business into the digital age, or a story about the lessons learned growing up in a business environment, applicants often have a wealth of opportunities to give their application a narrative that will stand out.

Challenges of Mentioning a Family Business

While the advantages of emphasizing one’s family business connections are invaluable, applicants with such connections should be aware of some of the potential problems with doing so.

1. Credibility

The job guarantees of a family business applicant come from family members who may hire the applicant regardless of skill.

As a result, applicants should take great pains to prove that they have a vision for where their business is headed — turning their career goals essay into more of a business plan.

An MBA program is uninterested in an applicant that seems likely to squander the family business fortune or simply stay the course.

2. Generating Excitement

Because most family-owned businesses aren’t famous, an applicant will need to prove that their family business is dynamic, exciting, capable of growth, and successful.

There is every chance an admissions’ department will be unfamiliar with the specificities of the industry or the family business’ role in it. That can be a problem if not addressed.

3. Letters of Recommendation

Similar to the credibility issues, any letter of recommendation that comes from a family member will likely be seen as suspect by an MBA program.

This means that family business applicants should strongly consider using letters of recommendation written by external investors, advisors, or even clients instead.


Top B-School Resources for Family Business MBA Students

A number of top business schools have programs and clubs geared towards students with family businesses. Applicants should be familiar with these. We’ll go over some standout programs below.

Columbia Business School Family Business Program

In addition to offering courses and curriculum aimed at managing, advising, or running family-owned businesses, Columbia also offers “Enterprising Families:” three-day intensive workshops designed by the business school for family-owned businesses of various sizes.

Additionally they host a year-round speaker series that boasts luminaries in family-owned business leadership. Read more here.

The Wharton Global Family Alliance

The Wharton School of Business uses its GFA to provide teaching, research, and outreach to family-owned businesses. This includes collaboration between various family owned businesses, global conferences, and a bevy of research papers focused on the study of family-owned businesses and their impact on the economy. Read more here.

Harvard Business School (HBS) Family Business Club

HBS’ Family business club offers a robust speaker series as well as an annual conference and workshop day for students and their family businesses. Read more here.

Center for Family Enterprise at Kellogg

Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Business offers a comprehensive curriculum program aimed at family owned business applicants that cover everything from strategy to governance to succession planning. Read more here.

MIT Sloan Family Enterprise Programs

Sloan has recently brought in John Davis, an expert on family owned businesses, to run their Family Enterprise Programs which includes informational talks on sustaining multigenerational success, smooth succession planning, and a focus on family owned businesses in China. Read more here.

Family Business Courses at Top Schools

Both Stanford GSB and Michigan Ross offer courses focused on the ins and outs of family businesses.

Family Business Applicant Case Study

We worked with a candidate who had joined his small family retail business, a furniture company based in Latin America. His first professional job was outside the family business at one of his country’s leading banks, but then, for personal reasons, he joined the family business.

Although the family business was relatively small (under 50 workers), he brought it online, created its ecommerce division, and used his operations knowledge from banking to streamline operational processes.

In the application materials, we talked about the emotional story of the business, and the pride he felt in taking responsibility for a “business that cares,” with a mission to do more than just make money.

He learned about management, and took great care of his workers, even when this was financially difficult — like providing them with health insurance during a financial crisis.

Some of the employees had joined when his grandfather opened the first store, and he worked alongside them in the stores to get “in the trenches” experience.

He not only told a thoughtful, moving human story, but one with professional impact, in which he built his family business into first a country-wide, and then continent-wide success.

Ultimately he was accepted into several top 10 programs, largely to the emotional strength of his application, and the deep motivation he had to grow and develop the family business.

Want to hear stories from other successful Menlo Coaching clients, including two other family business applicants? Sophie worked for a B2B software company owned by her family, and Vicky plans to join her family’s China-based manufacturing company after her MBA.

See more at Menlo Coaching Video Case Studies & Testimonials.
About the author: Yaron Dahan is an Expert Consultant & Director (BD) at Menlo Coaching. In his 12-year long stint as an admissions consultant, he has helped hundreds of applicants get into the toughest business schools like Harvard, Stanford, Wharton and many more. He is also a filmmaker and writer.

This article is part of CrystalConnect, an outreach initiative by MBA Crystal Ball.

Also read:
Menlo Coaching – Review
MBA in Family Business Management
MBA after CA with experience in family business

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