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What Growing Up in a Blue-Collar Household Taught Me About Entrepreneurship

What Growing Up in a Blue-Collar Household Taught Me About Entrepreneurship

What separates the best entrepreneurs from the rest is usually their character, and nothing builds character better than hard work.


6 min read

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.


My dad used to say, “No one ever got rich working for someone else.” Then, he’d pack up his lunch, put on his boots and go to work — for someone else.

He did this because he felt he had a responsibility to his family, and I deeply respect that commitment; but my parents wanted more for me. In their minds, that meant a college education — something that’s long been touted as a lever to social and financial mobility.

A February 2018 report by RTI International backs that idea. After comparing the salaries and rates of first-generation college graduates with those whose parents attended at least some college, RTI’s researchers found the results statistically identical.

Related: Perks of Inculcating Entrepreneurial Spirit

So, off to college I went. As the first person in my family to earn a bachelor’s (and master’s) degree, I can say definitively that education has been an indispensable tool to my becoming a successful entrepreneur. 

Yet I would say the same about my working-class background. After all, what separates the best entrepreneurs from the rest is usually their character; and nothing builds character better than hard work. So, here I’ll describe the four lessons my hardworking parents taught me about entrepreneurship.

1. Don’t let your background determine your success.

Just because you weren’t born to an Ivy League legacy doesn’t mean you won’t be successful. Your unique experiences make you strong in ways that others with different experiences don’t. If you’ve read The Pursuit of Happyness (or seen the Will Smith movie), you know that Chris Gardner’s hard work paid off with a dream job despite his background in poverty and homelessness. By the way, Gardner is now the multimillionaire founder and CEO of Gardner Rich & Co.

Related: 10 Big Lessons from Must-See Movies for Entrepreneurs

So, how do you get started as an entrepreneur if family money isn’t an option? A big loan from family or venture capitalists isn’t a requirement. My own first company was bootstrapped, as many others, including Grasshopper and SurveyMonkey, have been. So, don’t be intimidated if your company’s category is an area you aren’t an expert in, either. You can learn new skills until the day you die.

I myself learned how to pour concrete and run electric lines by the time I was a teenager; but no one was there to teach me about stocks, passive income or long-term investing. I had to fill in those gaps myself. Even if you’re an expert in one area, you’ll need to learn new skills in other areas to be a successful entrepreneur.

2. Lead with honesty and integrity — no matter what.

One of my parents’ greatest qualities when I was growing up was their honesty. They never played corporate politics at the office. The idea of throwing someone under the bus to get the upper hand never crossed their minds. Instead, they worked hard, treated people fairly and let the chips fall where they may.

Some people seek to gain an advantage by gaming the system, but real leaders are honest. In Robert Half’s 2016 survey of employees and executives, both groups ranked “integrity” and “fairness” as the most important traits of business leaders. Work ethic and fair dealing creates leaders, and the best entrepreneurs are exceptional at both.

3. Run toward those difficult conversations.

When I was 10, I wanted to quit baseball in the middle of the season. My parents weren’t happy. We had plenty of discussions about finishing what you start, but eventually, they told me I could quit — on one condition. I had to tell the coach myself. As my mom put it: She wasn’t quitting, so why should she have to talk to the coach?

I was terrified, but that experience turned out to be an important one for me. I had to have a conversation with my adult coach, one on one, and deliver some news he didn’t want to hear. Entrepreneurs have to have those types of conversations all the time. Whether they’re to get a negligent client to pay, let an employee go or tell a customer about a big problem, difficult talks are part of the job. There’s no mom to hide behind.

Still, many managers avoid tough conversations for as long as possible — only 15 percent of managers polled, in a survey by consulting firm VitalSmarts, said they tackle them immediately. In most cases, it’s best to just face up to the tough talks and get them over with. Waiting or completely avoiding those conversations only makes the situation worse.

4. Sit down with your family or friends at the end of the day.

My parents worked like crazy — and that’s an understatement. During the summer months, my dad often clocked 60-plus hours a week, and my mom put herself through a nursing program when I was a kid. But no matter what, we always ate dinner together as a family. Thirty years later, that still stands out to me.

Entrepreneurs are no less busy. According to a survey by The Alternative Board, about one-third of small-business owners polled said they worked more than 50 hours a week, and one in five worked over 60 hours. In a survey from NodeSource, almost half of the entrepreneur participants said that their biggest problem was finding work-life balance.

If my parents could find the time for family dinners, today’s entrepreneurs can, too. I’ve learned that skipping family time to do more work won’t relieve any stress; it’s just time I’ll lose with my wife and kids that I’ll never get back.

Tapping into your roots

My dad broke his neck and shattered three vertebrae when I was 12. He was out of work for more than a year and racked up the type of medical bills you’d expect from such a traumatic injury. Clearly, he’d caught a very bad break, but I never remember him complaining or feeling sorry for himself. That attitude has had a profound impact on my life as an entrepreneur.

When I started my first business, I had no idea what I was doing — and I certainly made plenty of mistakes along the way. But if every entrepreneur quit after a big setback, there would be very few great companies.

Related: Dreading an Upcoming ‘Difficult’ Conversation? Here Are 10 Tips That Can Help.

So, take a deep breath and do the only thing you can do: Put your boots back on and go to work.

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