Because of the (quite enviable) close family ties that exist in India, many applicants have a large amount of experience working in a family business rather than for large corporations. This is often hard for Westerners to understand or comprehend since, especially in America, people tend to leave home for good around 17 or 18 years of age with very few people working for family businesses (or needing an MBA within one).
The challenge that this presents for business school admissions is somewhat obvious. Even if the applicants business is a sizeable one, if he is the son of the owner, admission committees are likely to view his rise to the top as less than merit-based. It is a real problem for some and I have even read elsewhere in forums from admissions consultants that candidates should downplay these family ties and/or not expect to gain admission to a top school.
That is utterly ridiculous advice. Applicants that have worked in family businesses often know much more about how a real business works. Unlike typical corporations, where people come and go, get fired and leave, without notice and often without good reason, family businessmen (and businesswomen) are forced to stick it out—usually to the benefit of the business. Indeed, a former colleague of mine at Kellogg-HKUST once studied this and found that such businesses have much higher success rates.
That is all the more reason why the applicant from a family business (and I focused here on Indian applicants because of the high density of family owned business experience, but this applies for anyone) should make it his or her mission to exhibit the values of a family business experience to the admissions committee (IN A SUBTLE WAY).
Perhaps the easiest way for you to start such a process is to brainstorm to obtain a list of challenges that you have faced in the business: considering how, through working as a team in the business, you met those challenges. This is completely analogous to what one would do in applying with non-family business experience. The difference here is that you want to emphasize how, as a family, you and the team came up with a UNIQUE set of solutions—demonstrating (as business schools like) that only people who work well together (and only someone with leadership skill, i.e., you) could pull this off.
Another tactic is to outline the merits of the strategy that were taken. Unfortunately, it is common in many places in India for people to want to brag a bit about their company being the biggest or greatest or some other comparative. RESIST THIS. Instead, focus on areas where you saw a unique market opening and exercised it. You faced a challenge from a competitor (without naming them or vilifying them) and you met it using a creative strategy that you, as a team, fashioned.
A third tactic involves remembering (and leveraging) the fact that most people that work in a family business take on multiple roles during their tenure. True, there is that brother that is a great accountant and book-keeper or that sister who is best and managing everyone out front. However, he has inevitably had to assume that managerial role at some point when she was sick and she has probably had to run a few numbers. Do not forget these gems—these situations when you were forced to come out of your typically assigned role and perform. Business schools love this kind stuff! Just remember, however, that it s all about how you present it, and that presentation should be honest, humble, simple and straightforward, which I reiterate at the end of this essay.
Of course it may sound as though I am talking about what to emphasize in your essays—and you should indeed follow these suggestions there. However, more generally, I am speaking of how you should frame the entire application: your CV, your reference letters (which should refer to these issues), your essays and even how you define your role with the company. It should be clear from examining all of these that you “do” something for that business and that what you do can be transferred to any other type of business. For example, if you are always the person that brings everyone together–knowing when to huddle and when to regroup–then ‘be” that person in every aspect of your application.
Most importantly, every aspect of what you write about your role in that business should find its way back to explaining why you want to attend that particular school or program—even differentiating, for example, MBA from EMBA at the same school. Thus, if you like Wharton or Chicago and you did mainly finance in your business, then it makes sense to tie that exactly and directly to what you want from Wharton or Chicago (two great finance schools). However, do not go overboard and start talking about specific teachers that you want to take or specific classes. You must understand that this sounds goofy in the American business school environment, which is much more cynical than the family-oriented one in India.
I will also add a last point that, by itself, deserves another post. Many applicants from India, educated in the British system, tend to use very long and very formal methods of writing essays and even their CVs—often referring to their teachers by name, authors they read or, as I said above, teachers at the school they would like to take. Don’t do this. Cut through all of that rubbish and simply say, in the fewest words possible, exactly what it is that you do and what you want from that business program. This goes back to what I was saying about assuming multiple roles as well. That must be exposited properly. How? Through humility, honesty and straight-shooting.