In the USSR, 'Entrepreneur' Was a Dirty Word. I Didn't Realize My Mom Was One.
But now, as an entrepreneur myself, the lessons I learned from her are invaluable.
To say entrepreneurship was unpopular where I grew up is an understatement. In today’s world — where business owners share the spotlight with Hollywood celebrities and pop artists — this may be unimaginable, but it’s true. In the country where I was born entrepreneurship was illegal. It was listed as a criminal offense and was punishable by law for nearly a century (until 11 months before my birth). If you haven’t guessed it by now, I was born in the USSR — a country that no longer exists, but still influences the minds of many of its former citizens.
Policy changes that affect cultural norms — like the one against entrepreneurship — happen incredibly slowly, and take even longer to reflect in public mentality. While kids in the West grew up receiving praise for making their first pocket money from lemonade stands, I was raised by adults who believed entrepreneurship was something dirty, dishonest, and even shameful.
I remember a pop culture character from my childhood. He was called the “New Russian” and he was the only version of an entrepreneur that we knew. He was usually portrayed wearing a crimson jacket over a white shirt, a massive golden chain, and a gun. He was definitely an anti-hero, his fingers covered with golden rings earned througg shady business deals.
Now that you can see entrepreneurship through the eyes of 10-year old me, you can understand why — when my mom opened her private practice as a psychologist — I could not recognize that she was, in fact, an entrepreneur. When she did this I was in my teens busy with my own hopes and dreams, and all I can remember is that mom was doing something really hard, yet really important. I still didn't know it was called entrepreneurship, but the first lesson got deep inside in my subconsciousness.
1. Start a business if you can’t go on without starting it
Pretty much every imaginable circumstance was working against my mom starting her own business. Entrepreneurial education was unheard of, let alone a support network of other entrepreneurs, or any sort of knowledge-sharing. In the public eye entrepreneurship was still a kind of a disease, so no one in the family associated my mom with this “dirty word.” Most just saw her as a psychologist who liked to make things difficult for herself instead of working for someone else.
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My family’s finances didn't allow my mom any starter capital. In fact, I can remember the tension that the money question created between my parents. Not only could they not afford to invest in mom’s new venture, but her choosing this passion over a small but stable paycheck elsewhere brought significant stress on the family.
I remember her trying to solve the ultimate chicken and egg entrepreneurial challenge: She could not pay rent on a small office until she had regular clients, but she could not start seeing clients until she had an office!
Yet my mom felt that to fulfill her purpose, this path was the only choice. And for that, I am eternally grateful. This outlook on life that I got from her is what keeps me moving forward and always following my passion. Her story gives a whole different layer of meaning to every cheesy motivational quote about never giving up.
2. Business is cyclical
What my mom experienced in her 30s is what I went through in my late 20s.
I was fortunate to be a part of a few communities where business skills and an entrepreneurial outlook on life were highly valued. I was managing nearly 700 volunteers in NGO projects, and running a high-performance marketing team that brought in half a million dollars a month. Both were very focused on developing their people and valued entrepreneurial spirit.
There was a moment after many career experiments when I was suddenly sure what I needed to do with my life: I was going to offer PR services. Just like my mom before me, I knew what I was here to do, and just like her, I discovered that starting a business was the right format to do just what I wanted.
And so I started an agency. Through word of mouth, I got my first clients and first results. The demand grew and I was ready to hire the first account manager. The second team member came soon after that, and I was on a roll. This continued until the following summer when I experienced my first business low.
I had a chat with mom and shared how scary it was not to be certain if I’d have clients next month. By that time I'd signed up for every webinar and was getting a nervous tick, chasing one marketing strategy after another. Every new guru seemed like they finally had the solution to my worries. And once again, mom was just the right guru I needed. 'Business is cyclical', she said, 'You’ll go through highs and you’ll go through lows.'
It was calming to hear. It was the very first time when I realized that everything I’m going through after learning from marketing gurus and getting inspired by my high-vibe international conferences is the same thing she went through 15 years ago. Only that she did not have a network or a badass entrepreneur mom to ask for advice.
3. You are not your business
I started proudly sharing that my mom is an entrepreneur! I finally processed this information and was extremely proud. Now that both of us were entrepreneurs, it added a whole new dimension to our relationship.
I even considered bringing her to one of my high-vibe networking events — but mom had her own plans. Just like 15 years ago, she got caught up in a new passion that took her life by storm. She signed up for two academic online courses on psychoanalysis: One from New York and one from Tel Aviv. She started staying up all night watching lectures. She still could not freely speak English but figured out a way to translate the new research articles in her field from English to Russian using a couple of online tools. As the pandemic started, she closed her small psychology center and moved online, completely dedicating herself to her new passion.
Once again, she’s shown me that business is a tool. For a while, it can be your means to an end. It can help you serve others. It can also help you become the person you are meant to be. But don’t confuse a means goal with an end goal. I had a chance to see my mom’s titanic efforts to push through uncertainty and towards the passion. She took the risk, opened her center, helped thousands of clients, and taught hundreds of other specialists. She helped others in her community to stand on their feet. Then I got to witness her grow out of it, and rise to a new challenge. As I work on my passion seven days a week, it puts things into perspective. Yes, my business gets most of my energy right now, but it’s not the final destination, only a stepping stone towards continuously growing myself and serving others. And, as mom’s example shows, the opportunities to grow and serve don’t seem to run out with years. You only have to stay open to them when true passion calls.
And while she still does not read English freely, I know, she’ll pull out her ninja translation tools to read this article. I love you, mom.
Related: Why I Helped My Mom Launch a Startup
Entrepreneur Leadership Network Contributor