Lucy Lareau is excited about the publication of her latest book, this one on monarch butterflies. Conceiving, writing, editing and promoting it required hard work — all while she was finishing the seventh grade.
With her mother and co-author, Liz Lareau, 12-year-old Lucy has a contract with the publisher, Papercutz, to produce 10 graphic novels about girls who use their skills in science, engineering, technology and math to solve real-world problems while becoming capable young women.
The partnership is one of a handful of businesses run by parents and their minor children that contend with typical challenges, like identifying a mission and dividing the labor, while sustaining close family relationships.
Children born in the 1990s and 2000s, known as Generation Z, have a strong entrepreneurial spirit. Twenty-seven percent of students in grades nine through 12 planned to start a business, according to a 2017 Gallup poll. Among fifth through eighth graders, that ambition ran higher, at 55 percent.
These young entrepreneurs grew up with Instagram, but they are pursuing interests beyond becoming a social media influencer. They are aided by technology, a sense of empowerment and parents who may be more willing to take a more supportive or even subordinate role in a family business than previous generations might have been.
Many such businesses also have a philanthropic focus that’s driven by youthful idealism or by a recognition that the business can do good as well as doing well. Lucy Lareau’s series was inspired by her desire to write books that strengthen girls’ sense of competence and self-worth.
Lucy and her mother, who work out of their home in Moline, Ill., report a strong working relationship but recognize that the creative business sometimes leads to differences of opinion. And they accept that marketing their work requires frequent travel that sometimes prevents Lucy from attending social functions, like her friends’ birthday parties.
“What’s time consuming is the marketing side, like school visits and book conventions,” Lucy said. “Sometimes it gets exhausting.”
Dealing with such strains is a challenge for any family business but especially for those involving minor children, said Maurice Schweitzer, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business.
He said those enterprises needed to find ways in which parents could be a business manager while maintaining the traditional role of caregiver.
“In a family, the basic tenets of that relationship are not reflected by a market economy,” said Dr. Schweitzer, who studies family businesses. “When you look at your children, you don’t think, ‘When I think about the value of food and clothes that I give you, it should be commensurate with the value that you have created.’ Yet, within an organization, when you lose track of value creation, you’re not going to be very successful.”
The most successful parent-child businesses set clear guidelines about home and work, he said. “You can draw lines like: ‘When we’re at home at the dinner table, we don’t talk about work. At work, we don’t talk about family.’”
Some parent-child businesses aspire to a long-term business goal. In Chillicothe, Ohio, 13-year-old, Khayta Diongue, runs KSD Coffee, a catering company, with help from her mother, Lesha Malone.
Less than a year after it was founded, the company serves coffee at one or two events a month, and has made a profit of about $2,500 on revenue of $3,500 from around 10 events catering to as many as 300 people, Khayta said. Her goal is to open a coffee shop in 2024, when she turns 18, at an anticipated cost of $250,000.
At age 11, she attended an entrepreneurial academy, where she learned skills like marketing, finance and how to describe your business in an “elevator pitch” lasting just a few seconds.
Khayta gave herself the titles of chief executive and chief financial officer, reflecting her control of the business, while Ms. Malone is the chief management officer because of her responsibility over administrative tasks.
But Ms. Malone sometimes exercises parental control by declining catering requests because KSD Coffee does not have the capacity. Still, she insists her daughter is really running the show.
“A couple of times, I’ve had to make quick decisions on what engagement to allow her to go to, but other than that I pretty much wait to talk to her,” Ms. Malone said. “She’s extremely prepared.”
Ted Clark, executive director of Northeastern University’s Center for Family Business, said it was essential for parent-child businesses to define the differences between behavior in the workplace and in the home.
“The absolute key to what happens between family members is communication,” Mr. Clark said. “My advice to families before they bring the kids in — minors or adults — would be clear expectation and communication.”
If the right balance can be found, minor children can learn valuable business and interpersonal skills by playing a role in the family business, he said.
Like many other young entrepreneurs, Khayta also wants to give back. Her business features “Thrive Thursdays,” when 10 percent of revenue is donated to charitable causes, which have recently included the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.
That philanthropic drive is an important contributor to the financial success of Jeff Hanson, an artist who runs his business with his parents, Julie and Hal Hanson, out of their home in Overland Park, Kan.
Jeff, who has limited vision and neurofibromatosis, a genetic disorder that causes tumors to form in the brain and elsewhere, began painting vibrantly colored notecards and selling them for charity in his driveway at age 15.
Strong demand for the notecards led him to start creating deeply textured acrylic-on-canvas paintings, sales of which topped $35,000 in 2015 and led him to become a taxpaying company the same year. His mother became the first salaried employee in 2009, followed by his father two years later.
With clients including Elton John and Warren E. Buffett, the business now has gross sales of $450,000 to $475,000 a year. Jeff donated some paintings to charity auctions, raising $1 million for different causes by the time he was 18 and $5 million by the time he turned 25 last September.
Before he became an adult, Jeff said, he wanted to prove to himself that he could succeed despite his disability. “I needed a job, I needed a purpose, and I can’t drive,” he said.
The charitable donations help generate business by inspiring wealthy clients, said his father, 66, who quit his job as an emergency-room physician three years ago to join the family business.
“The reason that so many high-profile people have jumped on Jeff’s art is because of his philanthropic activities,” Mr. Hanson said.
Other parent-child businesses have been bolstered by unique or unusual personal stories.
In Lake Orion, Mich., 17-year-old Spencer Kelly makes luxury soaps with his parents, Tracie and Steve, and his younger brother, Grant. Spencer’s company, Expedition Soaps, had net sales of $92,000 in 2018, up from $52,000 in 2017, and is expected to hit $130,000 this year, he said.
Spencer, who has Asperger’s syndrome, attributed part of the company’s growth to his condition, which he said set him apart from the competition.
“Having this as part of your story, it helps to build a bit of rapport between me and the customer that most people just don’t have,” said Spencer, who also raises funds for charity through a website.
The business is generating money for her sons’ college expenses, Ms. Kelly said, while also giving them valuable experience and nurturing strong family bonds.
“We’re getting all kinds of experience for my boys to learn life skills and business skills, and they’re making money doing it,” she said.
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