Sunday, May 11, 2014

Mother's Day Memories

My mother, Jean McKernan Spence, passed away, rather reluctantly, six months ago. The following week, I wrote an article for the Financial Post reviewing the entrepreneurial lessons I learned from her. In honour of Mother's Day, here is that column.

Entrepreneurship begins at home – and grows from there

Although she earned a bachelor’s of science in commerce at a time when few women took that route, my mother never became a business tycoon. Jean McKernan was a stylish buyer of ladies’ gloves for Allied department stores in New York, but she gave it all up when she married a dashing Canadian banker.
Jean in October, 2013
When he was transferred to Toronto, she followed. There, this spunky daughter of Brooklyn became the essential 1960s homemaker, raising four children, joining service clubs, and putting on swanky dinners to impress my father’s clients, often with just a few hours’ notice. At the time, I am told, “the Bank” didn’t approve of managers’ wives holding outside jobs, so hers was a dutiful life of serving others.
Yet when my mother passed away late last month, she left behind a gaggle of entrepreneurs. Not just this writer, who specializes in entrepreneurship and innovation, but also my older sister, a real-estate consultant; my younger sister, a creatively caring physician who helps patients who dwell on society’s margins; and my brother, who runs his own bookstore in Paris. Each has lived their own, unscripted life of creativity and purpose, because our mother, without ever really starting a business, embodied many of the characteristics of the most successful entrepreneurs.
Confidence Graduating high school in the early 1940s, my mother matured in a world where most men were off in the military. Millions of women learned to take up the slack in business and industry. My mother never picked up a rivet gun. But she had the confidence to go to university, join the glee club, edit the student newspaper and manage the yearbook. Years later, she took apart an old shortwave radio I’d bought and fixed a mechanical problem inside. It never occurred to her that any challenge was beyond her until she’d given it a go.
50s Society Girl
Being open to opportunity In her mid-twenties, my mother was recovering from a romantic breakup when her father, a pinstriped Washington banker, invited her to join him on a special train out of New York headed to a bankers’ convention in San Francisco. Jean had the sense to board the bankers’ express, perhaps suspecting the male-female ratio would be 100 to 1. It was on this train that she met my father.
Spotting unmet market needs My mother was always thinking up ideas for new products and services. She would call up companies to offer them ideas for better products. She tried to organize a bunch of cottagers to buy the summer homes they were renting to redevelop them as a first-class recreational community. She tried to invest in the singing career of a bright young talent named Robert Goulet. Little came of her schemes; time and money were scarce. But had my mother come of age in today’s era of low-cost startups, she might have been Queen of the Apps. At age 80, long after retiring to Florida, she called Tim Hortons about buying the franchise rights for Tampa Bay.
Leadership When there was a project to be done, my mom was out in front leading the charge. She founded her university’s NAACP chapter to fight for minority rights. Heading up her Rotary group, planning Christmas parties, organizing neighbourhood groups to clean up the environment, or fighting intrusive developments, she motivated others to take action. That’s the hallmark of a great leader.
Financial smarts My mother taught us there are no free lunches. Or free lemonade or paper cups. When we opened sidewalk lemonade stands on hot summer days, mom would support us, helping us gather all the cups,  ice cubes, lemon juice and sugar. And then she would charge us for them. She said it was important for us to understand our costs so we would appreciate our profits. It was a valuable lesson reluctantly learned.
Looking stylish in 1929
Attracting people My mother loved people. She would strike up conversations with strangers, ask passersby for help, and make new friends every day at parties, stores, home and school meetings, or just waiting in line. She talked naturally with small children, tradespeople, artists, bank executives and British nobility. I think this is an essential trait of entrepreneurs: a passion for engaging with people at all levels, soliciting other points of view, and enlisting help for all your plans and dreams. To sell your business ideas, you have to sell yourself first.
Creative risk-taking My mother never feared to take chances, or to fail. For one birthday long ago, she made me a cake shaped like the Matterhorn. Sadly, it suffered a severe avalanche just before the party. She admitted her mistake and cheerily ladled out bundles of goo to all my friends. She turned her golf cart into Santa’s sleigh for a Florida Christmas parade and handed out home-made doughnuts at Halloween. When my father retired from that bank, she dragged him to a 500-year-old country house in England for two years to keep him from becoming sedentary. She saw every day as a chance to see or do something new, which in turn stimulated her imagination further.
Invincible will When my mother made up her mind to do something, it got done. She pulled off numerous projects over her lifetime, none more impressive than the Canadian Thanksgiving dinner for 22 people she organized in October in Dunedin, Fla., despite her declining health and flagging energy. Two days before her death, with company coming to visit, and having barely left her bed for days, my mom kicked everyone out of the kitchen and made a pie.
Entrepreneurs work their magic in many fields, beyond business. The day after her funeral, I toasted my mom’s memory, and her legacy, with a glass of lemonade.

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