The Roots of the Family Business
By Elizabeth Bowden-David
As entrepreneurs, my husband and I take every opportunity to teach our children about the family business. They are still pretty young, so we stick to basic concepts such as product, customer, revenue, cost, and profit. Many of these discussions take place around the dinner table in our home—or, since we’re restaurateurs, in one of our establishments. Because we are in the food industry, we also talk frequently with our children about tastes, recipes, and cooking methods.
A while ago, however, I became convinced that I was overlooking an even more fundamental aspect of the family business. Indeed, the more I contemplated and read about this particular topic, the more I realized that it would enhance nearly every lesson I wanted to impart to my children about business, health, nature, and life. The topic is simply this: how to grow food.
I entered adulthood with a fairly robust acquaintance with vegetable gardening, having spent childhood summers in Alabama pulling weeds from my father’s patches of squash, beans, and okra and plucking the ripest choices for dinner. I never even tasted a store-bought tomato until college. My husband had similar experiences in south India, where we now live, helping his grandfather tend to mango and coconut trees and, in boarding school, yanking carrots out of the dirt of a nearby field when struck by hunger or whimsy.
Last year, we decided to build upon this legacy by growing some of our own produce. We planted in clay pots on our flat rooftop as well as in a tiny square of dirt outside our doorstep. We started small, with herbs and lettuce, and have since expanded to eggplant, tomato, pumpkin, bitter gourd, and cucumber. The children have found a special joy in planting fruit trees next to the house and have come to appreciate the slow ripening process of papaya, banana, and lemon. I should clarify that we neither grow the produce for the restaurants we run nor harvest every item that shows up on our dinner table. But we’ve all gained tremendously by greening our thumbs a bit, and never has the work cost anyone in our household more than a couple of hours a week. As a next step, I’m planning to install vertical containers that will more than quadruple the space on our roof and balcony.
Until relatively recently in the US, growing vegetables was a common skill and practice. Historians tell us that 20 million American families planted “victory gardens” in World War II to sustain themselves and to ease the pressure on the supply of food for soldiers. In 1944, nearly 40 percent of domestic vegetable production came from front yards, window boxes, and apartment rooftops. Nowadays, with the abundance of produce available in supermarkets and with working hours generally, longer than they were decades ago, knowledge of gardening basics is far less common. In practical terms, why would a busy modern professional such as a knee surgeon, corporate tax attorney, software engineer, or architectural designer grow what he or she can easily purchase?
An environmentally conscious neighbor of mine, who is a busy modern professional himself (engineering sustainable water solutions in urban settings), recently shared his opinion that all children should learn vegetable gardening as an essential life skill. In his family, everyone chips in just a few hours a week to tend a plot next to their house, and by doing so they grow nearly everything they consume…with plenty left over to share with friends.
Whether it’s an essential skill or not, I have learned that there is much for children to gain from the experience of planting a seed, tending to its growth, and harvesting the produce. After all, isn’t that what we have done as entrepreneurs—taking the seed of an idea, nurturing it, and experiencing the satisfaction of the eventual result? And regardless of whether the parallels between gardening and enterprise ever apply directly to my children’s careers, I like to think they are learning valuable lessons. Gardening teaches patience, responsibility, respect for the environment, and the understanding that “whatever one sows, that will he also reap”. Add to this the benefits of putting delicious organic food on the table, saving money on groceries, and encouraging children to make healthy eating choices, and we’ve got a practice that our family is sticking with.
Watching our children, business, and garden grow is an incredible learning experience for me. If I can manage to grow as fast as my curry leaves, I reckon I’ll be doing just fine.