MBA degrees may be dominated by men, but this has been no real problem for Jeanne Bianco, an executive MBA student at Cambridge’s Judge business school.

As managing director in the UK of National Tube Stockholders, a steel tube specialist based in the North Yorkshire market town of Thirsk, and the second generation of her family to run the company which was set up by her father and uncle in the 1970s, she is used to operating in a man’s world.

But she is the first family member to study for an MBA and she admits: “I don’t know anyone who has one.” Her logic for study is impeccable. “I found myself doing the job, having worked my way through all the departments, and yet I really didn’t know any of the technical [business] side,” she says. “When you’re in a small company, you’re doing it your way and you have no sounding board. My experience is very detailed in what I do, but very limited.”

Camille Seghesio, export director at the Seghesio family vineyard in California and a Chicago Booth graduate, takes the argument one step further. She believes an MBA is an invaluable tool for young managers entering the family business. “You’re only the product of your own experiences. I would argue that if you have a child starting in the family firm, an MBA might be the only time they get any outside experience.”

Simon Learmount, director of the Judge EMBA, cites further benefits. “You can’t underestimate the value of the networks. The bonds they form with their classmates are tremendous.”

The two are part of a growing number of managers from family businesses, many of whom are women, taking the MBA route. At London Business School, for example, which introduced a family business elective two years ago, some 38 per cent of participants are women, higher than the percentage of women on both their full-time and executive MBA programmes.

Ms Seghesio believes there are more opportunities for women in family businesses than in corporates. “In family businesses there is less of an issue of the glass ceiling. The big issue in family businesses is that you have a very high standard to maintain.”

It is a view borne out by research, in the UK at least. A recent survey of more than 1m UK private businesses conducted for the Institute for Family Business shows that in small family firms 44 per cent of directors are women compared with 34 per cent in non-family firms.

But at London Business School, Asa Bjornberg, family business researcher, cautions against extrapolating worldwide from these UK figures. “In certain geographical areas and cultures it is easier for women to get to the top of the family firm than others.”

In China, for example, Jean Lee, management professor at Ceibs in Shanghai, points out that family businesses are quite a recent phenomenon and are still relatively small, with an average of 60 employees each. Typically Chinese family firms are set up by husbands and wives, she says, unlike the US, where only 13.9 per cent of partnerships are between married couples. Chinese students now attending business school are often the second generation of these family firms, she says.

For those who do decide to study business, there is the age-old question of whether
to study full-time or on an executive part-time degree. Ms Bianco chose the executive route.

“I didn’t want to stop working,” she says, but admits that working an extra 10 hours a week, 52 weeks a year takes its toll. “It is a lot of time to take out of your life. But you come here for the weekend and you go home full of ideas. It does give you a different viewpoint.”

Ms Seghesio says the full-time MBA has helped her to fulfil her ambition. “My dream since I was little was that I wanted to join the family business and sell our wines overseas.” In the past eight years, since she joined the winery full-time, the company has increased its exports from 2 per cent to 25 per cent and now exports to more than 40 countries.

Ms Bianco has more modest aspirations. “I just want to do what I do better. It’s as simple as that.”

Wider horizons

Mining and steel are the core of Yuping Zou’s family business in Jiangxi province in southern China, a business established in 1992 by her parents. Before joining Ceibs in Shanghai she was assistant general manager at the Jiangxi Yongsheng Mining and Metallurgical company.

But when Ms Zou graduates in 2012, she has other plans. She wants to work in investment banking and securities and eventually hopes to set up a hedge fund. However, Ms Zou has not fallen as far from the family tree as might first appear. She has the support of her family in her plans, as they want to diversify the family interests. “We don’t want to put all our eggs in one basket,” she confirms.

Tasting success

Family businesses come in all shapes and sizes and in Sonoma County in California, Camille Seghesio is more familiar with the zinfandel and pinot grigio grape, than she is with steel tubing.

As the third generation in her family firm, an Italian-American winery, Ms Seghesio says she always wanted an international career. So she signed up for the international MBA at Chicago Booth, which involved study at both Bocconi in Italy and Iese Business School in Spain.

It was in Italy that she really learnt about family business. “It’s fascinating to see how ‘Made in Italy’ high-quality products can compete when big companies are outsourcing their production to low-wage economies. How do you survive as a producer of wool hats in northern Italy? It’s about differentiation, quality, design . . .”

European MBA programmes differ from those in the US, she says, with courses in family businesses as part of the programme. “I found family business in Europe to be quite applicable to our company. It might not be so interesting to someone working in McKinsey.”

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