All-American Sharks
What Shark Tank can teach us about capitalism
<i>Shark Tank</i> contestants make their pitch.

One “shark” is Barbara Corcoran. She grew up in a lower-middle-class New Jersey town, the second oldest of ten kids. She was a D student in Catholic school, and worked at 20 different jobs before she graduated from college, doing everything from selling hot dogs to being an orphanage housemother.

While waitressing at a diner, she took a $1,000 loan from a man who soon became her live-in boyfriend, Ray Simone. He got 51 percent of the company she was starting. When he decided to leave her to marry another woman, she dissolved that company and started her own firm. What motivated Corcoran to succeed? She told CNN that it was what Ray Simone told her as she was walking out the door.

“‘You’ll never succeed without me,’ he told me. Those words branded my soul. I started the Corcoran Group to prove my ability to succeed.” Corcoran sold her company for $66 million.

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Then there’s Robert Herjavec. He was born in Croatia and his family fled Communist Yugoslavia when he was eight, settling in Toronto, where the family lived in a friend’s basement for 18 months. Herjavec was in his twenties and between jobs when a college roommate learned of an opening at a computer company that sold IBM mainframe emulation boards. He was underqualified for the position but talked his way into the role by offering to work for free for the first six months to prove his ability.

That’s something they don’t teach you in college.

While working for free, Herjavec did what Corcoran did — he waited tables at a local restaurant. He ended up becoming general manager of that computer company, left it to start his own business from the basement of his home, and ended up selling it to AT&T for over $100 million.

Then there’s Daymond John. He spent his childhood in Queens, N.Y., raised with seven sisters and brothers by his mother. In high school, he worked full-time as part of a co-op program, which he credits with stoking his entrepreneurial zeal. When he graduated from high school, John started a computer van service. But it was selling hats and clothing that would make John his millions. He got together with some friends, his mom mortgaged her home, and John started his own company. John held a full-time job at a local Red Lobster to make ends meet, working on the clothing business between shifts.

That small business, FUBU, is now an apparel empire. And did I mention that John is African American?

Then there’s Mark Cuban. His grandparents came to America with nothing but their name — Chabenisky. They lost even that possession: the Russian-Jewish family had their family name shortened at Ellis Island to Cuban.

Cuban grew up the son of an automobile upholsterer in a suburb of Pittsburgh, and started thinking about being an entrepreneur when he was twelve. He credits Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead for helping formulate his philosophy of life. “It was incredibly motivating to me,” he has said. “It encouraged me to think as an individual, take risks to reach my goals, and responsibility for my successes and failures. I loved it.” A serial entrepreneur, he sold his stake in Broadcast.com, a company he started, for $5.9 billion, just before the dot-com bust. He owns the Dallas Mavericks.

And then there is the show’s Simon Cowell, Kevin O’Leary. His nickname is “Mr. Wonderful,” but there is nothing wonderful about being on the receiving end of his criticism. He is the guy everyone loves to hate on the panel. O’Leary too is a self-made millionaire, the son of a salesman and a seamstress. He too is a serial investor and entrepreneur.

That’s what makes Shark Tank so good. The self-made millionaires and billionaires sitting on that panel are no different from the contestants pitching them. They were once those very same people, pitching their business to rich people. Struggling to acquire capital to grow their businesses. Seeking their piece of the American Dream.

That’s why young people and older people alike like Shark Tank. It’s aspirational — and egalitarian.

But what they really like best about Shark Tank — and may not know it – is that the star of the show is capitalism itself.

Is there anything more all-American than that?

Lee Habeeb is the vice president of content at Salem Radio Network, and a senior adviser to America Strong. He lives in Oxford, Miss., with his wife, Valerie, and daughter, Reagan.