"Shark Tank" Judge Visits Mendoza

By Christine Cox | Fall 2014

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Make no mistake: Entrepreneurship isn’t about money. It’s about personal freedom, Shark Tank star Kevin O’Leary told an overflow crowd during a recent visit to the Mendoza College of Business.

“The American dream is alive in a very big way,” he said, referring specifically to Shark Tank. “You’re watching the pursuit of freedom. Is there anything more noble than creating your own wealth and setting yourself free? No. That’s what Shark Tank is about: It’s the essence of personal freedom. It’s not about getting rich. It is about achieving something for yourself that is unique to our society and capitalism.”

More than a thousand people filled Jordan Auditorium and spilled over into five classrooms for a livestream to hear O’Leary speak about entrepreneurship on November 21. As expected, they witnessed his biting insight during a student business pitch competition. But what they might not have expected was O’Leary’s commentary on higher ideals of business, such as personal freedom.

O’Leary himself discovered that freedom through a software company he developed in a basement with $10,000 from his mother. On Shark Tank, which he called a $12 million infomercial, he sees budding entrepreneurs increase sales by thousands of percentage points immediately after appearing on the show. Successful contestants invariably have three abilities in common: 1) articulating their business concept in 90 seconds; 2) showing they can carry out the plan; and 3) answering every question about their business model and market.

He drew a sharp line at any notion that businesses have a social responsibility. “Perhaps even here your professors are telling you that your responsibilities go beyond just making money for your shareholders, that you have responsibilities to society,” O’Leary said. “Your job is to go to war every day and win. To win market share, to salt the earth your competitors walk on, to steal their customers and to take their profits and win. … And you take the spoils, which are profits, and you help your fellow man.”

After the talk, two student teams and one individual student had three minutes each to pitch business ideas to O’Leary. They had been chosen among 10 teams to present.

The first group, Aerofit, was represented by seniors Abby Huber and Becky Jegier. The concept is a chain of airport fitness facilities that would allow passengers and flight crews to exercise during layovers. The idea brought out the shark in O’Leary. “Do I take you behind the barn and shoot you now?” he asked.

Seniors Joseph Mueller and Federico Segura sought $50,000 for 25 percent of their company, Sessa, a social investing app that would allow people to join together to buy stock inexpensively and easily. O’Leary offered the team $50,000 for 50 percent of the company. “I think I could drive a ton of traffic [to the app],” he said, advising the students to contact his people.

Freshman Michael McRoskey presented The Red Bag, an existing business that sells bags for $5 loaded with water, food and supplies that people distribute to the homeless. O’Leary ultimately told McRoskey that The Red Bag was not a true business.

After his presentation, O’Leary met privately with the 10 teams of student entrepreneurs. He listened to each idea, among them a vodka made with water from the maple sugar process, a football helmet that reduces concussions, customized dresses made in Uganda that help a social mission. O’Leary allowed as much time as needed to discuss each idea and encouraged most students to take their ideas to the next level.

Because, as he had told the crowd earlier, there’s no better life than an entrepreneur’s. “If you want to control your own destiny, you work for yourself,” he said. “Go for it. There’s nothing better than begin able to wake up in the morning 10 years or 20 years from now and do whatever you like. It’s about freedom. That’s what matters.”

O’Leary’s visit was sponsored by the Mendoza College of Business and the Gigot Center for Entrepreneurship.