‘Shark Tank’: A Celebration of the American Dream — and of Capitalism

Rare television show to highlight the hard work and great ideas that help people make lots of money

“Shark Tank” is based on a simple premise. A group of hugely successful entrepreneurs and investors, known to the audience as “the Sharks,” sits in expensive-looking leather chairs and takes business pitches from ordinary Americans hoping to get a piece of the American Dream.

The contestants aren’t looking for free stuff, as are those on “Let’s Make a Deal” or “The Price is Right.” These contestants are different. They’re hoping to lure one of the rich guys and gals to invest in their businesses, to fund their start-ups and take them national.

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“Shark Tank,” which debuted in 2009 on ABC, started its road to ratings success slowly. But by Season 3, the show’s viewership shot past six million and started to crack the top 100 in the ratings. By 2014, the show averaged over nine million viewers per episode, becoming the most watched program on Friday nights in the coveted 18- to 49-year-old demographic. The show can now be seen almost non-stop on CNBC in the evenings, as old shows get run on what seems like a continuous loop.

Try to watch an episode and then stop watching this show — it’s that addictive.

Contestants are young and old, male and female, black and white, straight and gay, and Asian, Hispanic, and every other ethnic variety.

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What’s “Shark Tank’s” formula for success? It’s simple, actually. It’s exceedingly entertaining and exceedingly aspirational. It’s part “American Idol” and part “America’s Got Talent,” but with a twist: The contestants aren’t wannabe entertainers like Bruno Mars or Beyoncé. They’re wannabe entrepreneurs.

Every contestant wants the same thing: to get rich. And to get rich the way so many Americans who can’t sing, dance, or play a sport create wealth for themselves and their families: by running and building their own businesses.

The contestants are unapologetic about their ambitions, which is what makes “Shark Tank” so much fun. In an age in which being wealthy merits an apology, or worse, is a social stigma, the show could even be called counter-cultural.

Who are the contestants? They’re young and old, male and female, black and white, straight and gay, and Asian, Hispanic, and every other imaginable ethnic variety. And they come from every imaginable part of America, from blue states and red, big cities and rural America. Some are Republican and some are Democrats — but we never know because the show has no place for such matters. Though politics has managed to creep into almost every form of entertainment imaginable, even sports, there is no place for it on “Shark Tank.”

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For eight seasons running, fans have watched everyone from grade schoolers to senior citizens pitch the sharks. Bakers and bankers, doctors and lawyers, cops and firemen, musicians and mathematicians, surfers and scientists have all stepped into the tank with their business pitches and their dreams.

All get treated absolutely equally: equally well or poorly, that is, depending on the quality of the pitch. If the pitch is a good one, there are offers. Sometimes, the sharks even compete against one another to land a deal. Sometimes, the sharks partner on a deal they really like, and sometimes — rarely — all the sharks get together to invest in a business.

If the pitch is bad, things get ugly. And sometimes, things get funny, too. Really funny.

If the pitch is bad, things get ugly. And sometimes, things get funny, too. Really funny. But one thing is certain: On “Shark Tank,” no one gets preferential treatment because of race, class, ethnicity, sexual preference or gender, let alone location or native city. What could be more American, and more likable, than that?

The contestants enter the shark tank because they need capital, and they’re willing to trade a percentage of their business for it. That’s how precious it is to them. They’re willing to trade a piece of their dream for it.

That may be one of the most important lessons “Shark Tank” teaches. Capital is oxygen to aspiring entrepreneurs. Without it, businesses can’t grow. Regrettably, most Americans don’t know anything about capital and the role it serves in the economy. That’s because most economics teachers — and history teachers — think the way Karl Marx thought about capital. Why should rich people own a slice of any person’s business for merely investing in it? They aren’t actually doing the work. Why should they reap the rewards? It seems terribly unfair to the unsophisticated novice, and offensive to most social justice warriors.

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Sell the Marxist line at most American universities — and you’ll get lots of buyers. Sell it to the entrepreneurs on “Shark Tank” and see how far you get.

Knowledge is the hidden capital of capitalism.

The contestants know how important capital is and how hard it is to come by. That’s why they willfully and cheerfully give up so much of their businesses for what seems like just a bit of money. They know that capital is precious.

And not just the money. With that capital, with that investment from a shark, comes something equally important: experience. It’s striking how often the contestants tell their potential investors that what they want is their experience. Experience with licensing, manufacturing, distribution, inventory management, sales, marketing, and so much more. What they’re seeking isn’t just the cash of the sharks — it’s the knowledge that goes with it. And knowledge is the hidden capital of capitalism. Indeed, it is what capitalism does best: Create vast pools of knowledge no bureaucrat or central planner could ever conceive, let alone manage.

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But “Shark Tank” does more than just make capitalism cool. It makes being in the 1 percent cool, too. That’s because the cast of “Shark Tank” is so cool. And the story of each cast member is so compelling.

Take Mark Cuban. His grandparents came to America with nothing but their name — Chabenisky. They lost even that possession when the Russian-Jewish family’s name was changed at Ellis Island to a name Americans could more easily pronounce: Cuban. He grew up the son of an automobile upholsterer in a suburb of Pittsburgh and started thinking about being an entrepreneur when he was 12. He credits Ayn Rand’s “The Fountainhead” for helping him formulate his philosophy of life.

“It was incredibly motivating to me,” he told Forbes. “It encouraged me to think as an individual, take risks to reach my goals, and [take] responsibility for my successes and failures. I loved it.”

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His first experience as an entrepreneur came early, when he asked his dad for an expensive pair of sneakers while he was playing poker with some friends. “Those shoes on your feet look like they’re working pretty well,” Cuban remembered his dad told him. “If you want a new pair of sneakers, you need a job and you can go buy them.”

Cuban continued, “‘Dad, I’m 12 years old, where am I gonna get a job?'” Then one of his father’s friends chimed in, as Cuban told the story. “‘I got somethin’ for ya! I’ve got these garbage bags I need to sell. Why don’t you go out there and sell these garbage bags?'” Cuban then went door to door, handled objection after objection, and sold the bags for a profit. From then on, he was hooked: He never stopped hatching business schemes.

The highlight of his young career came as a college student in 1979 when he was a disco instructor. The bulk of his students were in sororities, and he charged $25 an hour. “Twenty-five dollars an hour! I would do that job today,” Cuban added.

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A serial entrepreneur, he eventually sold his stake in Broadcast.com, a company he started, for $5.9 billion — just before the dot-com bust.

He now owns the Dallas Mavericks, an NBA team. But don’t tell anyone who grew up with him in Pittsburgh that he got where he got through his family connections or wealth. They’d laugh at you.

Then there’s Barbara Corcoran. She was the second-oldest of 10 kids and grew up in a lower-middle-class New Jersey town. She was a poor student in the local Catholic school and worked at nearly two dozen different jobs before she graduated from college. No job, she once told a journalist, was beneath her.

While waitressing at a diner, she took a $1,000 loan from a man who would become her boyfriend. He got 51 percent of the company she started, and she got the rest. It turned out to be one of the worst decisions of her life. Years later, the man left her for another woman, and she was forced to dissolve her successful company.

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That would have stopped most people in their tracks, but not Corcoran. What motivated her to press on, she told CNN, was her ex’s final words to her as he walked 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.” And did Corcoran ever succeed: In 2001, she sold her company for a reported $70 million.

The other regular female investor on the show is Lorie Greiner. She has been dubbed the “Queen of QVC,” as she’s a master seller on the network. She’s helped launch more than 400 products and is the president and founder of For Your Ears Only, a development and marketing company.

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And then there’s Daymond John. He spent his childhood in Queens, New York, 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 spirit. After his high school graduation, he started a computer van service. But it was selling hats and clothing that would make John his fortune. He got together with friends, his mom mortgaged her home, and John started his own company. He 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.

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Also familiar to “Shark Tank” fans is Robert Herjavec. Born in Croatia, he fled Communist Yugoslavia with his family when he was eight, settling in Toronto; there, the family lived in a friend’s basement for 18 months. Herjavec was in his 20s 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. 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.

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

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That’s what makes “Shark Tank” so good and so addicting. 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 investors, struggling to acquire capital to grow their businesses.

And that’s why “Shark Tank” has become such a big hit — and an iconic show. Because it’s aspirational and inspirational. And it’s egalitarian, too. The star of the show isn’t just the cast members or the contestants. It’s the notion of dreaming big itself.

The American Dream is a co-star in the show, along with another co-star called the free enterprise system, which allows for such dreams to happen in the first place. Indeed, it may just be that capitalism itself is the biggest star of all on “Shark Tank.” And there is nothing more American than that.

“Shark Tank” airs Friday nights on ABC at 9 p.m. Eastern, 8 p.m. Central. The season finale is this Friday.

Lee Habeeb is VP of content for Salem Radio Network and host of “Our American Stories.” He lives in Oxford, Mississippi, with his wife, Valerie, and his daughter, Reagan.

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