At a media event years ago, I sat with other cast members of the then-newly launched Shark Tank. In the audience there were about a hundred journalists. When it came time for questions, there were none. To the entertainment industry, business was boring and no one cared.
Two week ago, in Pasadena, California, I sat on the same panel. The size of the press pool in attendance had tripled, and a moderator was required to control the stream of questions. They wanted to know how a reality television show based on starting a business could possibly become the number-one show in America on Friday nights. Why would family viewers by the millions, many as young as 10 years old, be drawn to such a subject? What had changed?
America has changed.
A generation ago, it was a safe bet to get an education, take a job in a large company, buy a house, start a family, and then retire with a pension. It was a straight route to a good life. Those days are over. The recent global financial crisis has been a wake-up call to a new generation of Americans and Canadians, who now see the risks of starting a new company as about the same as working for a large existing one.
The entrepreneurial spirit is back in North America, and not a second too soon. It’s what made both America and Canada great in the past, and it will do so again.
As a young entrepreneur in the early 1990s, I moved to Boston to build my business. At that time, there was no place on earth that coveted the entrepreneurial sprit more than the United States. Names like Bain Capital were not terms of abuse back then. That firm, along with private equity companies such as Thomas H. Lee, provided the hundreds of millions of dollars my colleagues and I needed to build our company. I am proud to call Mitt Romney and the executives of those other private equity firms partners.
Together, we created thousands of American and Canadian jobs as we built SoftKey, and then the Learning Company, into the global leader of educational software. It was the classic entrepreneurial dream: a company started in a Toronto basement on Shaw Street with a $10,000 loan from my mother eventually sold for $4.2-billion. The talented executives went on to start and build more companies, and today you can find their financial DNA imbedded in hundreds of start-ups and operating success stories. This is the essence of what makes capitalism great.
Today, I am horrified when I hear politicians on both sides of the border vilify business leaders. Calling a CEO a “fat cat” degrades the hopes and dreams of millions of young men and women who have a burning desire to be successful. Every large business started as a small one, and as it grew provided the jobs and economic energy that sustains the North America economy.
As an investor, I now travel the world looking for opportunities. Over the last two decades, I have met with many foreign business executives. As U.S. President Barack Obama enters his second term, I have to give him credit for restoring the American “brand.” But if the American capitalist brand is alive and well outside the country, at home in the United States it is fighting a battle with politicians and the anti-big-business media.
I was recently stopped in an airport by a 10-year-old girl. Her mother was panting and out of breath trying to catch up to her. The 10-year-old asked me: “Are you that mean man on that business show?” “Yes,” I said, “but I’m not mean; I just tell the truth.” She responded: “I am coming on the show.” I asked her why she wanted to do that. Her answer? “I have an idea, and I want to be free.”
Her words caught me off guard. This young seeker of financial freedom had wisdom beyond her years. She had already made the connection between success as an entrepreneur and the personal freedom it could provide. She and her generation will save the soul of business.
Politicians and the popular press may have forgotten about the merits of capitalism, but the people have not.
Kevin O’Leary is chairman of O’Leary Funds and Mortgages, and a cast member of CBC’s Dragon’s Den and The Lang O’Leary Exchange, and ABC’s Shark Tank.