I recently read Entertaining Entrepreneurs by Daniel Horowitz. The book is a deep dive into the show Shark Tank, examining the culture that made it a hit, the successful business people who play the investing sharks, and the contestants and their pitches. The book talked about the way the sharks present themselves as sharp individuals whose exceptional work ethic and insightfulness allowed them to become independently wealthy. With Mark Cuban on the show, I was constantly reminded of the stories about him I heard growing up. Cuban owns the Dallas Mavericks NBA team, and as a child who grew up playing basketball, his story was all around me. Cuban reportedly ate nothing but mustard sandwiches as he was trying to make it big, working hard, and living frugally. Now he is a billionaire, and his days of eating mustard sandwiches are behind him, but his discipline in his early days are what allow him to have the fabulous lifestyle he lives today.
Horowitz shows that there is much more to the story than Cuban eating cheap food at home while trying to be the hardest worker in the world. Cuban participated in a complex society, eventually selling his company to a much larger corporation, and eventually building his own massive organization behind the scenes. There is a paradox in the idea of the individual witty sharks, who are all backed up by corporate enterprises and rely on many people to propel and perpetuate their fame and status. No matter how independent they want to be, Horowitz reminds us, the sharks, and indeed everyone connected to the show, is participating in society and relies on other people to live the fabulously wealthy lives that we all dream about.
On the other end of the our socioeconomic status ladder are homeless individuals, and in the case of Elliot Liebow’s book Tell Them Who I Am, homeless women. Mark Cuban and homeless women seem like they would have nothing in common to connect them in the same blog post, but homeless women, just as Cuban, live within a larger society. No matter how poor one is, nor how wealthy one is, participating in society cannot be avoided, and that participation will in-part drive the outcomes one sees. Cuban is able to participate in society in ways that enhance his status, while homeless women cannot participate in society in ways that enhance their status. In fact, homeless women can only play one role in society, the role of the outcast who everyone is allowed to lambast. Liebow writes,
“Since homeless women are not likely to have formal credentials, social status, money, or useful social or business connections, they confront potential employers, landlords, indeed the whole world, with little more than themselves to offer for evaluation. For this reason, and more than for most of us, the way homeless women present themselves – how they look, speak, and carry themselves – makes a great difference in how they are treated by the rest of the world.”
Homeless women are not even given real opportunities for advancement as they participate in society. They cannot be separate individuals defined purely by how hard they work and whether they are willing to eat nothing but mustard sandwiches as they pinch every penny. When they show up looking for someone to help integrate them into society, they cannot change the fact that their appearance and lack of credentials tells the world they are homeless and unworthy of our respect. When this is the only way they can participate in society, it is no wonder that they never seem to improve their lives.
Cuban, and the rest of the sharks, don’t want to present themselves as depending on society in the way that homeless women do. Cuban and the sharks are fabulously wealthy, well credentialed, and well connected, but they need investors, creditors, social connections, and a public that believes the hype in order to participate in society the way they want. In the end, they are not actually that much different from homeless women – they still depend on society and the roles society allows them to play. The difference is that society has deemed them worthy and valuable, and loads them with praise, while homeless women are deemed unworthy and useless, and criticized as they are pushed away. Homeless women are unable to present themselves in a way that society rewards, but as Horowitz explains in his book, the Sharks all go through painstaking effort to present themselves in a specific way that society does reward. They are as sensitive to their presentation as the homeless women are, but they are better able to control and manipulate that presentation.