Sunday night marked the season premiere of our favorite unofficial business school that has provided us with what we tell our parents is an M.B.A.-adjacent degree. Shark Tank arrived in a blaze of glory with two new episodes that saw guest sharks Richard Branson and Vitamin Water and Bai marketing guru Rohan Oza, and what appeared to be a shiny new set. It now has all the more room for a kidpreneur to skateboard in. While most people will probably be talking about the moment when Richard Branson and Mark Cuban threw water in each other’s faces (really lending an aquarium feeling to the metaphorical shark tank), the most contentious part of the episode actually occurred when Cuban referred to entrepreneur Yunha Kim as a “gold digger.” Even though the billionaire walked his way back from the declaration, the term is fraught with negatively gendered connotations.
Kim, who has an impressive background that includes Stanford Business School as well as selling a previous company, was on Shark Tank to pitch her meditation app, Simple Habit. She was asking for an extremely high buy-in for an extremely small amount of equity ($600,000 for a mere 5% stake in the business). The $12 million valuation she was putting on Simple Habit was, for Shark Tank, probably one of the highest ever. She felt it was worth it, though, because she already had a built-in user base and other investors. Kim knows she has a hit on her hand, especially given the popularity of apps like Calm and Headspace.
For Mark Cuban, that’s where it all fell apart. Kim was having trouble explaining why she needed to get a shark involved with her business when she already had plans to get other celebrities and influencers involved. There's also the matter of her prior rounds of investments and the fact that she’s coming from Silicon Valley, a place the investors on Shark Tank are notoriously wary of. (“The Valley takes over,” Cuban groaned when Kim started her pitch.) They usually feel like the entrepreneurs are pitching into the publicity void, since they’re already set for money.
Cuban felt that Kim had the cash, and she was working on securing the celebrity endorsements, so why was she taking up the time of hungrier entrepreneurs who didn’t have a proven track record of turning products and ideas into proven businesses? “You’re a gold digger,” he told Kim. She looked absolutely shocked.
He later tried to backtrack. “It wasn’t a personal issue. It was more about coming here, not really wanting a deal, but looking to get the commercial.” In Cuban’s opinion, Kim was only on Shark Tank to raise awareness for Simple Habit. She didn’t actually need to get an investment from any of the sharks.
Robert Herjavec wasn’t having it. “I think that sounds pretty personal,” he said, later adding, “I think it’s so disrespectful to say you’ve done a great job of raising money that you don’t deserve to be here. Anybody that can make it here deserves to be here, so welcome to the shark tank.”
Richard Branson chimed in, saying that the show is for all kinds of people with different businesses and backgrounds.
The comment still hung in the air, however, for the rest of the pitch. Would a man ever call another man a gold digger? It’s a term that’s extremely gendered, suggesting a vapid, conniving woman who pursues money and material wealth through any available opportunity. Kim was there seeking an investment in her business; she never deserved to have a dismissive phrase applied to her to minimize her wants and desires, which were valid and exactly the reason inventors go on Shark Tank.
After Kim left the tank without an investment, Cuban again tried to explain away his comments. He seemed to know they were perceived as sexist by the other sharks, and would be perceived the same way by viewers.
“When I called this woman a gold digger, it wasn’t a disrespect to her or her company or what she’s been able to accomplish. It was the fact that she didn’t care if she got a deal. We see it all the time,” he said. The other sharks didn't seem to be in agreement with his defense.
On social media, Kim chose to rise above his comments, focusing on thanking Richard Branson for his support.
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