"I think it's so ludicrous, and so frivolous, and so mindless... that it has merit."
That was shrewd venture capitalist Kevin O'Leary talking about the Gold Rush Nugget Bucket, a fun way to pan for treasure. Though he could have been talking about any number of products on the market.
Except those with merit beyond generating outsized profits.
Don't get me wrong, the Gold Rush Nugget Bucket is a great idea, and entrepreneur Mark Peterson was outstanding on ABC's Shark Tank. If my kids were younger, I'd buy one and head for our local stream.
But it followed Sseko Designs, the sandal maker that helps educate and empower women in Africa. This is a company that believes business has a role to play in making the world a better place. And that creating economic opportunities for impoverished women is as important as making money.
Sseko founder Liz Forkin Bohannon was talking about employing women in Uganda when Kevin cut her off mid-sentence with "love it, but is it cheaper than China?" He then declared Liz and her partner Ben would have to give him too much for his investment. So he was out.
Shark Tank makes for great TV. It really does. It's entertaining, the investors are smart and funny, and the deals are real. It's highly edited, but watching an entrepreneur's face fall when a Shark says "I'm out" suggests the outcomes are a surprise.
But here's the problem. However scripted it might be, the show accurately reflects the hardhearted world of venture capital. And for an inspiring business like Sseko Designs, that stinks. The Sharks compared Sseko to thousands of nameless shoe companies around the world, ignoring Liz's key point of distinction:
"Our generation is less concerned about the big brand name, and more concerned about the impact that their products have on the world. We believe if every woman in America knew about our company, we could make a massive impact for women and girls all across the globe."
Lori Greiner, hailed as the queen of QVC, shared the story of another couple who make lace boot cuffs with a business that also helps people - in their case, building orphanages in India. "Here's the difference that disturbs me" she said. "They were hyper focused on profit first... charity second. I was able to make $400,000 on $40,000. I'm a happy investor. I'm sorry to say I'm out."
I get it. I'm not naïve. But that was when I wondered whether the shark analogy fits. Maybe another creature is a better match. Piranhas are described as a small but powerful and aggressive fish with a hunger to consume whatever is foolish enough to get in its way. That works.
No one should be surprised that Sseko didn't get a dime, least of all me. As the co-founder of a social enterprise, I've been there. Not on Shark Tank, but in similar conversations. The truth is social entrepreneurs - people creating businesses that balance profit with a benefit to society - inhabit a different world than professional investors. Maybe an altogether different universe, where profit is but one of several measures of success.
And yet I tuned in with a glimmer of hope. Maybe one would invest in Sseko, revealing a willingness to consider societal good alongside personal gain. Or the show's producers might weigh in, asking them to throw a bone for increased viewership.
To their credit, the investors stayed true to their nature. Two were in for ludicrous, frivolous and mindless. None for educating and empowering women.
Here is my challenge for Barbara, Kevin, Lori, Mark, Robert and Daymond who was absent. After consuming whatever is foolish enough to get in your way over the next year, bring Sseko back for a surprise twist on the update segment. See where Liz and Ben are with their business.
Then put in $50,000 each. I think you'll find that Ben was right. You missed out on a company you can have a lot of fun being a part of.
In the meantime, I'm going to buy my wife a pair of Sseko sandals.