This story is part of the Behind the Desk series, where CNBC Make It gets personal with successful business leaders to learn everything from how they got where they are to what gets them out of bed in the morning. to their daily routines
There’s a lot you might not know about Kevin O’Leary.
Maybe you didn’t know that ABC’s “Shark Tank” star investor grew up dyslexic. Or, maybe you didn’t know he got his financial chops from his Lebanese mother, who he says was “kept a secret [bank] account of her two husbands, all her life.”
You might think he’s mean, largely because of his TV persona. O’Leary disputes this assertion. “People call me mean. I don’t think I’m mean,” O’Leary, 67, told CNBC Make It.
Instead, says O’Leary, he’s simply following the advice he received as a teenager from his late mother Georgette: Never lie and you’ll never have to remember what you said. “In other words, I tell it as I see it,” he says.
O’Leary attributes this honesty, even when it hurts, to his success – dating back to his first entrepreneurial venture, a company called Softkey Software that he launched from his Toronto basement in 1986. then spun off into educational software company The Learning Company, which O’Leary and his co-founders sold to Mattel for $4.2 billion in 1999.
Since then, O’Leary has invested in and advised a large number of companies, crowdfunding start-up StartEngine to “Shark Tank” companies like DrainWig and Wicked Good Cupcakes. He is also a bestselling author who serves as Chairman of ETF O’Shares.
The road to get there has been far from easy, he says – from losing his father at the age of seven to multiple business mistakes along the way. Here, O’Leary talks about growing up with dyslexia, the moment that made him a lifelong entrepreneur, and why he really isn’t that bad.
I had severe dyslexia when I was young. I started falling behind in school in math and reading. But I was very lucky to enter an experimental program at McGill University.
It was run by two professors, Sam Rabinovich and Marjorie Golick, now legendary in dyslexia. They taught me that I didn’t really have a disability. I had a super power.
At that age, the idea was to reduce my anxiety – because I could actually read a book upside down in the mirror in front of my class. This is one of the characteristics of some dyslexics. Once I showed them I could do it, that’s how I started reading until it resolved itself.
There are many examples of dyslexics who did well in later business. But they have to overcome the attributes.
Every time I talk to successful entrepreneurs, there’s a moment in their life that changes their direction. For me, it was getting kicked out of Magoo’s Ice Cream Parlor as an ice cream scoop.
It was the first and only job I ever had. I was fired the first day because I didn’t understand the idea of the employee-employer relationship. I accepted this position only because I wanted to be close to this girl who interested me. She worked at the shoe store across the mall.
On the first day of work, the owner said: “The floor is completely covered with rubber. You have to scrape it off before you leave and you have to do it every day. I said, “I can’t do that.” I was afraid the girl across the mall would see me on my knees, and that was bad for my brand. So she fired me, and that was the last job I ever had.
I learned that I can’t work for anyone. I have to control my own destiny. I am not against [the concept of] being an employee, but I can’t [personally] do it. This was the direction of my ambition from that day forward.
On the source of her financial chops: ‘My mum…was very adamant about making sure she could take care of herself and her family’
I think it has a lot to do with my Lebanese mother. In the Lebanese family hierarchy, the matriarchs run the show and so does her grandmother. They set the tone for the family.
My mother was fiercely independent. She wanted her own financial pillar for herself. I think I inherited that from her: she was very demanding to make sure she could take care of herself and her family.
She wasn’t an analyst or anything. But when she died, the executor called me and said, “You have to get down here. Your mother died a very wealthy woman.”
I had no idea she kept a secret account of her two husbands all her life. That’s how she worked.
I go back to something my mom taught me when I was a teenager: “Never tell a lie, and you’ll never have to remember what you said.” I didn’t practice it then, but I’ve certainly realized the merit of it now.
I tell it as I see it. A lot of people disagree with me, but it’s those who disagree with me who get into dialogue and debate, and I think that’s very healthy.
I know that earned me the “nasty” tag on “Shark Tank.” But when a deal is really shitty, you should tell them the truth. Sometimes it’s very difficult, but I find people can smell the bull —- a mile away on social media. You have to be honest, and I think that’s engaging [people].
I have a very big [following], and I’m very interested in what they think. I ask them all the time when I want to decide something. As long as you don’t harass them, they’ll be with you for life.