Long before he was a successful businessman or Shark Tank’s “Mr. Wonderful,” Kevin O’Leary was a groom who couldn’t pay for a reception. “We couldn’t afford a fancy wedding. We had a beer at the house and ordered pizza — [and ate it] on just paper plates,” he confides to Closer. “Same gal today,” he adds of his wife, Linda, “so I know she’s not after me because of my success!”
Of course, the Canadian businessman has come a long way. He grew the Learning Company out of a basement, turning it into a profitable business venture that eventually sold for big bucks. That set Kevin on a path to helping other new entrepreneurs as an investor. Today, he sits alongside fellow business gurus Lori Greiner, Barbara Corcoran, Daymond John, Robert Herjavec and Mark Cuban on Shark Tank.
What was your childhood like?
“I had an unusual upbringing, although I didn’t think it was unique. My biological father died when I was very young, and my mother married a man who was an engineer and later became an expert for the United Nations. So, if a country wanted to build a water system or develop some other resource, he would be sent there for two years and help the government build these facilities. So, Cyprus, Cambodia, Tunisia, Ethiopia — every 24 months, I moved. It was a remarkable childhood. When we got to Cambodia — a very, very beautiful country — it was in the throes of the Vietnam War.”
Your love of cooking is well known. Did all the moving around as a child influence your love of food?
“Yes. The French colonized Cambodia, so a lot of the French cuisine was adapted, but when it’s 110 degrees by 11 o’clock in the morning, you can’t use heavy creams and butter; you have to modify. I would go to the market before sunrise, and everything was fresh. I learned how to use different flavors to achieve excellent results in the kitchen. Today, I spend a lot of my weekend cooking because I enjoy it. It is entirely different from the stress of business: creative, family-oriented and fun.”
Do you have a go-to dish you like to make?
“Chicken. It is the lowest-cost protein in America. I cook two birds each weekend in a different style. It is the best deal you can have, period. Most people say, ‘Oh, I’m just going to buy the wings or thighs or breast.’ You’re paying up to 40 percent more for those pieces instead of a whole chicken. You just have to learn how to put a bird in the oven. It’s economical because you can feed your family for an entire week. The chicken you make for Sunday dinner will make its way into sandwiches and salads all week. That is why I invested in the Turbo Trusser on Shark Tank.”
Do a lot of your decisions to invest in something come from personal experience?
“Yes, I seem to be the person people go to with food products because they know how much I love to cook. The Turbo Trusser was a no-brainer. I knew right away it was the solution to trussing a bird. Most people don’t realize the importance of getting the bird to cook evenly, and that product achieves those results. When the Bertello Pizza Oven was demonstrated on Shark Tank a few years ago, it reminded me of our wedding. I bought that deal, and now it’s America’s top-selling pizza oven.”
Does it feel satisfying to help other entrepreneurs make their dreams a reality on Shark Tank?
“Shark Tank is supportive of entrepreneurship. It takes entrepreneurs and helps them launch their businesses. It’s good for investing, it’s good for America, and it creates jobs. I invest millions of dollars in things, and I understand that I can lend my name to a wonderful product. It feels good. Everything I invest in, I have personally used.”
At what point did you call yourself a success?
“I remember my first company, the Learning Company, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It started in my basement years earlier. People called it an overnight success, yet it took 15 years. About nine of us were core founders, and one day we woke up and somebody wanted to buy our company for $4.2 billion.”
That had to be a “pinch me” moment!
“I couldn’t believe it. But that was not what was on my mind when we ran the business. We were so passionate about what we were doing. We were advancing reading and math skills and building fundamental values. It wasn’t about money. It was the pursuit of personal freedom and the essence of the American dream. I’ve talked to other men or women on the same journey who said the same thing.”
Have you ever cooked for the other sharks on Shark Tank?
“I have cooked for Barbara Corcoran. She’s also an excellent cook. We often get together and eat at her place. I tell her she only gets to the Shark Tank set each year because I buy her a new broom. Please put that in the article!”
You are naughty! Is there anything you know now that you wished you knew then?
“I wish that I had eaten better when I was younger. I mean, there was no reason to eat all that [garbage]. I never even thought about what I was sticking in my body. Now, I don’t eat sugar. I don’t eat salt. I don’t eat anything that I can’t pronounce. I look at every ingredient. That’s why I don’t eat any processed foods. Shop for yourself, make your food and you will live an extra 20 years.”
You’ve achieved an awful lot in your career. What is next?
“Being on Shark Tank opened so many doors all around the world for me, so I’m very appreciative. All the sacrifices I made, particularly involving my family and kids [were worth it]. Right now, we enjoy the freedom I could never have ever dreamt up. I can do whatever I want because I can afford to. When I got married, I had nothing. So now my attitude is to be thankful and to give others opportunities as I have had. That’s the whole idea.”