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Credit: Barbara Corcoran

The Shark That Took a Bite Out of New York Real Estate

“Don’t worry about it. You have a wonderful imagination, you’ll learn to fill in the blanks.” That is what a stay-at-home mom told her twelve-year-old daughter, an undiagnosed dyslexic, when she found out that she was being called ‘the dumb kid’ at school. That little girl was Barbara Corcoran and she likely never imagined that she would one day be a real estate mogul and the star of a hit television show on ABC called Shark Tank.

In a LinkedIn post a couple of years back, Corcoran said dyslexia made her a millionaire. “My teachers and classmates constantly calling me dumb only made me more determined to prove myself. Self-doubt makes you overprepare so you can’t caught with your pants down! I worked harder than anyone to overcome my “weakness” and it’s a large part of my success,” she wrote.

Before Corcoran got the role as ‘Shark,’ investing her own money in startups that pitch their companies on each episode, she first had to rise through the ranks of the New York real estate world. To do this, Barbara famously used a $1,000 loan from a boyfriend to start her own brokerage in 1973 selling low-end apartments on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. That small brokerage grew, thanks to her innovative approach to the property industry. She became known for her cheery smile and bright suits but she was also a calculating marketer who would negotiate for cheap, short-term space on billboards and building wraps. She would invent creative marketing stunts, like getting media coverage of breaking open a forgotten safe in the basement of a building she was selling (it ended up being empty but served its purpose none-the-less).

In addition to clever marketing, Corcoran would also push to change the nature of the real estate industry to be more open with listing data, her own early foray into technology,, failed during the dot com bust in the 90s but did set the stage for the online era of real estate. Maybe most importantly, she did her best to create a fun work environment, in contrast with the competitive Glengarry Glen Ross style brokerages of the time, in order to poach the best brokers from other shops. 

All of these paid off big and she eventually sold her brokerage for $66 million in September of 2001 (the contract was signed on September 9th). Since then she has become a celebrity, speaking at events, advocating for dyslexia, writing for popular publications, and of course being a shark. She often talks about her disability and her humble upbringing as important character builders, hopefully inspiring others like her to follow their imagination, no matter how grandiose it might be. 

The thing that I find most appealing about Barbara Corcoran is the way that she has created her business to match her personality, not the other way around. Corcoran is surely a shrewd business woman—real estate can be a cutthroat industry—but by most accounts she conducts herself with a cheery, welcoming attitude that flies in the face of the win-at-all-cost mentality prevalent in the property industry. She has never allowed dyslexia to limit her and she has unapologetically embraced her feminine qualities. Corcoran is a great example of someone that succeeded because of these traits, not in spite of them.

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