The Art of Being Barbara

UPDATED: May 22, 2023
PUBLISHED: February 12, 2013

On every episode of ABC’s hit show Shark Tank, there’s a little drama that viewers never see.

It’s when producers trot out the next contestant in front of the panel—billionaire Mark Cuban, technology innovator Robert Herjavec, branding expert Daymond John, venture capitalist Kevin O’Leary and real estate mogul Barbara Corcoran—then let them stand in silence under the lights.

“The contestants are pumped. They’re ready to pitch. Then the producer says, ‘Don’t talk to the sharks until you’re spoken to!’ ” Corcoran says. “They sit on set—being stared at!”

This interlude is valuable to Corcoran, an opportunity to do what she does well: size up each business owner to gauge whether she thinks they have the patience and willpower to withstand adversity. After all, any road to entrepreneurial success has its share of potholes, if not land mines.

She’s looking at their body language—sweating, twitching, eye contact—to see if they have The Right Stuff. Most don’t—and this is before they even open their mouths and start pitching.

“I’m out on two-thirds of them right there,” Corcoran says. “I watch how they are under pressure. Most are terrible.”

But if they get past her radar, Corcoran seeks those who are bent on success and don’t whine. One trait she does not initially look for: passion. “Everybody’s got passion when they’re dating. It’s how you feel five years into marriage that counts.”

She wants “people who could really get hurt and get back up. It’s the same quality I have looked for my whole life when hiring salespeople: Can they go through a wall and not feel sorry for themselves? I love when contestants get beaten up by the sharks. I want to see how well they come back.”

Meet Barbara Anne Corcoran, a tough, opinionated 64-year-old New Jersey chick whose mom used to kick her and her nine siblings out of bed at 7:30 a.m. on weekends and tell them to make something of themselves. “She’d say, ‘You’re wasting the day.’ ”

That make-every-moment-count advice has made Corcoran rich.

Her gut told her to dump husband No. 1, the guy Mom never liked anyway, who said she was a loser who would never make it in real estate. Corcoran showed him—big time—with the bank receipt to prove her massive 2001 payday when she sold her real estate company for a cool $66 million.

That fortune paid for a spacious $5 million Park Avenue apartment in New York City, where she lives with her husband of 27 years, Bill, their two children and Shih Tzu, Max. It enabled her to fund college scholarships for nieces and nephews, dabble in beachfront and country real estate, and risk $1.75 million on 14 entrepreneurs who persuaded her to invest in their businesses on Shark Tank.

I first met Corcoran a few years ago in the green room at ABC’s Good Morning America before we went on the air. (She has since moved to NBC’s Today, where she is the real estate contributor.) She exudes street smarts and is blunt, funny and irreverent. I marveled at the way she wowed the crowd this past summer when I invited her to speak at my Spark & Hustle conference for women entrepreneurs in New York. They loved her.

Today we are talking in the bright, two-office suite on the ground floor of her apartment building, which she shares with Bill and for which she paid a cool $950,000. It used to be a doctor’s office. Pointing conspiratorially to the thick concrete wall, she says she loves the privacy it allows her and Bill in their separate offices (not to mention the commute… an elevator ride to their apartment). She is wearing a salmon-colored sweater over a white T-shirt, dark jeans, brown loafers and dangling pearl earrings. When I decline her offer of coffee cake, she quickly moves it away. She’s a people person who thrives on conversation and camaraderie.

Her biggest Shark Tank hit to date: Pork Barrel BBQ. She hopes to turn her $50,000 investment for a 15 percent stake into a $3 million payout if and when a food giant buys the business. She’s optimistic: Pork Barrel sauces are now in 3,500 stores, and the owners are hustling to make the magic 5,000 to 7,000 mark, the threshold when big buyers start viewing a product very seriously.

But not all of her instincts have proved right: One-third of her Tank investments have failed. A common trait among those busts: bad judgment on the part of the entrepreneur. It can range from something big—an owner not being open to the possibility that he or she may be dead wrong—to them simply not having the dogged determination it takes to succeed in a startup.

Corcoran invested in one woman who founded a line of books to help kids get over fear. She had high hopes that were quickly dashed. “Phenomenal books, but I could not convince this woman that her single best source of business was trade shows. She was ‘above’ trade shows.”

All the judges on Shark Tank wear earpieces so producers can whisper suggestions to them as the drama unfolds. One directive that Corcoran frequently hears is to stay tough. Any toughness she displays, she says, should not be confused with meanness. “I have tough judgment, but a soft touch. There’s no place for meanness in business.”

Speaking of what there’s a place for, or not, I mention to her that some people think there’s no room in business for women to flirt or dress provocatively. As one of America’s top women entrepreneurs, what’s her take?

“Use what you got all the way!” she says. “You got great legs? Flaunt ’em. Have a big chest? Wear a V-neck sweater. Have big hair? Grow it long. Whatever you’ve got, play it up.”

This is what all successful women do, Corcoran says. “Talk to them, and you won’t find one who hasn’t flaunted what she has. Whatever you have—whatever you are good at, public speaking, blogging—flaunt it.”

The topic gets her going. “Men make no apology about using nature. If they’re good golfers, they’re constantly on the golf course. If they really know how to dress, they buy the expensive suit, the right tie, and then it’s winning through intimidation. They make their desk higher. Look at Donald Trump’s desk. How high is his seat? Maybe 15 feet tall. When you’re sitting across from him, you’re a Mini Me.”

Men are natural chest beaters, she says. “A guy will say he’s king of the mountain long before he gets to the top. Women feel like they have to stand there and own it for five minutes before they say, ‘I’m the queen of the mountain.’ ”

It’s her fierce connection to women, to whom she speaks frequently, which helps explain why the shuffle she faced this season on Shark Tank resonated so strongly with her. That’s when producers informed her that they were making a change: Corcoran would alternate with QVC’s Lori Greiner. One week Corcoran; the next, Greiner.

“Pi–ed!” is the one-word answer she uses to describe how she initially felt about sharing her duties. After all, no one had asked any of the men to share their seat.

As someone who had fought her way to top of a male-dominated industry, real estate, and who had been the only woman on Shark Tank for two seasons, she worried about letting women down.

Executive Producer Clay Newbill says that “when looking at the dynamic between the Sharks, we decided that splitting the episodes between the two women was the best idea.”

In the end, Corcoran agreed to the plan because it meant fewer days in the studio. That translates into more time for family vacations and the always-busy life that this salty, pixie blond ball of energy lives.

Incidentally, Newbill says he’s considering putting Greiner and Cocoran on the panel together next season.

Corcoran was hardly unknown before she joined Shark Tank. She has been doling out her savvy real estate advice for years on a variety of TV news shows, but being a regular on a hugely popular primetime network program that has drawn as many as 7.4 million viewers has raised her profile significantly.

So much so, she says, that she must allow a lot more time for anything if she steps outside, even if it’s just to get a cup of coffee or stop in the corner grocery store near her apartment.

After she spoke at my Spark & Hustle conference, women mobbed her to get a picture. As we hustled her to a waiting car—she had a plane to catch—women followed and asked questions until finally we had no choice but to close the door and let her escape.

“I can never walk a block—no, that’s not true—I can never walk two blocks without someone stopping me,” Corcoran says.

She prefers when people ask if they can have an appointment. “I can say, honestly, I don’t do appointments, but send me an email and let me give you my card. I answer all emails.”

What stumps her is when people ask if they can have a minute of her time and then—without waiting for an answer—launch right into their pitch.

“Or they tell me about their life, their struggle. I can be with my kids, with my friend, in the middle of putting a fork of food into my mouth. I can’t say, ‘I’m sorry, I’m with my family.’ They always apologize: ‘I’m sorry to interrupt you now, but… ’ and they keep going. People in their genuine enthusiasm can sometimes be inappropriate.”

Corcoran’s gift of analyzing people and situations—then acting accordingly—has helped her as a parent. For years educators told her to lower expectations for her son, Tommy, who was diagnosed with learning disabilities. She ignored them and strategically hired the best tutors. Today he’s a freshman at Columbia University, an Ivy League school.

When she was 58 Corcoran adopted a baby girl she named Kate. The moment she held the infant in her arms, “I knew something was wrong, because she didn’t grip. You know how a baby instantly cuddles? She didn’t, and I had the sickest feeling in my stomach like, ‘Oh, God, please let me have a normal baby.’ ”

Corcoran could have run from the adoption, but in an instant heard her mom’s voice saying, ‘God doesn’t give you what you can’t handle.’ Kate is now 7, and talking about her makes Corcoran light up. She spoils her rotten: “I pretty much give Kate whatever she wants.”

Corcoran says that raising children is like building a business: Pay attention to detail, surround them with the right people and be fiercely protective of what is yours.

“I make my kids feel like geniuses despite what the world is telling them. Because I have so much more to give them, it’s harder being an affluent parent and not ruining your kids. You make all those judgment calls.”

Her relationship with Bill is rock-solid but not without complications, made easier with plenty of ongoing therapy to talk it all out. When she shouts to an assistant, “Am I a terrible wife?” there’s no answer. Asked whether she feels guilty about anything, she says, “Not being a better wife.”

But the marriage works so well, Corcoran says, because the two are committed to each other and have identified the major issues between them. Bill is “phenomenally open-minded to change. He’s also a doting father. For that one trait I love him more than anything else.”

Plus, she says, as a retired Navy captain, he understands chains of command and has the patience (and no doubt good sense) to let her call the shots. “He’ll say, ‘You’d make a phenomenal admiral.’ I say, ‘I am.’ ”

For someone who appears to be all business on TV, a surprise: Corcoran spends a lot of time smelling the roses—literally. She buys flowers every day, not bouquets but mixed bunches. “I see a flower I like, I buy it.”

She also redecorates her homes on a whim. “For me, it’s like painting a canvas. If I see something in a catalog or on the street, I’m buying it and shipping it home. I’m always in the process of redesigning everything around me. I like change.”

Another extravagance is spending big money on vacations—about a dozen a year, ranging from time at her (two) beach houses on Fire Island, N.Y., to a holiday trip she takes every year with her two best friends, Lizzie and Edie.

It works like this: On Thanksgiving night, after the festivities are over, the three of them figure out the sunniest place on the planet, instantly book the trip and leave the next morning. Corcoran picks up the entire tab. It’s a great time to stay at a resort, she says, because few people book the week after Thanksgiving.

She says she owes her success to basic insecurity, which she describes as the worst thing in her life—and her best motive for success. “I have to prove that I am not stupid. Without that insecurity, I don’t think I could have ever built the business I did. I don’t think I would work as hard today. I work like I’m 20 years old. Ferociously and long hours. There’s no need: I’m rich. It doesn’t make sense.”

So how does this self-diagnosed workaholic define success?

Well, she says, there’s a man who wears a uniform and cleans floors at Today who has “the warmest, most happy smile—and two children who went through medical school. “Is he successful? You betcha. Probably more successful than anyone who walks in there day in and day out.”

She pauses. “If you can honestly feel you tried your best, whatever that best is, that you could honestly say nine out of 10 days you’re completely satisfied with the results, I would say that’s successful.”

In this audio interview with Barbara Corcoran, the Shark Tank star shares how she started her business and how to avoid the mistakes she made.

Tory Johnson is CEO and founder of Spark & Hustle, a weekly contributor on ABC's Good Morning America and a contributing editor of SUCCESS magazine.