Mark Cuban and Jeff Flake laughing

Dallas Mavericks CEO Mark Cuban (left) and former Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake spoke at a talk hosted by the the Free Enterprise Club.

Rose Lincoln/Harvard Staff Photographer

Work & Economy

A conversation on capitalism

5 min read

Billionaire tech entrepreneur Mark Cuban discusses value of real-world education, Trump, Warren, and sexual harassment on his NBA team

Former high-tech executive and celebrity entrepreneur Mark Cuban may be one of the few people who can get away with telling a packed auditorium of Harvard Business School (HBS) students that getting an M.B.A. is a “mistake these days” — and get a round of applause in response.

The Dallas Mavericks owner, “Shark Tank” TV star, and billionaire investor is famed for his straight-talking style, which was on full display at Spangler Auditorium on Tuesday afternoon. Cuban,  was joined by Institute of Politics Resident Fellow and former Republican Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona for a conversation billed as “A Discussion on Capitalism.” But he broke from the interview format early in the hour, turning it into a spirited Q&A session with the overflow crowd.

Flake noted that Cuban at age 27 had no money in his bank account. “My net worth wasn’t zero, but my cash flow certainly was,” he said. That’s because Cuban chose to pour all of his earnings back into his first company, MicroSolutions, an experience that he said taught him more than any degree program would have. “When you live paycheck to paycheck, there are times you fall behind. There was a healthy dose of fear, but I knew that my business would grow if I kept pushing.” Getting an M.B.A. felt superfluous. “I would rather be paid to learn,” he said. “There’s not a lot you can learn in an M.B.A. program that you can’t learn online or through other mechanisms. I’m not a big fan of taking those years and spending money that you could put to better use.” (MicroSolutions was ultimately sold to CompuServe for $6 million.)

Turning to politics, Cuban had critical words for both Donald Trump and Elizabeth Warren. He called Trump “political chemotherapy. He’s put us under radiation, and we need to see if the country can survive it. But we’ve had dumb presidents doing dumb things before, and we’re still here.” As for Warren, Cuban defended a recent Twitter post criticizing her Medicare for All plan. “She knows there’s no way it will pass, and that’s why I called her out. Just throwing out something that can’t happen is as dishonest as Trump saying, ‘We’re going to build a wall, and Mexico will pay for it.’”

He did, however, support Warren’s plan to raise taxes on upper-income earners, provided that it’s put toward solving mental illness, food inequality, or other social ills. “I’m willing to pay more taxes. After military service, it’s the most patriotic thing you can do.”

“When you live paycheck to paycheck, there are times you fall behind. There was a healthy dose of fear, but I knew that my business would grow if I kept pushing.”

Mark Cuban

Asked what he learned from the 2016 election, Cuban shared some little-known information that he got from Cambridge Analytica: The Clinton campaign, he said, was planning to blanket Facebook with ads in the days before the election, but were sure enough of a win that they dropped the plan. “Then Trump swept in and bought up YouTube, and I think a good chunk of his voters came from that. So what I learned is: Until you have the check in hand, you can never be sure the deal is done.”

He was equally frank when an audience member mentioned that Cuban’s fellow “Shark Tank” panelist Kevin O’Leary had been on campus recently. “He’s an idiot, and I’d say that to his face,” Cuban said in reference to O’Leary’s opposition to a minimum-wage hike. “The American Airlines Center where the Mavs play has 1,000-plus employees, and I’m a big believer in the $15 minimum wage, because giving people more money to spend raises everyone around them.”

He was also asked whether it was more fun to own the Mavericks or to do “Shark Tank.”

“The Mavs are no fun at all right now,” he said in reference to the team’s current losing streak. “‘Shark Tank’ sends a message that the American Dream is alive and well. I can’t tell you how many millionaires we’ve created. It’s even worth putting up with Kevin O’Leary to be part of it.”

Cuban also discussed the hiring last year of Cynthia Marshall, formerly the chief diversity officer at A&T, as the first female African American NBA chief executive. The move came after a February 2018 Sports Illustrated expose of a “corrosive workplace culture” in the organization and an independent inquiry that found numerous instances of sexual harassment and improper conduct by former president and CEO Terdema Ussery and other team officials over two decades. Cuban said that Marshall’s appointment not only revitalized the team, but made him realize the value of a diverse employee base.

“I realized that diversity isn’t just a checklist,” he said “The Mavs would have 40-year-old white guys trying to sell tickets to Hispanic moms, instead of taking advantage of the diversity available to us. If you can take advantage of that skillset you get an advantage, since most companies won’t do it.”