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The Ugly Entrepreneur

November 23, 2009

There was an employment discrimination case several years ago involving one of the major television networks. The employee alleged that although qualified, she was denied an anchor spot on the evening news because she didn’t have the “right appearance”. The network’s position was that she wasn’t qualified.

That’s a tough position to be in for anybody. If you win somebody has judged you to be ugly, if you lose they determined you to be incompetent As I recall the court went on to declare her the winner and the critics subsequently made her a two time loser.

The fact of the matter is that when you’re not your own boss appearances do make a lot of difference. Maybe if you’re ugly you should stay out of the public eye until you become a successful entrepreneur.

If looks were a factor it’s debatable whether entrepreneurs like Donald Trump and Ross Perot would have amassed their fortunes. Or how about one of the most public of our business leaders, auto executive Lee Iacocca?

Each of these three regularly appear in the public eye and their opinions are listened to with great reverence. Had they not had their millions behind them I doubt that their pronouncements would attract much attention. Perhaps the conclusion could be drawn that if you don’t have the looks that fit the public perceptions, make lots of money and then no matter how ugly you are, people will listen.

If you take the route of the ugly entrepreneur, timing is important. It’s important not to start attracting the attention until things are on the upswing.

Trump began by gambling with his fathers real estate empire, fortunately for him it was during a time of escalating inflation and real estate paid handsomely. Iacocca was once a disposed executive. Before telling everybody that would listen how to run General Motors, Perot had more than a couple of years when he himself lost hundreds of millions at a crack. But if you have enough money, we’ll listen regardless of what you look like or what you have to say.

Take the recent case of the Supreme Court nominees. Both sides of the debate would not dispute the fact that Judge Bork had a distinguished legal background. But was it his legal work or his looks that doomed his nomination?

Gregory Peck, who, by any standards, would be a leading candidate to play a Supreme Court Justice were they casting a movie, narrated a scathing and effective advertisement against the Bork nomination. If a guy that looked like Bork had done the TV commercial and if a nominee with Bork’s record looked like Gregory Peck, do you think the outcome would have been different?

Another recent televised hearing matched a congressional committee against a lone witness. The public interrogators were primed for the witness. They had announced their intentions to tear this guy apart. If he had looked like Judge Bork, they probably would have.

But this witness was a steely eyed, decorated Marine Lt. Colonel. He looked the part. Even Gregory Peck couldn’t have played the role better. Had he shown up in civilian clothes or hadn’t fitted the public’s perception of what a dedicated Marine should look like, the results of that hearing might have been much different.

Trump, Perot and other successful entrepreneurs were able to get started and be successful on their merits and not on their appearances. Maybe being an entrepreneur is the right answer for talented people like Judge Bork. Why beat yourself over the head if you don’t fit the role model. As an entrepreneur it’s performance that counts.

Of course there are some exceptions. I’m sure that there are at least a few cookie bakers out there that feel that appearances have too much to do with selling cookies. Who really thinks the success of Mrs. Fields cookies has more to do with taste than looks?

“Bake a better cookie and the world will beat a path to your door” goes the American dream. That’s what the twenty year old ex-ski bunny Debbie Fields set out to do. Only problem was that nobody showed up to buy the cookies. That’s when the attractive Mrs. Fields adopted an effective strategy. When she personally distributed free samples, everybody followed her back to her door. I wonder if the two hundred and twenty five pounder that makes the best cookies I have ever eaten would attract such a following.

I guess appearances probably make can make a difference everywhere. Because it’s your business project the right appearance and remember to look beyond appearances to find the smart cookies.

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