Power Players

How this 'Shark Tank' judge went from scraping gum at McDonald's to starting a venture fund with billionaire Stephen Ross

Eric McCandless | Getty

Anyone who gets to appear as a guest judge on "Shark Tank" has made it pretty big, from Major League Baseball star-turned-investor Alex Rodriguez to Bethenny Frankel of "Real Housewives of New York City." Even Ring founder Jamie Siminoff, who appeared as a contestant in 2013 (he later sold the company to Amazon for $1 billion), returned to the show as a judge.

Sunday's guest judge, Matt Higgins, is no exception. Higgins is the CEO and co-founder of private investment firm RSE Ventures with real estate mogul and Miami Dolphins owner Stephen M. Ross, who is worth $7.7 billion according to Forbes. The firm invests in buzzy companies across sports (like the Drone Racing League), entertainment (like NextVR), media (like Gary Vaynerchuk's VaynerMedia) and food and lifestyle (like Momofuku and Bluestone Lane).

But Higgins didn't start out controlling hundreds of millions of dollars and partnering with the likes of Ross, Vaynerchuk and David Chang. His first job was scraping gum off the bottoms of chairs in the playroom of a New York City McDonald's.

"I had the undignified job of scraping it off," Higgins tells CNBC Make It. "But I would sort of geek out on it, right? Like, how long would it take for that gum to fill up again, how quickly can I scrape the gum off, and how quickly can a 5-year-old replace it?"

And that caught the attention of his bosses.

"What happened was, somebody out of the corner of their eye was noticing this 14-year-old kid who was just geeking out on scraping the gum off the bottom of the chair," he recalls. "And within nine months, I was managing the maintenance function in the party room."

It taught Higgins an invaluable lesson about success: "What I have found throughout my life, is if I work hard enough to make myself indispensable at whatever menial function, that somebody would notice and they would give me the next opportunity," Higgins says. "Because really, all you're doing when you're hiring someone for a job is you're solving a problem. And if you demonstrate to your employer you can solve that problem, they're going to give you a bigger problem."

Self-made superstar

Higgins was born and raised by a single mom in Queens, New York. They were poor back then, and he considered government cheese a gourmet meal. His mother experienced health issues, and she eventually ended up in a wheelchair.

Eric McCandless | Getty

At 16, Higgins dropped out of high school to get his GED. He wanted out of poverty and into college, fast. He worked during the day and took classes at night, while also caring for his mother. It took him seven years, but Higgins graduated from Queens College with a degree in political science. At the time, he was also reportedly an award-winning investigative reporter at the Queens Tribune, according to a 2018 profile in the Miami Herald.

One of his articles attracted the attention of people working with then-New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, the Miami Herald reports, and in 2001 (at 26-years-old), he was named the youngest press secretary in New York City history.

That same year, he helped manage the global response to the press in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. Just like his first job at McDonald's, Higgins proved he was capable of handling bigger problems. He became the chief operating officer of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, helping rebuild the World Trade Center site.

In 2004, he took a job with the New York Jets, receiving a reported two promotions in four years, and served as the executive vice president of business operations, and at 33 years old, landed a spot on Crain's New York 40 Under 40 ranking. When he was diagnosed with cancer in 2007, the New York Times reported he only took one day off of work.

He became widely-known as a respected sports executive and hard worker to boot. He had even been dubbed as Jets' owner Woody Johnson's "right-hand man."

Time for the next chapter

After working for the Jets for eight years, Higgins co-founded RSE Ventures in 2012 with Ross, who is the owner of the Miami Dolphins and a billionaire New York real estate mogul.

Now, he serves as CEO, and has co-founded enterprises including the International Champions Cup, a global pre-season soccer tournament that garners millions of viewers, and the public relations firm Derris, which represents high-profile clients like Warby Parker and Crate & Barrel. Higgins also currently serves as the vice chairman of the Miami Dolphins.

Through it all, that persistence that defined Higgins as a 14-year-old has stuck with him — and it adds plenty of color to his biggest piece of advice for young people.

"Make yourself indispensable at whatever it is that you're doing at this moment in time, right now," Higgins says. "I think that the problem that people make, either because they're impatient or because what they're doing is not very enjoyable, they look past what they're doing now to what they want to do next, not realizing that the path to what you want to do next is exactly what you're doing."

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