After decades as a successful philanthropic fundraiser and strategic advisor, Val Jones K’79 can face a shark or a dinosaur with aplomb. She and her husband, “Dino” Don Lessem, won over billionaire Mark Cuban when they appeared in May on ABC’s Shark Tank season finale to pitch an investment in Lessem’s company.
Dino Don, Inc. creates and exhibits life-size, accurate robotic dinosaurs. It’s a passion for Lessem, who was dinosaur advisor for Steven Spielberg’s first Jurassic Park movie, has written more than 40 books about the prehistoric beasts, and led excavations in Mongolia and elsewhere.
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Besides running her own consulting firm, Jones is an advisor for Dino Don. When Lessem was invited to audition for the wildly popular show and made the cut, Jones was there as his numbers person. As reinforcements, the couple brought along two large, occasionally mouthy, dinosaurs. Cuban was the only investor who wanted in on the business, agreeing to contribute $500,000 and a team of marketing advisors in return for 25 percent of the company.
Jones, a Kirkland art and archaeology major who also studied theatre, didn’t suffer from nerves when the show was taped and appeared completely at ease. “I’m hard to intimidate. This was not the biggest ask I’ve pitched. I’ve secured multi-million-dollar gifts for nonprofits, so it’s all a matter of zeros. The question is, does it make sense?” she says.