INTRODUCTION: GET OVER IT
You can’t build a reputation on what you are going to do.
In business, as in life, nothing is ever handed to you.
That might sound like a line coming from someone with a back-story like mine—and a load!—but if you know me and my family, you’ll understand that I come by these words honestly. Yes, I’ve had the great good fortune to be born into a life of wealth and privilege, with a name to match. Yes, I’ve had every opportunity, every advantage. And yes, I’ve chosen to build my career on a foundation built by my father and grandfather, so I can certainly see why an outsider might dismiss my success in our family business as yet another example of nepotism.
But my parents set the bar high for me and my brothers. They gave us a lot, it’s true, but they expected a lot in return. And you can be sure we didn’t rise to our positions in the company by any kind of birthright or foregone conclusion. My father is definitely not the kind of guy who’d place his children in key roles within his organization if he didn’t think we could surpass the expectations he had for us. You see, in the Trump household, it was never just about meeting the expectations of others. It was about exceeding them. It was about surprising people. And being the best. Anything less was second-rate, which probably explains one of my biggest worries starting out—that I would merely be competent at my job in the Trump Organization. Good enough, and nothing more.
I can still remember how anxious I felt, how completely out of my element, when I was appointed to the board of directors of Trump Entertainment Resorts, the parent corporation of our casino operations in Atlantic City. Realize, this was no closely held family business. It was a public company, so there was enormous pressure to prove that I belonged. Some of that pressure was real, and some of it was imagined—but that didn’t make it any less terrifying. I can still remember walking over to my first board meeting at the law offices of Weil, Gotshal & Manges, feeling incredibly nervous the whole way. It was just a five-minute walk, but that was more than enough time to think through every worst-case scenario. It didn’t help that just before I left my office someone pointed out that I was about to become the youngest director on the board of a publicly traded company in the United States; I had enough to worry about already. I was twenty-five years old, just a year or so into my tenure at Trump, about to sit around a conference table with a group of middle-aged men—some of whom, I’m sure, would be wondering what the hell I was doing there. On some level I knew that I’d been tapped to represent the voice of a younger generation and to represent my family’s interests in the company that bore our brand. But on another, I worried that I’d be exposed as a kid in over her head. My formal appointment was still subject to board approval, and I still had to apply for a gaming license and gain other clearances, but I vowed on that uneasy walk that I would never give these people a reason to question the value I brought to the table.
The whole way over to that meeting, it felt to me as if my appointment to the board was stacked all the way against me: I was young and inexperienced; I was a woman; and I was Donald Trump’s daughter. (It might appear as if this last would be a plus, but I didn’t see it counting for a whole lot in my favor; if anything, it might have given the impression that I had been tapped only for some vague public relations value.) Growing up with two brothers, I’d watched enough baseball to know that you get only three strikes, so I might have counted myself out before I even stepped to the plate. But then I realized that what some people might regard as a negative, others might see as a strength. Maybe my relative youth and inexperience would help me offer a fresh take. Maybe the board needed a young woman’s perspective. Maybe the fact that I was Donald Trump’s eyes and ears on the board, as I was at the Trump Organization and on his reality television show, would make me uniquely qualified to offer insights and strategies for positioning the three Trump-branded casinos that were the primary assets of the company.
In any case, it was overwhelming. Intimidating. So how did I handle it? I dug in, breathed deep, and vowed to do whatever it took to show my new colleagues on the board and the company’s management team that I added real value. And merely belonging wouldn’t quite cut it, in my estimation. I was determined to play an integral role. I might be nervous, but I wouldn’t show it. I might be intimidated, but I wouldn’t show it. I might even be a bit overmatched, in my first few meetings, but I’d get up to speed before long. And sure enough, that’s just what happened. By the end of that first meeting, most of my anxieties fell away, and I walked back to my office in Trump Tower feeling as if I had made a contribution, after all. As if I would make an even greater contribution going forward.
Let’s face it, when you come from a place where good enough is not quite good enough, you’re bound to push yourself. You’re disinclined to take anything for granted. And you’re not about to be dismissed just because someone might think you’ve had an unfair advantage. These days, I try not to let it bother me when someone jumps to conclusions about my abilities. I have a tough skin and enough confidence not to worry too much about being underestimated because of my last name, my relative youth, or my modeling background. It comes with the territory. I’ve reached the point where I know I’m no lightweight. I’m perfectly capable of separating my colleagues and associates from this type of snap judgment when it comes up—which happens less and less these days, I’m happy to report.
The message I put out to people who are prepared to write me off before even meeting with me: get over it. It’s the same message I used to give to myself whenever I spent too much time worrying what people would think of me or how I’d risen to my position in the company or what attributes I brought to the table. I’d catch myself agonizing along these lines and think, Just get over it, Ivanka. Or, It’s not your problem, it’s theirs. After all, I eventually realized, we’ve all got our own baggage. Whatever we do, whatever our backgrounds, we’ve all had some kind of advantage somewhere along the way. Some break that might have gone to someone else. Some edge or inside track we couldn’t have counted on.
CONSIDER THE STAGGER
As long as I’m on that inside track, I might as well work that metaphor a bit more to make my point. That perceived lead I might have had starting out? It’s like the stagger you see in a middle-distance event at a track meet. You know, where the runners line up in a stepping-stone way in their separate lanes, the runner in the outside lane well ahead of the field before the starting gun goes off, the runner in the inside lane well behind. It’s set up that way so that each runner covers the same ground before she reaches the first straightaway, but it has the appearance of being an advantage. In truth, the only advantage is psychological; each runner ends up covering the same ground by the end of the race. With me, it probably looked as if I were in the outside lane, way ahead of the rest of the pack before the race even started. But I still had to run the distance. I still had to go to school, learn the basics, develop my own style, make and support my own...