The Trump Organization is a lot like the thousands of family businesses that dot the land, even though its current leader, Donald Trump, is a U.S. presidential candidate.
The New York-based development company, which was started in 1900 by Donald’s father, Frederick, and grandmother, Elizabeth, is at the forefront of one of the big changes at small companies: Women are increasingly taking over top leadership roles, even in traditionally male-dominated businesses.
Ivanka Trump, 33, is part of a fourth generation working their way up the company’s leadership ranks, waiting for the day when their father hands over the reins. So far, she has made it to become an executive vice president of development and acquisitions.
“I don’t think too much about the role of being a female in terms of my own company,” she said. “I just look at it as growing and learning.”
She said her father never treated her differently from her two brothers at the company, Donald Jr. and Eric.
“There are probably plenty of patriarchs that don’t think their daughters are as capable as the sons,” she said. “That’s not the case in my family.”
These attitudes are increasingly common, said Walter Kuemmerle, president of Boston-based Kuemmerle Research Group, adding that 20 years ago, there was basically zero preference for women in family businesses.
“I see more women interested and more older generations receptive to the idea of the best person taking over, rather than having a gender bias,” Kuemmerle said.
Kuemmerle has run annual meetings for young executives in family businesses for Citi Private Bank for the past few years, but this year’s was the first where more than half of the people in the room were women.
But he cautioned that the evolution was not yet complete. His best advice for women joining family businesses is to get a great education, get outside experience and do more homework than their competitors.
“As unfair as this sounds, you should be better prepared than you’d think a male would be,” he said.
A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, Ivanka Trump said she had encountered only subtle forms of gender bias.
“Certainly when people enter a negotiation with my father, they come incredibly well-prepared,” she said. “With me, particularly early in my career, that wasn’t always the case.”
Obstacles to Ascension
When Julie Smolyansky took over as chief executive officer of her family’s Lifeway Foods Inc in 2002 after her father died suddenly, it was his senior advisers who presented the biggest obstacles to her ascension. She had been working for the kefir yogurt maker for years but was only 27.
“His friends and advisers told the family, there’s no way a 27-year-old can run a company,” she said. “We needed some gray hair in the leadership.”
Wayne Rivers, president of the Family Business Institute, based in Raleigh, North Carolina, was not surprised by this viewpoint.
“One dirty little secret is that the advisers don’t like family businesses successors; they perceive that they are spoiled and entitled,” Rivers said. “It’s awful to watch, because they are prized by senior-generation family members as professional and objective. But they are human beings like everyone else, and they sometimes have an agenda.”
In the next generation, the challenges for young women entering family business may come from within themselves.
That is the view of 23-year-old business analyst Leah Klein of Chicago-based Klein Tools, which has been in her family since 1857.
“I think a lot of women think it’s a barrier if it’s a male-dominated business, but I think it’s more about them,” said Klein, who is among the sixth generation working at her company. “If a woman is interested, they have to make their choices about what they want to do for their life.”