Square One: How trailblazing women got their start

Thu Jul 3, 2014 11:49am EDT

(The writer is a Reuters contributor. The opinions expressed are his own.)

By Chris Taylor

NEW YORK, July 3 (Reuters) - Since last fall, Reuters has asked prominent achievers about the first job they ever had. From Mia Hamm to Margaret Atwood, Bob Schieffer to Tavis Smiley, they have shared their memories about the humble beginnings of their careers.

This month we talk about some extraordinary American women. They came from very different places and followed different paths, but all ended up at places of impressive achievement.

Temple Grandin

Professor, Colorado State University; autism activist and subject of HBO movie "Temple Grandin"

First job: Apprentice dressmaker

"I was 13 years old at the time, growing up in Massachusetts, and my mother set it up so I would work for a lady who did sewing out of her house. She was a freelance dressmaker, in her 50s at the time. I was actually pretty good at helping her, since I had played with a toy sewing machine ever since the fourth grade.

"Originally I was just a volunteer, but she liked me so much she started paying me a little something. Eventually, I made enough money to buy myself two hideous striped shirts. My mother really hated them, and 'accidentally' lost them in the laundry.

"My next job was cleaning horse stalls while I studied at Hampshire Country School in New Hampshire. I had to clean eight stalls every day, and take the horses out and feed them. I basically ran the horse barn, and I was very proud of that. It was such hard work, and I had to be very responsible at a young age.

"That's something kids aren't learning today: The discipline of having a job, and doing it well."

Sallie Krawcheck

Chair, Ellevate Asset Management and Ellevate Network

First job: File clerk

"My dad is a sole practitioner lawyer in Charleston, South Carolina. Starting in the fourth grade, I would spend my entire day in a small, windowless filing room, doing things like alphabetizing and putting labels on folders. It was all for 25 cents an hour: 'One shiny round quarter,' as my dad used to say.

"One of the main benefits was that I got to have lunch with dad every day. I grew up in a family of four kids, with only 3 years and 11 months between us all. To get alone time with my dad in that environment was a big deal.

"Just last summer I visited his office, and saw that same damn file room with my same damn handwriting on them. At one point I said, 'Seriously, dad? When are you really going to need files from 1972?'

"We were of pretty modest means, and one day our family's water heater broke. So I used the money I made from filing - and babysitting, for $1 an hour - and lent it to them to fix the water heater, probably a couple hundred bucks. I don't even remember if I charged them interest.

"I always describe myself as working harder than anybody I know, and I guess it started in the fourth grade. I got up early, I didn't complain - I just did it."

Ivanka Trump

Executive Vice of Development & Acquisitions, The Trump Organization

First job: Construction-site intern

"I was around 16, and I shadowed the foreman one summer during the construction of Trump World Tower. I would go to the job site every day in my boots, my jeans and my hardhat. It was a great learning experience for me, and I got to understand everything from the vocabulary of construction to all the logistics involved. But I'm sure I added absolutely no value.

"At the time, it was the largest residential building in the world, at 93 stories high. I remember climbing up the tower crane, overlooking all of Manhattan. It was an unbelievable thing.

"My father realizes that everything is best learned from the ground up. Great builders are always on-site, spending time in the actual building. It's the only way to do it.

"One of the great things about being young is being able to try a lot of different things, and learning what you really don't want to do. That can be a very valuable experience, too. But for me, that first internship was amazing, and contributed to why I'm so passionate about real estate now.

"At the time I'm sure I thought I was doing a really great job. In retrospect I was probably more of a hindrance, though. I really should have been paying them." (Follow us @ReutersMoney or here; Editing by Lauren Young and Phil Berlowitz)