At 22, Jennifer Gilbert was attacked in the hallway of a New York City apartment building and stabbed multiple times. She survived, told very few people what had happened to her and went on to found her own event planning business, Save The Date, at the age of 24. The company has since done millions of dollars in revenue, and at 29 Gilbert was named Ernst and Young's Entrepreneur of the Year.
Now 43 and a mother of three (and also a former Real Housewife of New York City), Gilbert has just published a memoir, "I Never Promised You A Goodie Bag," detailing the attack and how it motivated her to approach her life and work with the mentality, "You picked the wrong girl." HuffPost Women spoke to her about how she decided to finally tell her story and how she found success and fulfillment in the wake of violence.
Why did you wait until now to write this book?
I had never planned on talking about this. Ever. When it first happened, I was in total denial. I never wanted my name and "victim" to be in the same sentence. I never wanted anyone to feel sorry for me. I never wanted anybody to do business with me because of it. I wanted to be worthy of my life, and anything to do with this attack made me feel unworthy of it. So I just never talked about it. I’d say 99 percent of the hundred percent of people in my life knew.
But when my son started to loose all of his hair [due to alopecia], I was feeling a despair that I couldn’t place, except for 21 years ago. One day I realized I was so mad, so angry, and this wasn’t about my son and his hair. I mean, yes, of course, I was devastated, but I wasn't angry at the universe about it. I was angry at the universe about me and my old feelings. That was really powerful for me. When I realize where my emotions are coming from and what they mean, I get much more clear about what I need to do and how to handle them.
That’s when thought, maybe this is a book. It became less about me telling my story and more about how I had overcome this to be better for my son. And it’s 20 years later. I’ve gotten recognized for my company. I never capitalized on the most horrible thing that ever happened to me.
Through the years, people have said, "Jen, you have to write this down." I was like, "Mmm, not for me." Why would anybody care about my story? It only made sense to me when it wasn’t about my story anymore, it was about my son and me realizing I had the choice to feel differently.
What was the hardest part of retelling it?
I really blocked out so much, much more than I thought. When I started to sit down with my family [and] some of my best friends at the time and ask them questions, they would look at me and [ask],“But honey, don’t you remember X,” and I had no memory of it.
And then when Harpers sent the first draft back with their edits, I could not get through my own first chapter, the attack chapter, without putting it down 12 times. I know I wrote it, I know I was there, but to see it in black and white was really hard for me.
Did you plan to go into event planning?
This was not even a remote option for a career. I was small business minor and did consumer studies and marketing. I would have gone into business, gone to Wall Street. I was always a good sales person. Maybe I would have worked for my father. But after the attack, I knew I needed to be around people celebrating and laughing and drinking and communicating something, because I never thought I would have joy in my life again. And I just thought okay, well, I’ll just have to create it for other people and be around it, and that should be enough.
How did you get your clients and vendors to take you seriously as such a young woman?
I had a lot these, "Listen, young lady" [encounters] with fingers pointed at me, which really, really pissed me off. I would just look right back at them and say, Well, I’m the young lady who booked 2 million dollars for the business at your venue, we’re going to move this here. And I think people like to intimidate women, of any age. It's terrible but I think it’s true, especially young women.
My advice is, A, if you allow them to they will, and if you don’t, they won’t. B, you have to take that into account and be extra good and really stay calm and fight the stereotype. I was really, really tough because I felt like I had to be. I needed to be very clear about my expectations with anybody I worked with, with vendors, with my clients. And I think this attack just changed me, and people didn’t know why they trusted me. I would say, "I’ve got it covered," and I said it in confidence, because I knew I could deliver on anything because I had no fear. I was never afraid or intimidated by anybody after what happened to me. I was kind of like, "Bring it on." So no matter who said anything to me, I could look at them in the eye and say, "I will deliver. I will be there for you, and I will fight for you because I know what a fight is."
When you started your own business, were you afraid ever that it would fail?
No. Never. People ask me all the time how I did even half the things I have done, and put myself out there in those ways, and I say, "What is the worst that could happen?" I’ve already had the worst. We all fail in life. You move on, you learn your lesson from it, and you try something better, you go in a different direction. That doesn’t scare me at all.
What scares me is that you’ve got one life. This is it. It if you sit on your bed, waiting for "it" to enter your room, whatever that is, if it’s the man of your dreams, if it’s the job that you want -- it’s not going to come into you bedroom. You have to put yourself out there and try. Then at least you know you’ve done your best and you can move on.
I didn’t even think about failure. I think about how will life feel if I take the safe route, and I never try? That is something I can't live with.
In the book you mention been very aloof with your staff in the first few years and suddenly realizing that you hadn’t really communicated with them on a personal level. What is your advice to young female managers about how to be a warm leader and yet maintain control and trust?
It’s a really hard line to walk. I still sort of walk it, because at the end of the day, you are in charge, you are the boss.I’m not a good patter on the back because I don’t need stroking. It doesn’t come naturally to me to say, "Great job. (Pat, pat)." I think that you get more out of your people if you give them feedback, which I learned and I make a very conscious effort to do that now. But as a leader, you have to separate what’s work and what’s not, and it’s hard. You have to learn not to get upset if there are group drinks and you’re not invited. That definitely hurt my feelings when everybody was my age. I just had to say to myself, "I can’t be everything to everybody." At the end of the day it’s more important that my business run properly and I’m able to communicate what needs to be done than to be friends.
Do you feel that you would have been as driven and successful if you hadn't been attacked?
I don’t think so, to be very honest with you. I was always a really outgoing person. I was always very clever at hearing no somehow figuring out how to make it a yes, but I used to stay up at night trying to figure out what I was going to do with the rest of my life. I think there is a part of me that has been changed forever by this. I think if you have been in that place where I looked at the surgeon and I said, "I am going to go now," and I really thought I was going to die, you understand that no matter how many clients, or family or children or friends you have around you, you are alone. That knowing, that loneliness drives me. Haunts me. Comforts me. It's all of them. I don’t know that I had that before. I can’t even remember.
Do you have any advice for women who haven’t been through what you went through on how to summon the fearlessness that has fueled you?
I think that everybody has a story. You don’t have to go through what I went through to summon something that scared you or makes you feel unsure or makes you feel like you’re not going to be taken seriously. We all have something in our life that we believe is our little bad story. Let that go. You have to know that you can decide how people see you, and if you walk into that room, you own that space. It doesn’t matter how old you are. Believe in what you are doing and know what you’re doing is the best out there or you are the best person for the job and bring that confidence into the meeting and the world with you. It really is a choice. You can wake up and take a deep breath and say, I’m going to get this account today because I’m going to start off my day knowing that I’m going to try my best, and I’m going to get it.WATCH: Jennifer Gilbert Looks Back On Her Life Before And After The Attack