Amani al-Khatahtbeh: We’re bound by our backgrounds. Both of our parents are immigrants – and they settled into the same area of the US. How did that experience lead you here?
Gary Vee: I think the adversity is the foundation of success, and I think one of the great vulnerabilities of the modern empires, including America, is the demonization of losing. Everybody’s trying to make everybody feel good all the time. Let’s just get right to the punchline. When I was a child, America’s enemy was the Soviet Union. This is something I very rarely talk about, and that is absolutely why I feel an incredible connection to my Muslim brothers and sisters.
When you are America’s current enemy, it’s a very difficult framework to navigate in when you live here. That’s what I had. Maybe it’s not that obvious by my appearance – so I would argue easier – but nonetheless it was difficult for me. I got into many fights and I picked on a lot for being Russian. I was called a “commie spy” a thousand times in my life. I am here because of adversity. Adversity is good, especially when you accept it, understand it and are grateful for it.
AK: I completely feel that. I went through that adversity in my entrepreneurial journey. I had this moment: I was using every last penny to my name on my venture. Could not afford rent. Staying at friends of friends of friends places. I was in this dark place, with no electricity somewhere in New Jersey, and I asked myself, ‘How much longer can I last?’ Did you have those moments?
GV: I got really aggressively bullied by teachers and parents in my high school years, because they probably saw a kind, talented kid who was failing so miserably. The way that they scored the world was school. They really put a lot of pressure on me, and in hindsight, that probably came from a good place. But it put a lot of pressure on me mentally when everybody said, “You are going to be a loser, you are wasting your talent, you could be doing so much more.” I think when people hear that I was a bad student, they don’t understand how bad. My class rank was 243 out of 254. There were only 11 people that were worse in my high school class out of 254 people. Obviously I’ve had disproportionately more success than most of them. I knew what I was, and I knew what I was going to accomplish.
AK: There are a lot of conversations happening about generational wealth – and how to lift minorities up. Where should we be pushing back on adversity and progressing change?
GV: There is such a simple answer to your question. We need to talk about happiness, actual happiness. We are in such a metric space world: How much money do you make? How many followers do you have? Everything is so math-ed out in this tech world. I think Instagram eliminating the like count in Australia is an unlock to creativity and happiness. I am in massive favour of it. It actually fulfils my thesis, which is: be creative, do what you want, be happy. When I think about generational wealth…the amount of trust fund babies and third generation wealthy kids that I know, that are the most miserable people on Earth, is enormous. I remember judging Bill Gates and Warren Buffett for giving away all their money, because I came from nothing. Now I understand them way more. I actually think the great curse that most parents give to their kids is too much money.
AK: You hit the nail on the head. There’s a superficial message at the moment. Everyone’s talking about influencers – and you’re very much connected to that whole culture. I’m curious: what’s your definition of influence?
GV: You know it's funny. I don't even know if I have an answer. An influential person brings value to the audience which creates a relationship with them predicated on value. Whether that value is so attractive that you want to look at a model, or they make you laugh, or they give you a mindset shift, or they give you a tactic on TikTok…I don't get to judge why somebody becomes influential, the audience gets to judge — that's fine.
Look, influencers, don’t get too high in your own supply. Treat people with kindness. This could go away. Make sure you start building your audience on other platforms. I’m constantly doing that. There is always a reaction to something that happens, and many things start pure and then get tainted with success. I had a conversation with somebody yesterday, it got into humility. It’s so interesting to me. I was gifted with it. I can say my parents instilled it, it was in my natural DNA. My bravado is only matched by my humility. Every day that I’m consciously aware of my influence, my scale, my notoriety growing, I subconsciously continue to triple-down to make sure my humility is outpacing my growth. You know it better than anyone.
AK: I was just about to say – one of the coolest opportunities in my entrepreneurial journey so far was meeting you. Walking into your office for our first meeting, and literally walking out of there with you as my business partner. You were someone who I had admired for so long. What kind of influence did you see in MuslimGirl?
GV: I just intuitively knew that there was value that you could bring to the table. And I had a funny feeling that nobody could help you more than me. A lot of people believe in you because you’re f*****g charismatic, and you’ve got it.
AK: What does it mean to use your influence to support underrepresented narratives like mine?
GV: It means that I'm giving back to the things that put me on. My story is very simple. Everything was wrong, except entrepreneurship and communication, and I used those things to build a happy life. The fact that I'm at the point of my life where I can give back – it matters to me tremendously. When you walked into my room, I genuinely believed that you needed me on your team. Your story within your community and the greater community of humans was a story that needed infrastructure behind it to navigate. When I think back to meaningful meetings we had, or phone calls, or those transcendent moments when you had your most difficult times where you needed me to step up, that's what I'm way more proud than intuitively knowing you had it when you walked in.
AK: What does that mean? Is that part of the M.O.?
GV: It is the M.O. Doing the right thing is always the right thing.
Amani al-Khatahtbeh is the founder and editor-in-chief of MuslimGirl, an online magazine for Muslim women. This interview has been edited and condensed.
PHOTOGRAPHY: Hunter & Gatti
STYLING: Tiffani Williams