Money & Me: 'As the Burj Khalifa stuntwoman, my best investment is in myself’

Skydiving instructor Nicole Smith-Ludvik re-evaluated her life choices and finances after a personal tragedy

New Emirates video shows flight attendant on top of Burj Khalifa

New Emirates video shows flight attendant on top of Burj Khalifa
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Professional skydiving instructor, stuntwoman and motivational speaker Nicole Smith-Ludvik drew global attention when an Emirates airline advertising campaign with her on top of Burj Khalifa in cabin crew uniform went viral.

The 37-year-old American repeated the stunt in January alongside an A380 in Expo 2020 livery.

These were dream jobs for Ms Smith-Ludvik, who was widowed in her 20s and, soon after, critically injured in a car accident she appeared unlikely to survive.

Told she may not walk again, Ms Smith-Ludvik went on to become a yoga instructor and the youngest person to skydive in all 50 US states.

Ms Smith-Ludvik recently moved with husband David, a six-time Guinness World Record holder and world champion skydiver, from Dubai to Georgia in the US.

How did money feature in your upbringing?

My dad was in the navy for many years and my mum managed a group of doctors. I grew up in a small town in Georgia. My entire family lived on the same property, about 25 acres, so it was lovely growing up with lots of room to play.

We were an upper-middle-class family and I learnt the value of money early. My grandfather was a small-business owner. My parents were young and I saw how hard they worked to provide for my brother and me.

What were your first earning experiences?

I was a cashier at the local grocery store … that became boring pretty quickly. There was an artsy coffee shop in town, so I worked there as a barista the last two years of high school and, during university, on weekends.

I was getting a little more than minimum wage, but it was more or less just something to do. My parents gave me a car but I had to pay for insurance and fuel. They bought me the things I needed, but if I wanted anything extra — to go see a concert, a season pass to Six Flags — that’s where my summer jobs came into play.

Have you always jumped from planes for a living?

I’ve always been a daredevil — that’s in my DNA — but I didn’t start out as a skydiver. I actually had a high-stress, really well-paying corporate job. I managed 17 speciality retail locations, about 100 employees, about $13 million in revenue. Then I had two tragedies happen back to back that completely changed the trajectory of my life.

I was widowed at 25. Eighteen months after my husband passed, I was dating my skydiving instructor and we were in a car accident. He was killed and I, by all statistics, shouldn’t be talking to you; my body was completely broken.

I spent 11 days in ICU and a year of gruelling physical therapy just to be able to walk and have a normal conversation again.

Is that when you changed careers?

It made me re-evaluate everything I thought was important. That happened in June 2011 and in August, I left my corporate job.

My initial thoughts had been to retire at 40; I was saving and investing like I was going to retire young.

When I nearly died, it set me on a different path to do the things I was putting off until retirement. So, travelling the world and experiences I thought I would do later in life. In my opinion, putting things off to retirement is fool-hearted.

It was a drastic left turn, but skydiving offered me something to focus towards in recovery. Being a professional skydiver means I’m able to travel the world and teach people how to skydive, to face their fears or check things off their bucket list. I’ve been to more than 40 countries and I reckon I’ve been living part of my retirement plan. I don’t miss the office.

What led you to Dubai and to the top of Burj Khalifa?

I moved to be with my fiance, now husband, who was working for SkyDive Dubai and where I worked for several years. My primary drop zone was the desert campus.

It was kind of a dream come true to be on top of Burj Khalifa. The guy responsible for the stunt and safety owns a stunt management company in Dubai. My husband and I worked with him on several projects.

I received a call one evening, he gave me vague details and I sent him a casting video. I would be lying if I said I didn’t feel a bit of fear when I was up there because it was a completely new landscape.

How do you grow your wealth?

I like a bit of liquidity, but I’m also a pretty traditional investor and well diversified in my portfolio. So I stick it in my 401(k) retirement plan and then into investment accounts, plenty in stocks and commodities, emerging markets and bonds. I bought Tesla (shares) at a decent rate.

In March 2020, when the market bottomed out, I put serious cash into the market and made really good investments. I admire [investors] Warren Buffett and Ray Dalio.

Any key financial milestones?

I bought my first house at 19, my second house at 23. And I have complete financial independence; no debt. I had a well-paying corporate job and have never lived outside my means.

If I wanted to give up work tomorrow, I would be set for a while. So I am in a really comfortable place in my life. There’s a lot to be attributed to my outlook on money in my 20s.

Have you ever recalibrated your outgoings?

At one point, I wouldn’t say I lived lavishly, but lived in excess, had things that I spent money on frivolously. I had a huge house for no reason.

I downsized my life very quickly after the car accident and those decisions set me up to have more financial freedom now. But it also allows me to do everything I want to do. I don’t worry about money and still have plans to retire early.

So, did you become wiser?

Really wise. There are things that I love, like high fashion, but I don’t waste money on. I don’t need branded stuff, that’s not part of my personality any more. I’m frugal in a lot of ways, but I also don’t mind spending on things that bring me joy.

I primarily focus on experiences, anything that’s going to enrich my life. I love to travel, go on walking tours, food and historical tours, explore destinations on a cultural level. And skydiving, flying in the wind tunnel, skydiving gear … none of those things are cheap. My best investment is me.

Do you have a cherished spend?

I bought my grandfather a tandem skydive for his birthday, when he was 78. The memory is spectacular. He was attached to a friend of mine, I did an outside video perspective and he blew me a kiss in free fall.

I’ve taken my whole family on skydives. Being able to see their joy has brought me a lot of happiness.

What financial advice would you offer your teenage self?

I don’t regret spending money or any decisions that I’ve made because, ultimately, it’s shaped the person that I am. But if I could go back, I’d tell my 16 or 17-year-old self to chill on the unnecessary spending and do more things, experiences … I look back and my best friend and I shopped a lot.

Are there fluctuations in your profession?

During Covid-19, when the world was shut down, there was no skydiving. We had strict mandates on social distancing, so skydiving was non-existent for seven to eight months.

I didn’t want to go through my savings, dip into investments, so I found a job at a tech start-up in Dubai. That kept me going, but I became bored quickly.

We knew skydiving was going to come back with a vengeance because people have been faced with their mortality. All adrenalin sports had a huge surge in business.

How do you see your future?

I’m an aspiring motivational speaker. I’m working on how I’m going to make that bigger.

The goal is to own and manage some successful drop zones, maybe at some point shift away from the professional skydiving aspect and turn more into business ownership.

My wish is to be the first woman to jump from the stratosphere, so I am actively seeking sponsors. It’s wishful thinking at this point.

Updated: May 30, 2022, 4:15 AM