When Taniya Nayak burst onto the stage to Pharrell Williams’ “Happy,” the tone of the evening was set.
Perched on spikey high heels and dressed in a chic black ensemble, Nayak, a 1997 alum and design superstar, insisted the University Crossing audience get up from their chairs and dance with her. Unable to resist her wide smile and welcoming energy, and the place got to its collective feet.
Fresh from a spontaneous speaking engagement with a group of design students and, earlier, a strategic management class, Nayak is at once a TV star and the girl next door.
Born in India to an MIT-trained architect dad and a “loving, energetic” mom, Nayak grew up in Weymouth, and decided to study marketing at UMass Lowell because, she says, “it checked off a box, and had some creativity involved in it.”
She admitted to the crowd gathered to glean some star-powered design tips (the Q & A featured pleas for help with offset mantles, tricky loft lighting challenges and more) that she’d gone off track her freshman year.
After living in a strict family where academics ruled — “In my house, if you brought home a B, my dad would say, ‘B stands for bad’” — Nayak didn’t handle the freedom of college well.
“I didn’t go to class,” she said, “And I flunked out.”
But, thanks to a program started by Executive Vice Chancellor Jacqueline Moloney — who served as the evening’s emcee — Nayak returned to campus focused and ready.
“Thank you for that program,” she said to Moloney on stage, “I am grateful you offered that to students like me who needed a second chance.”
After graduation Nayak took a job in sales — “I sucked,” she admitted, adding that she bartended to offset the money she wasn’t earning in her “real” job.
“I was unhappy, and knew I wanted something else, something more creative,” she said.
She went to design school, and was on her way.
“Today, when I met students, I could so identify with them,” she said.
“Some were so stressed, worrying about the rest of their lives. I told them to give themselves a break, nobody gets out of college and takes the job that lasts their lifetime.”
Nayak’s break came when she responded to a call for entries to a design show, and won.
“I truly believe that everyone has something that they love, and the key to success is paying attention to that passion. If you love something, you will be good at it.”
And good she is. She’s hosted multiple shows on HGTV, Including “Designed to Sell,” and “Restaurant Impossible” on Food Network, been interviewed on “Good Morning America,” “Today” and “The Rachael Ray Show.” She launched her own design firm and a lighting line with Wayfair.com, and, word has it, will soon be named Ellen Degeneres’ Brand Ambassador.
While she has made a name in the design world, Nayak says she uses her marketing background every day in running her own business.
In a one-on-one interview, Nayak admits she doesn’t go along with design trends, in fact, she doesn’t believe in them at all.
“When I hear about the latest design trends, or the color of the year, it makes me crazy,” she said.
“To me, these things are like Valentine’s Day : it’s just an excuse to make people go buy stuff.”
For Nayak, it’s far more important that people rely on their own taste, embrace it, and put in some effort.
“People are nervous to have me over to their houses, thinking I will judge. I don’t! If you like country, or traditional or some other style and you put some work into it, that’s great” she says.
At the end of the evening, her husband Brian O’Donnell (owner of 10 Boston restaurants, and recipient of a teasing jab during the presentation: “I know you only married me for the free design help with your restaurants!”) and parents waited patiently as the hometown girl posed for pictures, smiled her way through a dizzying array of design queries and gave out her email so people could contact her with questions.
“I answer everything,” she said.