Designer Taniya Nayak ’97 Calls on Women to Support Each Other

Designer Taniya Nayak urged women to support each other at the first annual Women's Leadership Conference. Image by John Wren
Designer Taniya Nayak '97 was the opening speaker at the first annual Women's Leadership Conference.

By Katharine Webster

The university’s first annual Women’s Leadership Conference was a resounding success, with a sellout crowd, inspiring and high-powered speakers, practical advice – and lots of laughter.

The conference opened with a conversation between designer and TV personality Taniya Nayak ’97 and Chancellor Jacquie Moloney, the first women chancellor of UMass Lowell, about Nayak’s sometimes bumpy road to success, including flunking out of the university her freshman year.

“The chancellor came up with a program called Restart, so freshmen could begin again,” Nayak said. “I came back – and I crushed it.”

After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in marketing, she worked in a series of unsatisfying sales jobs until she decided to follow her passion for painting, drawing and architecture at the Boston Architectural College. 

But a lack of confidence still plagued her at times, she said. The school recommended its interior design students audition for ABC Family’s “Knock First,” just for the experience. Nayak had talked herself out of it – until a friend persuaded her she had nothing to lose. She landed the role and 13 years later she owns her own design firm, appears regularly on HGTV and the Food Network and represents Ellen Degeneres’ home décor line on QVC.

Nayak, who has encountered both racism and sexism working with clients and construction crews, said she counters it by preparing thoroughly and speaking with confidence.

“In this industry, knowledge is everything,” she said.

Designer Taniya Nayak, Chancellor Jacquie Moloney and Dean of Education Anita Greenberg dance at the conference opening Image by John Wren
Designer Taniya Nayak '97, Chancellor Jacquie Moloney and Dean of Education Anita Greenberg dance at the first Women's Leadership Conference.

Moloney, who succeeded in a number of positions at UMass Lowell before being chosen as chancellor, agreed.

“It’s that idea of being respectful, but holding your own,” she said.

Networking with other women is important, too, Nayak said.

“That’s what it’s all about – us here as women, helping other women and supporting each other,” she said.

Those themes – supporting other women, confronting bias with expertise and finding your voice – played out over the course of the day in workshops that dealt with everything from mental and financial health, to moving women into leadership roles, to closing the gender wage gap. Former Massachusetts Lt. Gov. Evelyn Murphy, now president of The Wage Project, gave a workshop on salary negotiations, while accomplished executives in other sessions bemoaned the fact that young women are still afraid to advocate for themselves when it comes to pay and promotions.

Former Lt. Gov. Evelyn Murphy, who now heads the Wage Project, gave a workshop on salary negotiation. Image by John Wren
Former Lt. Gov. Evelyn Murphy, now president of The Wage Project, gave a workshop on salary negotiations.

“I’ve seen a lot of young women who don’t stretch and reach because they think they don’t know all of it. Young men know 50 percent and they think they’re good to go,” said ( Lisa Brothers ’84, co-founder and chief executive of Nitsch Engineering, at a panel on “Navigating the Gender-Segregated Workplace,” organized by the Center for Women and Work. “Young women never ask for more (pay) than we give them and young men are always at the table.”

Deborah Chausse, executive director of House of Hope homeless shelter and transitional housing in Lowell, said women should assert themselves and refuse to be bullied.

“Build a reputation and don’t deviate from it. Know where the line is that you’re not willing to cross and don’t cross it,” she said.

Smile, stay positive and build relationships, said Saravon Khun-Leng, a Cambodian refugee who rose through the ranks at the Lowell Police Department to become director of community relations. And keep pushing for greater diversity.

“I am working to hire as many women and minority officers as I can,” she said.

Ferdousi Faruque, who works in marketing and financial education for Hanscom Federal Credit Union, said she was impressed with the conference compared to similar events she’s attended. 

“This is more the nitty-gritty for women in the workforce,” she said. “I’m getting out of this that self-care is important and being your own advocate is important. You can’t wait around for someone else to speak for you.” 

Gina Barreca, author, academic and humorist, told women to stop deflecting thanks and credit when they accomplish something. Image by John Wren
Gina Barreca, academic, author and humorist, urged women to stop deflecting credit for their accomplishments.

The closing keynote was delivered by Gina Barreca, professor of English and women’s studies at the University of Connecticut and author of “If You Lean In, Will Men Just Look Down Your Blouse?”  

Barreca began her talk by answering the two questions uppermost in women’s minds when they meet another woman: Is she older than me? Does she weigh more than me?

“Women look at other women like we’re trying to guess each other’s ages and weight – like we’re at a state fair,” she said.

Riffing on women’s obsession with each other’s weight and appearance, she said women are always trying to squeeze themselves into clothes that don’t fit – just like they’re always trying to squeeze themselves into someone else’s idea of the good woman, the good mother or the good administrator.

“Women are trying to change themselves to fit into something that’s off the rack,” she said. “You have never heard a man say, ‘I’m going to be a 42 short by the holidays.’” 

She talked about the difference in men’s and women’s communication styles and demonstrated the “silver tinkling bell laugh” women use when someone’s telling a boring story. Her audience responded with shouts of laughter – the kind that erupts when women are actually having a good time.

“Women are taught to rein ourselves in. There’s not a woman in this room who hasn’t felt like she was too much, too loud, too brassy, too needy,” she said. 

It’s time to change that, she said. Laugh only when a story is funny, refuse to “settle down” and refuse to settle for less than what you really want: “A good time and a fair fight.”

Oh, and enough with the self-deprecation already.

“If someone gives you a compliment, say ‘Thank you,’ don’t tell them why they’re wrong,” she said. “When someone comes up to you and says, ‘Great project,’ don’t say, ‘I did nothing. Really, I didn’t do a thing – my team did it all.’”