Lilliana Vazquez is a powerhouse packaged in the giant form of the tiniest fashionista on the planet. Today, March 8th, marks International Women’s Day and I cannot think of a single young woman who is more representative of the essence of this year’s theme: #BeBoldForChange. I’m thrilled to introduce you to an inspirational fashion force, and a contributor for NBC’s Today Show, Lilliana Vazquez. She is a lovely woman who is not afraid of using her voice and making some waves along the way. Her reputation of kindness, compassion and a very humble nature gets proven time and again. Her sparkly personality and sassy demeanor are infectious. Welcome Lilliana!
CGO: Lilliana, I’m delighted to meet you! It was such a pleasure to do my research on you. Let’s go back to the very beginning of your journey and how this all began. You describe yourself as a proud Latina from both Mexican and Puerto Rican descent. Frankly, in your early years, the odds seemed stacked against you to be able to have the type of impact that you do. It’s hard to believe that English was your second language, and that you were the first person in your family to get a college education. You must be very proud of the kind of success that you have created. Take me back to your childhood and the very beginning of this journey. What was the dream in your heart?
LV: I don’t remember there being something concrete in terms of a dream — it was more of an overwhelming sense of curiosity. I was very happy in what was a wonderful, yet simple, childhood. It was when I began attending a private Country Day school that I realized there was a much bigger world out there! It called to me, and with the ever present support of my family, I was very fortunate to create opportunities to create a dream.
I was eager to see the world, to do more and to be more. I think that’s the immigrant way — you’re always told that if you work hard the sky’s the limit, but my mother also instilled in us that the keys to the kingdom were rooted in education. That came first in my family and it ultimately opened so many doors for me. Because my parents insisted on investing in my early education, I was able to work towards a full scholarship and fantastic education at George Washington University.
CGO: You have a way of standing out in a crowd. What do you embrace about yourself that makes you unique and special?
LV: Haha! It’s funny that you say “stand out” since I’m barely five feet tall! In most situations people end up looking right over my head … But I think what people respond to, and are very attracted to, is kindness and a smile. Two things I never leave home without and that go a very long way! Many times when you are in a studio or at an event, there are lot’s of things going on, and you can look around you and see there are people that really aren’t excited to be there. I just love to interact with others, whether it’s a props manager, or co-host and I am always genuinely happy to be there and I think that people can really feel my enthusiasm.
CGO: Many women suffer from very low self esteem and lack self confidence. I see you as having these qualities in spades. What are your secrets to building lasting self worth and confidence?
LV: Authenticity, no question. You have to own who you are and build confidence from your core. It doesn’t happen overnight and it took me most of my twenties to get comfortable with who I am, but now it’s one of my greatest strengths. There is only one you — and you know what that makes you? Irreplaceable! When I moved from Texas to the East Coast in my early 20’s, I got fired from my first job because I was trying to be someone I wasn’t. It felt like I was wearing a costume every day. The lesson I learned and adapted was that by being myself, and letting my natural ability and joy shine through, I could create an authentic persona that was truly me. When you do this, self worth and confidence are a natural result.
CGO: It is rare to see a young woman with such self confidence and the level of accomplishments you have achieved. What is that Inner Voice inside of you that continues to drive you to create, and to expand the ways in which you succeed?
LV: I love a challenge and I’m learner. Whether it’s snowboarding, re-upholstering an old sofa or working on a new app nothing gets my juices flowing like a new project. I enjoy the research, the creativity, the trials and errors, and if all goes well, the ultimate success of something that I’m truly passionate about!
But the Inner Voice that you speak of is really a reflection of the gratitude I have for my family and how they raised, supported and sacrificed for me. My mom and her sisters used to work picking pecans starting at 5 am. I really want to have my family feel they can be proud of me. I feel that my grandmother, who passed away, still looks down on my from above and sees all that I do! Respect for my family and gratitude for what they enabled me to accomplish drives my success.
CGO: I love the theme of this year’s International Women’s Day. It’s been quite a powerful year for women beginning with the Women’s March. The mission is very inspirational working to advance gender parity in economies throughout the world. I know that this day is a very important one for you. Can you please share what International Women’s Day represents for you? BE BOLD FOR CHANGE
LV: It represents two things — a moment of celebration and a day of action.
Through my work, I’ve been privileged to work with many women across many walks of life. A few years ago I realized that while women are great at celebrating others, we don’t often celebrate ourselves. We are filled with compliments and appreciation for those around us but we don’t give ourselves that same love. So on March 8th I will give myself a pat on the back for all work I’ve done for myself and for others, take a few minutes to celebrate my accomplishments and then remind every woman to do the same for herself!
I think we’ve all seen how powerful action can be over the last few months. So if I can inspire one more woman in my network to take action for something they believe in- no matter how big or small- I know I’ve done my job in helping creates hundreds of tiny, but mighty, ripples that will accelerate gender parity.
CGO: You’re quite a fashionista in your own right. In 2013, you published “The Cheap Chica’s Guide to Style.” I love your style philosophy, as you don’t have to break the bank to look and feel your best. How would you describe your distinctive sense of style? What inspired it?
LV: It grew out of circumstance. I was raised by immigrant parents, in a working class neighborhood, and to be honest, we didn’t have a lot. And we certainly didn’t have enough to shop for something as frivolous as fashion.
But I loved fashion, and that meant I had to be creative in how I put clothes together, and where I shopped for those clothes. That experience was what planted the seed for this cheap chica!
My style is eclectic… I love to mix high and lo, new and vintage, mine and borrowed. I truly believe that great style doesn’t come from money; it comes from creativity and a lack of resources!
CGO: Being successful in such a visible role has its benefits and responsibilities. Do you see yourself as a powerful role model for young women, particularly those of ethnic descent in breaking through the traditional glass ceilings?
LV: Absolutely! I remember growing up in Fort Worth and for the first time seeing a Mexican anchor on my local TV station. It was like I had spotted a unicorn. There, was this intelligent, gorgeous, confident woman staring back at me with authority and respect who had a name that sounded like mine! It was such a defining moment for me and I hope that every time I’m on the today show, one young man or woman will watch and say, “See, I can do that”.
And it doesn’t stop there — I always encourage my peers to hire diversity. It is one of the most important things I can do. I’m firm in believing that we shouldn’t just be opening doors, we need to be rolling out the red carpet for the next generation of Latina in media and fashion.
CGO: It must have been so exciting to be chosen as a contributor for The Today Show. Did you ever deal with any fear or self doubt upon landing such a visible position in broadcasting? Did you ever just wonder, “Oh my God, can I do this?!”
LV: Of course! When I walk into Studio 1A, I am surrounded by some of the most talented and intimidating men and women in broadcast. Luckily for me, they are also some of the kindest and most supportive people in the business. I work with an incredible team on the Today Show. It’s so important to smile and say hello to others in the workplace. They’re great about projecting positivity and they will say things like “You’re such a joy to have here.” It’s amazing how people respond to a healthy dose of kindness. It’s unbelievable to watch how people react when you’re smiling and happy. They just gravitate toward you in that vein. I feel that’s what comes across when I’m on the air. I’ve just walked on set and I’m filled with the positive projections that help me to feel my best.
Women like Hoda Kotb and Kathie Lee Gifford have been my cheerleaders from day one. Tammy Filler, our executive producer, has always encouraged me to grow in my role. The environment at Today is the reason I walk in to work, or sit down across from someone like Jennifer Lopez for an interview, and feel like “I can do this!”
CGO: Lilliana, it seems that the sky’s the limit for you as you have achieved unstoppable success! I would imagine that you have an even bigger vision for yourself. Would you share that vision with us?
LV: I’m tempted to send you my vision board from Pinterest but I’ll spare you! Honestly, I see more work behind the camera — maybe writing, producing, and developing new talent. I like building and I would love to build a company that reflects the growth I’ve had professionally and personally and that charters creativity on all levels!
CGO: It has been quite a year from a political perspective in the United States. I’ve seen clips where you are expressing a very strong opinion about our current President. This election brought to the fore a real sense of polarization in our country. There was ugliness and intolerance, but also a rising up of support for inclusiveness and acceptance. What was the experience of the electoral process and how our nation responded to it, for you and the people of the many ethnicities that you represent?
LV: It was an awakening for me.
I don’t often talk about this, because I’m embarrassed that I let it happen, but I grew up looking the other way when it came to racism. As a Mexican in Texas, I was subject to a lot of hateful comments and disrespect for my culture. I recognized it was happening but I was uncomfortable talking about it to my parents or to my school teachers. I never wanted to feel, or be treated, like a victim — I was also afraid of what might be done or said to me in retaliation for speaking up.
Looking back now, I realize that being silenced in the face of racism is the worst thing you can do. It means that you allow hate speech and intolerance to become the norm and we can never let that happen.
The election process also made me realize that those mean kids, who made disgusting jokes about race, religion or gender might eventually grow up to continue to spread that hate in larger circles than just our junior high classroom and that scared me to the core.
But everything hasn’t been negative! I have been moved by seeing my friends, family and strangers — all from different backgrounds- from all over this country come together to let the world know that we will always fight for acceptance and inclusiveness and we will not tolerate anything less in our country!
CGO: Lilliana, it is also very rare to see a young woman at your level with one of the most humble attitudes I have ever seen. What keeps you grounded in knowing who you truly are and staying connected to your roots?
LV: My friends, my family and my faith. They keep me grounded and I know that my success doesn’t belong to me alone.
CGO: You are truly living the dream! What has been your favorite part of this journey? Is there anything you would have done differently?
LV: Thank you, I’m very fortunate, but I do want people to know that it’s not all glitz and glam. Yes, there is the occasional red carpet with fabulous clothes, but there is also a lot of sacrifice and really hard work behind the scenes that you don’t often see.
My favorite part has been the discovery! I’ve had the opportunity to see amazing places, meet remarkable people, and do some really incredible things! If I had to change anything … I wish my husband could have come along for more of the adventures!
CGO: There are young women all over the world looking to a role model like yourself for inspiration. What words of wisdom do you have for them on this International Women’s Day?
LV: Three lessons I live by …
1. If you lead with kindness you will always find your way.
2. No one will give you something you don’t ask for.
3. What God has for me, no one else can have.
CGO: It’s been an absolute pleasure getting to know you and your story. There is no doubt that you are paving the way for women by blasting through many glass ceilings. Thank you for your time, Lilliana. I’ll be standing by and watching your continued ascent.
You can find Catherine Grace O’Connell at CatherineGraceO.com. She is on Instagram and Facebook as well as Twitter as @catherinegraceo. You can find out more about The Fierce 50 Campaign and how you can help us and join the Movement by sending an email to [email protected].
Originally published at medium.com