Julie Ann Navickas: “Be a safe space for others”

Be a safe space for others. The title of “power” is earned, not given. Power isn’t about leadership — it’s about the connections we build and the influence we earn to shepherd others along the path. When we put a powerful woman on the metaphorical pedestal — standing alone above all others — it’s only a matter of time before she’s […]

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Be a safe space for others. The title of “power” is earned, not given. Power isn’t about leadership — it’s about the connections we build and the influence we earn to shepherd others along the path. When we put a powerful woman on the metaphorical pedestal — standing alone above all others — it’s only a matter of time before she’s knocked down (and judged for her choice of footwear).

How does a successful, strong, and powerful woman navigate work, employee relationships, love, and life in a world that still feels uncomfortable with strong women? In this interview series, called “Power Women” we are talking to accomplished women leaders who share their stories and experiences navigating work, love and life as a powerful woman.

As a part of this series I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Julie Ann Navickas.

Julie Ann Navickas is a nationally recognized contemporary romance novelist with Inkspell Publishing, known for her keen ability to weave heart-wrenching, second-chance love stories through relatable characters with humility, humor, and heroism. She is also an award-winning instructor and academic advisor in the School of Communication at Illinois State University, the public relations manager for Burning Soul Press, the social media strategist for Labyrinth Made Goods, and is a continuing education instructor with Heartland Community College. Julie is a mom to three children: Lily (5); Colton (3); Brady (2), and has been married to her high school sweetheart, Thomas, for ten years.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood “backstory”?

Sure! I’m from Johnsburg, a sleepy farm town in Illinois that’s a stone’s throw from Wisconsin. I’m really just your average Midwestern girl from the Chicago ’burbs. I grew up playing softball in diamonds carved out of cornfields, hanging out with friends in front of raging bonfires, and cultivating a deep (and sometimes embarrassing) love for stories of all kinds. In high school, I was absolutely the girl nose-deep in a book — but now… I get to be the woman writing them.

In 2006, I moved to Bloomington-Normal, Illinois to start my college career and never truly left the classroom. I completed an undergraduate degree in public relations and two master’s degrees in organizational communication and English studies with an emphasis on book history. Illinois State University has been my home away from home for over fifteen years as both a student and working professional.

And while it’s easy to poke fun of Central Illinois, my Midwestern roots go deep.

Can you tell us the story about what led you to this particular career path?

In the fourth grade, I wrote a thrilling tale about some vegetables with heroic aspirations to escape the fridge prison, sparing themselves the unappetizing fate of being simmered in a veggie stew. My creative writing skillset and storytelling abilities won me a classroom Young Authors Award. And to this day, I look back on that blue ribbon knowing that it set the foundation for my future career as an author.

Storytelling has always been a part of who I am — from blogs and social media to short stories and fanfiction. Writing is a skillset engrained into the palm of my hand and emblazoned on my heart. But for many years, I hid my passion for the creative, turning to “paycheck-friendly” careers that sought copy content with a lack of flare.

But then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and the state of Illinois went into a period of lockdown for three months. At the time, my children were ages three, two, and one. I worked a full-time student-focused job at Illinois State University that shifted from in-person to virtual overnight. Advising… teaching… everything went on Zoom at the drop of a hat. And I was left stranded in the ocean with a slowly deflating inner tube — expected to be online from 9–5 every day, serving my students while simultaneously caring for my small children 24/7.

I struggled for the first two months, often ending each day in a fit of tears, ready to curse the world for the unfair expectations of being a mother and working professional. And then one day, my eyes opened, and clarity struck. Seeking an outlet for the anxiety and stress that had settled in my mind, I needed an outlet. I needed a purpose beyond virtual instructor, beyond snack provider, and beyond the boundaries I’d placed on myself and the expectations enforced by others.

My heart, alight with excitement for the first time in months, turned to an old friend, the creative power of storytelling. I whipped out an old screenplay I wrote in graduate school and twisted and turned that trash fire of a script into a full-length contemporary romance novel. And I thought to myself… “Julie, why have you waited this long to fuel that fire that burns in your heart?” It just took a world pandemic and a few gray hairs to normalize the idea of reinventing myself.

And now here I am… an award-winning contemporary romance author with not just one, but two book deals for 2022.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

Inkspell Publishing emailed me on Saturday, April 24, 2021 with the words, “We would like to publish your book, I Loved You Yesterday.”

I remember sitting on the couch with a toddler on my lap watching the ten thousandth episode of “Blippi” on YouTube. I looked down at my phone and handed it to my husband, seeking sanity. And I’ll never forget the grin that exploded on his face as he scooted the kiddo from my lap onto his, his lips mouthing, “Open it” with the excitement of Christmas morning.

I’ve had a lot of good moments in my lifetime. I really have. But when a pandemic hobby and creative outlet led me down the unexpected path to a book publishing contract, my outlook shifted. And the girl who worked hard just to fit in, suddenly became a woman of confidence — no longer afraid to show the world who she truly was, and what she was capable of accomplishing.

You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

  • Perseverance & Patience. It took me over twenty years to realize that the girl in fourth grade who won a blue ribbon never truly left. She stayed. She persisted. And her passion for storytelling lived on, waiting for the right moment to break free. Had it never been for the pandemic and lockdown, the level of stress I needed to reach my breaking point wouldn’t have happened. At least, it would not have happened so soon. And I never would have found the courage to share a love story with the world.
  • Teaching & Learning. I’ve worked in higher education for the better part of my professional career. My days are spent in the classroom, on a college campus, surrounded by the expanding minds of young adults. I work with hundreds of students each semester in various capacities, coaching them to find their own answers and navigate their own paths to success. Every day I tell at least one student, “follow your passion.” Until recently, the statement was somewhat hypocritical; I wasn’t truly heeding my own advice.
  • Perfectionism & Competition. I was raised in an environment where winning was everything. It was the goal. It was the claim to fame. It held the exclusivity of being named “best.” While external validation no longer feeds my entire sense of self-worth, I still very much seek independent praise. Some may call it a character flaw, but the goal of winning pushes me to excel and test the boundaries of success.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. The premise of this series assumes that our society still feels uncomfortable with strong women. Why do you think this is so?

Breaking the chains of generational gender disparity does not have a quick fix. We live in a world of glass ceilings, pay gaps, and other inequities present between men and women. And we all know the marginalization of women is just one example among many that our society continues to enable. I say this not to diminish the value of the conversation whatsoever, but to recognize that all those who advocate for equity, social justice, and equality are fighting an uphill battle against (hopefully) fading, but still-dominant beliefs of yesteryear. History informs the way we view the world. It sets a tone and a baseline with no obvious path forward to change the narrative. But every action intended to productively and humanely knock some sense into outdated hegemonic philosophies brings us a step closer to a place where marginalization is the exception, not the rule.

As it is, all women, men, and non-gender conforming individuals possess the ability to demonstrate that they are powerful. But as soon as we label a woman as powerful, there are several culturally created assumptions that hitch a ride to her persona, usually unfairly. And it’s all derived from the ingrained idea that men (and disproportionately white men), and no other group, should generally hold more positions of power. And if a woman achieves such a status, she is considered remarkable, but all-too-commonly, remarkably unpleasant, to have attained such status. The point here is that “power” is defined by the individual holding the power, and what group they are a part of. This inherently leaves us all in a state of discomfort.

Without saying any names, can you share a story from your own experience that illustrates this idea?

Absolutely. One of my philosophies behind teaching is to expose my students to industry professionals while in the classroom. On one particular occasion, I invited a guest to come in and share his expertise and experience as a writer — an area in which I, too, have knowledge, experience, and an extensive portfolio.

In my own classroom — in front of my own students — I was repeatedly talked over, interrupted, and belittled. Our definitions of power differed in a significant way. I viewed him as a guest in my classroom, where I still maintained control of the conversation and learning outcomes. And he viewed power as an opportunity to dominate the conversation and diminish any authority I held.

Needless to say, the classroom left in quite the state of discomfort (myself included).

PS — I didn’t invite him to return!

What should a powerful woman do in a context where she feels that people are uneasy around her?

Well, that’s simple. Take the unease away. Remove the elusive power differential by tearing down the invisible barriers our society places on these relationships. Quite simply… the pillar of power isn’t physical. And it’s only our perception of power that strikes unease in a given situation.

Much of my approach to diffuse perceived power stems from my knowledge of nonverbal communication. If I get the sense of discomfort, I modify my nonverbals. Eye contact creates connection — so I enhance it. Proximity offers an innate intimateness — so I shift to sit beside my counterpart instead of across a desk or a table. Empathetic listening builds relationships — so I listen with the intent to understand, and not to react.

(Body) language is a powerful form of communication. Isn’t it remarkable that we all inherently have the tools in our toolbox to diffuse tension without speaking one word?

What do we need to do as a society to change the unease around powerful women?

Simply put, we need to dispel the idea of “powerful,” and we need to challenge the longstanding narrative behind what we assume to be powerful. I recognize that the term is meant to be emPOWERing, but society has turned it into an exception. The glass ceiling still exists in our world today (whether everyone agrees or not). And the only way to reduce the stigma, is to neutralize it at the source. All women are powerful; it is not reserved for society’s elected “elite.”

In my own experience, I have observed that often women have to endure ridiculous or uncomfortable situations to achieve success that men don’t have to endure. Do you have a story like this from your own experience? Can you share it with us?

Oh, this one is quite fun! And truth be told, I’m not sure if it was more awkward for me or for my older male colleague! When I returned to work on campus after the year of working virtually from my basement, I came back with a new sense of self and with a new accomplishment I was proud to share. But let me tell you, things quickly became uncomfortable when I boldly announced to my colleagues, “I wrote a romance novel!”

Now, many of my older male colleagues certainly blushed with a shy smile, sidestepping the content of my accomplishment. And sure, while some may feel embarrassed about a romantic storyline, the simple fact is that I wrote a novel, found and secured a publisher, and won an award for my work. And I have to wonder… why was I embarrassed to tell my colleagues? Why did I have to feel uncomfortable to celebrate my success?

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women leaders that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?

Men are promoted because they’ve “earned” it, right? And women… well, we have to ask for a promotion, provide documentation of our work history and track record, and sometimes beg for the attention to even start the conversation.

I’ll give you an example. I celebrated a milestone anniversary in my former place of employment. I didn’t negotiate when I was offered the role, and never once did I ask for a salary increase. I just showed up, day after day, and put in the work. I built relationships, contributed to the bottom line, and produced happy constituents. And I felt like I had earned some recognition or a small reward, but nothing came.

So, what did I do? I created and proposed a new title. I wrote a new job description. I produced reports that demonstrated my past successes, and I begged for a little more. Eighteen months went by before that proposal was pushed through and a tiny increase showed up in my paycheck.

I didn’t just advocate for myself, I had to do the work to demonstrate that I was worthy of the conversation, and ultimately something more. I cannot speak to an example of where a male counterpart experienced the same (it could just be me, but I would dare to guess that I’m not alone, here).

Let’s now shift our discussion to a slightly different direction. This is a question that nearly everyone with a job has to contend with. Was it difficult to fit your personal and family life into your business and career? For the benefit of our readers, can you articulate precisely what the struggle was?

Yes. I’d be lying if I said otherwise. For me, the struggle (like many admit to) stems from lack of time. Simply put, time is emotional. Every minute I spend at my computer is a moment I lose with my children and husband. When I first started writing, it was all I could think about. The story consumed me. Each waking moment was absorbed in planning and plotting. But slowly, I began to see the bigger picture, and what I discovered effectively resolved the struggle I was having. While writing is important to me, it will never earn a spot above my family and the obligation I have to them.

So, I adjusted my writing schedule, and I made more time for them. It was a burden lifted because it eliminated my guilt and improved the quality of my writing and planning time. I will admit that my head hit the pillow for a little less time, each night. But lucky for me, I can function on very little sleep (that’s what having three children in three consecutive years will do to you!), and much of my writing career takes place while my kiddos are asleep.

When something fuels a passion, or ignites a fire, it’s our duty to heed the call and respond. I love writing. It brings me so much joy and fulfillment, but perspective is equally as important. I chose to be a wife and mother, too. The balancing act can be difficult, but with the right vision and clear focus, it’s easy for me (now) to appreciate the right lineup of priorities.

What was a tipping point that helped you achieve a greater balance or greater equilibrium between your work life and personal life? What did you do to reach this equilibrium?

I mentioned above that I am a highly competitive individual. When I set a goal, you better believe that I’m going to achieve it (and I’m a big fan of bonus points, so I always try to get the job done ahead of schedule!). When I sat down to write my debut novel, I wanted to create something good enough to entice a publisher. I needed to know someone chose my story over others’, and that this publisher appreciated my style and abilities as an author.

Once I reached that goal and signed on the dotted line, there was still a lot of work to be done, from story revisions to getting to work on the next books in the series. However, this accomplishment allowed me to understand my priorities so much clearer. I took a literal and metaphorical deep breath. My support group, from family to colleagues and friends, was solid. But to feel good about what I was doing, I needed to know I was still giving as much as I was getting. That consideration allowed me to experience a greater equilibrium between my personal life and professional responsibilities.

I work in the beauty tech industry, so I am very interested to hear your philosophy or perspective about beauty. In your role as a powerful woman and leader, how much of an emphasis do you place on your appearance? Do you see beauty as something that is superficial, or is it something that has inherent value for a leader in a public context? Can you explain what you mean?

This is a tough question, and had this been asked of me pre-pandemic, I think I would have shared a different answer.

Truth be told, the pandemic (and time in general) has absolutely lessened the emphasis I place on considerations of beauty. When I was a younger professional, I showed up in the classroom every day with a dress, leggings and cute boots, and my hair freshly styled and colored.

But today… my new work uniform is typically yoga pants and sweater/sweatshirt featuring a Chicago sports team, an iconic line from a movie, or just something plain silly that incites a laugh from my students. I’ve discovered over time that the value I offer the world isn’t wrapped up in an expensive dress or designer handbag. If you want my mind, you can have it, but the external packaging options are limited to “casual.”

I do not fault women for focusing on beauty. I understand why they do, because I too concentrated on it extensively not so long ago. And the truth is, a woman’s specific profession is a factor, as well. But as a teacher and author, the most important contribution I can offer are words. And no one cares about the color of my fingernails as I type. I know I sure don’t.

How is this similar or different for men?

This might be an unpopular opinion, but I think men too are expected to maintain a certain level of “beauty,” but in a different way. No matter what, I’ve always been told to “dress for the job you want,” and while men might be more often forgiven for the fashion faux pas, they’re still judged, as are individuals who are non-cisgender or transgender. That piece of advice truly transcends the gender with which we identify.

Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your opinion and experience, what are the “Five Things You Need To Thrive and Succeed as a Powerful Woman?” (Please share a story or example for each.)

My 5 Things video: https://youtu.be/qkmENzHhyA8

1.) Be a safe space for others. The title of “power” is earned, not given. Power isn’t about leadership — it’s about the connections we build and the influence we earn to shepherd others along the path. When we put a powerful woman on the metaphorical pedestal — standing alone above all others — it’s only a matter of time before she’s knocked down (and judged for her choice of footwear).

2.) Let go of the fear. As women, we live in fear of being judged, worrying that our seat shouldn’t really be at the table. It’s the fear of being wrong — of inherently believing that the words we say will never carry enough weight. Or worse… carry too much. To thrive and succeed, we need to give ourselves the permission to eliminate the fear.

3.) Decide to speak up. As a woman, it’s sometimes difficult to wield our power. We gravitate to a role of support (at least I do). But as a powerful woman, it’s knowing when to vocalize — it’s knowing when to recognize that the deep voice inside… is the most qualified to speak in the room. And in that moment, power comes not just from the words that leave our lips… but from the authority earned by deciding to speak them.

4.) Find your fellowship. I’m a huge fantasy novel nerd and it’s really going to shine through on this one. Power comes not from the individual, but rather from understanding and uplifting the strengths of those around you. And to be labeled as “powerful” means you must have access to one hell of a support system behind you. Power is earned, but success is achieved by those who strengthen your core. Find the Sam to your Frodo before you strike out on the quest.

5.) Challenge the narrative. It’s a humbling experience to be interviewed and defined as a powerful woman. But let’s be real here. All women are powerful. Our society creates labels — and our human instinct is to categorize and stuff women into a box based on what we see on the surface. Power is just a word — just a label. And for those of us who have been labeled as such, it’s our job to change — and challenge — the narrative. It’s our job to lift and empower others… not wear a crown and look down.

We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

Absolutely — beyond any doubt. I’ve alluded to my love of literature and appreciation for fantasy novels in my answers above, so it will likely come as no surprise that my mind travels straight to Middle Earth. I’ve immersed myself in the world of J.R.R. Tolkien in the classroom. I’ve studied abroad and trapsed my way through the historic streets of Oxford University — absorbing the magic, experiencing the passion of his genius firsthand.

And because of that, I am a self-identified The Lord of the Rings nerd with an admiring love of two hobbits in particular. I simply adore Dominic Monaghan @thedominicmonaghan and Billy Boyd @boydbilly (Merry & Pippin) and can think of no other person(s) that I’d rather meet and partake in second breakfast with (or, just be a guest on their podcast, The Friendship Onion @thefriendshiponion).

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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