Women Lead Design: Gina Berndt, Tara Headley, Nila Leiserowitz

In this ongoing series, IIDA features women leading the design industry in a time of unprecedented change. Hear what they have to say on the importance of diversity in design, mentorship, inspiration, and the future of the profession. 

In case you are still monitoring the passage of time, March was Women’s History Month. Though many celebrations, big and small, were overshadowed by the turmoil of a global pandemic, we are reminded that even in the most uncertain times, creating space to honor and celebrate others remains just as important. The significance of design during this unprecedented moment cannot be overstated; it endows us with much-needed clarity, beauty, accessibility, and problem-solving that are necessary for a rapidly changing world. The women who are making design happen at at varying stages in their careers, are leaders of a better tomorrow, and so we extend this focus beyond March. 

IIDA (virtually) connected with Gina Berndt, FIIDA, ASID, principal and managing director at Perkins and Will; Tara Headley, Assoc. IIDA, intermediate designer at Hendrick; and Nila Leiserowitz, FIIDA, FASID, business consultant and former regional managing principal at Gensler, to discuss the urgency of this current moment, what’s next for design, and how a diversity of design thought is more crucial than ever.

Gina Berndt, FIIDA, ASID, Principal and Managing Director, Perkins and Will, Chicago

IIDA: Who has been an important mentor to you over the course of your career and how/why?

Gina Berndt: I’ve had many mentors in my career, but if I had to name one it would be my father. Though he died when I was just 24, I learned a great deal from observing him in his work and life. He was generous and related well to humanity in the broadest sense. I am very grateful for his influence on me.

IIDA: Have you had the opportunity to mentor others? Has that been rewarding and how?

GB: I hope I have been a mentor to others. It is most rewarding to see individuals blossom in their careers as leaders, whether at Perkins and Will or at other firms. I am proud of their inherent talent, but also their compassion, business acumen, engagement in the community, and success. I dream of having a lovely dinner with all of them to express my gratitude one day.

IIDA: What do you see as the role of women in design in light of our current crisis?

GB: Women often lead with honesty, patience, empathy, and compassion. These are always valuable attributes, but this crisis demands that we all lead with these gifts.  

IIDA: What or who inspires you?

GB: Many things, but at my core, my family. I am inspired to be a role model for my daughter, nieces and nephews, a good life partner to my husband, and a trusted friend to my sisters. I am also inspired by beauty overall which is why I have always been drawn to design.

Tara Headley, Assoc. IIDA, Intermediate Designer, Hendrick, Atlanta

IIDA: Have you mentored others? Has that been rewarding and how?

Tara Headley: I have always viewed mentorship as a vital part of our industry. I believe there is true value in helping the next generation of designers overcome challenges by offering insight from the perspective of someone who has faced similar situations. I have been able to be a mentor through my position on the IIDA Georgia Chapter Board as a campus center leader, and I am hoping to step into the Vice President of Student Affairs role in the near future.

In addition, this academic year I have the privilege of being the alumni mentor for the SCAD Atlanta interior design department. Visting the campus, sitting in on classes, giving feedback on presentations and theses, and now shifting to virtual lectures—those interactions with students have been extremely rewarding. Several students have since reached out for one on one career advice and I’m humbled to be seen as a valued mentor. Knowing that the path I’ve taken inspires others is motivation for me to continue giving back.

IIDA: What or who inspires you?

TH: I am inspired by women of color in leadership positions. They are the ones that have blazed a trail to success and set the example for design professionals like myself to follow. Knowing the obstacles they have had to overcome to make it to a position of power inspires me to fight to achieve that as well. Seeing them makes me believe in myself even more.

Nila Leiserowitz, FIIDA, FASID, Business Consultant and Former Regional Managing Principal, Gensler, North Central

IIDA: Who have you considered to be your mentor and how have they influenced you?

Nila Leiserowitz: I am a strong believer that mentorship is vital to a career in design. A mentor can remain the same throughout your career or you may have different mentors at different points in your life. If I had to identify an important mentor throughout my career, it would be women leaders at all levels—my peers, bright emerging women, and women in other industries that are risk-takers. Right now, my most important mentors are women from the International Women’s Forum.

IIDA: What do you think is the role of women in today’s crisis?

NL: Women have an innate quality to see minutia and at the same time understand big strategies or moves that need to be made. We know how to pull the problem apart and look at all the components of the problem in order to have a thoughtful approach to moving forward. Looking at all the parts, we can celebrate the good within the problem, which is very important right now. We then also have a clearer picture of the core issues that need to be solved. We can then define a strategy and team to accomplish the right results. I am always so amazed by how women think. We are blessed!

IIDA: Who or what inspires your practice?

NL: his is not a simple question to answer. I do try to live in the moment as much as I can, so inspiration shows up in my life in unexpected ways at different times. Sometimes, small and simple things inspire me; other times, inspiration can be as big as being on top of a mountain and seeing the world like so few people see it. If I had to narrow down to two overarching inspirations, it would be people and nature. In the best situation for me, it is when nature and people collide. That is an amazing thing.