Interview by { Beth Weitzman

The co-founder of the fast-growing, impact-driving Los Angeles-based nonprofit Visionary Women, Angella Nazarian is a beloved mother, wife, friend, philanthropist, noted speaker and bestselling author. Her four books—Life as a Visitor, Pioneers of the Possible: Celebrating Visionary Women of the World, Visionary Women and the latest, Creative Couples: Collaborations That Changed History (Assouline, October 2019)—continue to show, by example, that anything is possible. We were recently honored to have a tête-à-tête with this most impressive woman.

You’re an inspiration to women all over the world. Who or what inspires you?

I am most inspired by people who have managed to push past their own limitations and have become better versions of themselves in the process. This has been the focus of my research writing for the past 15 years. 

How has your background in psychology and teaching impacted all you do today?

It is so incredible to see that in every step in my journey I have honed some skills that I have used in forging ahead. I used to be a professor of psychology for 11 years—teaching leadership studies, women’s studies and social psychology. When I began writing my books, I used the very same lens of a researcher and psychologist to identify the characteristics that make people thrive and impact their community.  

When did you first realize you had an interest in writing?  

Believe it or not, I never thought of myself as a writer. It was in my mid-30s, when I was moderating personal development women’s groups, that I asked every member to pick up a new skill. I did this along with them and picked writing. After a year and a half of attending writing classes, I came to see that I had something to say. Everyone in my class, including my teacher, encouraged me to publish my first book… And here we are today with my fourth book.

Have you always been a naturally curious person? 

If you ask my closest friends and my husband what is the trait that best describes me, they would say that, above all, I have this thirst for learning. I actually gave a commencement keynote based on the very idea of curiosity. Curiosity enriches us, both personally and professionally.

Do the qualities of curiosity and leadership tend to be linked?

Not necessarily. I know many curious and brilliant people who lack leadership skills. However, all great leaders are not only curious, but also have an ability to motivate and inspire others around them. 

What qualities and values do visionary women have in common?  

Visionary women tend to tailor their life around their strengths and, contrary to most people, are not too concerned about their weaknesses. They also know how to bring together a group of like-minded people to work toward their vision. Finally, most successful women have a deep belief that they can surmount the challenges that come their way, so they more readily undertake challenges. 

What did you find most surprising about the many iconic visionary women profiled in your book? 

It was surprising to see that the most iconic women seem to have two contradictory skills. They had great social skills, which makes sense because many of them had to handle a diverse group of people. However, they also cared less about what people thought of them. This is because, in order to break boundaries, one has to withstand criticism and resistance. 

What inspired you to co-found Visionary Women, a nonprofit women’s leadership organization? 

Storytelling seems to be one of the most impactful ways of inspiring people. So, shortly after writing my second book, I came upon this idea of inviting the women I meet through my research to speak in L.A. I was discussing this idea to my best friend, Lili Bosse, who at the time was the mayor of Beverly Hills. It didn’t take more than a minute—she was all in on co-founding this platform with me. The exponential growth of our nonprofit is due to the hard work of so many people, including the talented and brilliant women on our board and committees.

What is the mission of the organization? 

VW is a unique nonprofit community focused on engaging conversations with innovative leaders and funding high-impact initiatives for women and girls. We not only bring top change-makers to speak to our community, but we also fund a vast range of initiatives through our sponsorship and membership dues.

What’s next for the organization?  

Visionary Women has essentially come up with a new way of philanthropy. We don’t hold fundraisers, luncheons or gala dinners, yet in a short three and a half years, we have raised over $1.5 million, all of which will be distributed to various women and girls’ initiatives. We hope that in the coming years we make VW into a national nonprofit and a movement. 

In your latest book, Creative Couples, you feature stories of 15 couples who motivate each other, work together and change lives as a team. How did you select these couples?

I wanted to choose couples who had both a romantic and professional relationship in order to see how their personal and professional lives were affected. Of course, I also wanted to pick couples who, through their collaboration, changed 20th-century culture. Finally, I wanted to pick pairs who displayed different power dynamics and relationship styles, because we learn so much from the diversity of their relationship.

What common threads did you uncover?

Their stories showed how a shared mission in life and a commitment to the relationship were the most important factors to the success of the partnership. There is no question that even the most compatible partners faced challenges, yet those that displayed an openness and flexibility to growth seemed to have had more success in their relationships.

What was most surprising? 

I was surprised to uncover my own stereotypes on relationships. The chapter on Salvador Dalí and his wife, Gala, was the most surprising. They lived and worked together for 52 years; Dali even wanted to be buried next to her in a chamber where they could hold hands. However, the two did not have sexual relations. Obviously, there were other reasons for the two of them to stay in the marriage and remain so close. I won’t give more away, because it is truly a surprise.

Did you learn any lessons while researching these dynamic couples?

Each couple seems to have their unique partnering style, but I gained such insight on how we tend to project our own needs and create our own dynamics in a relationship, for better or for worse. Another big takeaway is that partnerships are much more prevalent than we think in our culture, and it is for a very good reason. When the partnership is right, one plus one equals four!

You are involved with so many philanthropic causes. What drives you to give so much of your time?

Having a greater purpose has been a cornerstone of my life. In fact, it is an important source of my happiness and fulfillment. It feels profoundly good to know that the work we do has meaning, that we can affect lives. 

In 2018, you received the Ellis Island Medal of Honor. And in 2019, you were awarded the Visionary Award in Arts and Culture in philanthropy by C-Suite Quarterly magazine. What does this type of recognition mean to you?  

I am so incredibly honored by these accolades. In many ways, it is a validation that I am on track, that I am finally making a difference. But all in all, I usually don’t think of these honors once the event is over. A very wise person once told me not to take accolades or criticism too seriously.

What’s your secret to juggling all that you do? 

I feel that we all have multifaceted lives and if we think clearly and manage our energy effectively, we can do a great deal. I have also found that rest and meditation and connecting with the people I love are also important to feeling balanced and happy.

How many hours of sleep do you get/need? 

I tend to sleep six hours. It seems to be the right number of hours for me!

Workout of choice? 

Dance. Music and movement make me happy. When I turned 40, I decided to learn flamenco dance, and I am still taking classes twice a week. 

You’ve accomplished so much, but what’s something that you have yet to conquer that is on your list?  

There is so much I want to do and experience. I want to help grow Visionary Women into a national organization. I want to learn a new language. I am open to new challenges and possibilities.

Best advice you can share with Gio readers for getting the most out of life?

I have felt happiest when I was mindful of bringing a certain level of awareness to my life—noticing the beauty of my surroundings, being grateful of all that I have, and practicing being an open-hearted person.