Seattle, WA — Long before she owned her own kitchen and bath design firm, Paula Kennedy remembers early days spent arranging and rearranging her bedroom. “My mother would leave my bedroom door open and my sister’s bedroom door closed,” she recalls.
Although Kennedy’s design dreams were temporarily put on hold while she pursued a career with Microsoft, she eventually came back to her creative passion. “I was feeling a little burnt out, which is a common thread in the corporate world,” she says. “I knew that when I made the switch [to design], I was literally going to be starting over. It’s not easy making a career switch like that.”
Fast forward to the present, and Kennedy’s design career has been going strong for over 20 years. She has kept her business lean and nimble – she’s a one-woman show and does not maintain a brick and mortar showroom – which has enabled her to survive economic recessions, personal burnout and other tribulations.
Kennedy has also found a passion for sharing her experience with the next generation of designers through teaching and involvement with her local NKBA chapter. “There’s a certain point of our careers where, not everyone, but some of us are called to give back and share and teach,” she believes.
Surprisingly, Kennedy never saw herself as a teacher when she first set out on her design journey, but slowly came to understand that she had a wealth of knowledge and experience to share and an ability to lead. “Really, I have to credit a lot of that [realization] to the NKBA, because being involved in the chapter puts you in a position to…speak about a membership drive, or speak to students [or take charge] as a chapter officer,” she says. “I learned how to lead, and how to work with a group of people, and how to speak. I also realized it was kind of in my blood, but I just didn’t have the self-confidence [at first].”
Kennedy’s drive to bring her knowledge to beginning designers has led her to teach two classes at Highline College in Des Moines, WA, as well as courses with the Heritage School of Interior Design.
She points to design as an excellent career path for non-traditional students. “There are always people who are not going to be two- or four-year college degree-type people, or maybe they’ve always been doing [design] but now they want some of the education to back up what they’re already doing,” she notes, adding that “most of them do tend to be second-career.” Some of her students even follow a similar career trajectory to her own path. “I actually, this last quarter, had two Microsoft retirees [who are] going to be awesome,” she remarks.
In addition to classroom experience, her students participate in events such as the NKBA Student Design Competition. Kennedy also makes an effort to give her students the real-world tools and connections they will need to succeed in their design careers, introducing them to her clients and connecting them with potential employers.
Kennedy finds that she gets almost as much out of teaching as she puts in. “I really need and love the diversity in my career,” she says. “And part of teaching is what shakes things up and keeps it fresh and alive.” She points to her students’ fresh perspectives and in-depth understanding of technology as elements of her teaching career that help her advance her design career, as well.
Of course, teaching is a part-time career for Kennedy, and her real passion lies in creating thoughtful kitchens and baths for her clients.
With such a busy schedule, it would be easy to feel pulled in many different directions at any given time, but Kennedy places a great deal of value on forming a connection with each client in the moment. “I’m fairly intuitive – a lot of us are – and I rely heavily on that…I really try to be present and connected with the people that I’m in front of and that I’m working with when I go into a home, especially for the first time,” she explains. She practices meditation and other creative palate-cleansers in order to make sure that she is bringing her best effort to each client.
One interesting indicator that she points to as a gauge for how present she is with her clients is the clients’ pets, especially dogs. “One thing that I do to check in with myself – where am I? Am I present? Am I here right now? – is…bend down and get close [to the animal] and hold my hand out and let them come sniff me. If that dog loves me, I know I’m present and connected. I’m ready for that meeting.” ▪