Designer Paula Kennedy Offers Advice for Career Changers


According to a recent study by CareerBuilder and research firm Harris Interactive, 21% of full-time employees want to change their jobs. After 11 years at the same corporation, Paula Kennedy was ready for a career change, too. She decided to pursue her passion for design: She enrolled in courses at the Art Institute of Seattle, went on to earn master-level certification from the National Kitchen and Bath Association, launched her own design business (Timeless Kitchen Design), and competed in the Finals for the inaugural NKBA U Professional of the Year Contest at the 2015 Kitchen and Bath Industry Show in Las Vegas. The Seattle-based award-winning designer and self-professed “serial entrepreneur” recently spoke in LA at DWELL on Design 2015, one of the country’s largest design events.

Ms. Kennedy shared with us her tips for career change success, including how to overcome challenges and how to decide if you’re really ready for a change.

What made you decide to make a career change?

After a number of years in corporate America, I found myself burned out. I am a creative at heart and without a creative outlet in my then current job; I knew it was time for a change. I also knew I would have to start at the bottom and work my way back up in a new industry but I knew it would be worth it. I was tired of having a job and not a career; I was desperate for a more fulfilling life that allowed me to pursue my true passion for design.

How did you make the transition from a corporate job to self-employment?

The challenges of transitioning were easier due to the dissatisfaction with my previous job. After I decided to make a change, courage kicked in and I overcame my fear of the unknown.

Starting over meant going back to school. I enrolled in a two-year program at the Art Institute of Seattle where I began to build the foundation for my design career. I also got a part-time retail job to build my sales experience, which my resume lacked.

After graduating from the Art Institute, I took advantage of the resources, education and networking I received through formal schooling and my involvement with the National Kitchen and Bath Association and NKBA University, an industry trade association offered to industry professionals. That helped give me a foundation to draft a solid business plan and mission statement, and even set up a temporary advisory committee to review my plans and get advice. Then came the basics of creating my website, business cards and getting my name out there through as many free or inexpensive methods as possible.

The truth is that self-employment is not for everyone. I’ve always known I’m an entrepreneur at heart; it’s in my blood.  I am also an outgoing-introvert.  You have to ask yourself, do you want to be self-employed as a solo-entrepreneur, comfortable working alone most days, or self-employed with a team, or even the overhead of creating a business with employees?

What was the hardest part of changing careers? How did you overcome the challenges you faced along the way to success?

The hardest part was knowing I would have to start over. I knew I wouldn’t start off making a desired salary with my own business; I was going to have to work for it. The best advice I can offer for those who find themselves in a similar situation is to learn from others who have gone before you—do your research and be smart:

Learn from Others. I used to think I was too young to be in my industry. That personal fear spurred doubt that business would be hard to find. I felt as though I had to ‘fake it till I made it.’ Today, I am proud of my time in school, design experience across various projects and number of years under my belt. I learned you have to be willing to be teachable. Swallow your pride, take as many classes as you can, work with your seniors, and most importantly, have patience.

Do your Research. Find resources that can help you achieve success in your new industry. A big part of making a career change is finding the right tools to educate yourself – whether its through continuing education to sharpen your skillset, networking or volunteering. I attended the Art Institute of Seattle and later went on to earn my master-level certification through the National Kitchen & Bath Association. Continuing my education was a huge part of my later success in starting my own business. The Art Institute and NKBA U gave me the credibility I needed to not only start my own business but to grow it.

Be Smart. Ask yourself where you want to be in five years and then set realistic expectations. I knew going into Interior Design wasn’t going to make me rich. I did it for career and life fulfillment.  And I survived the recession because I’m doing what I love. The journey isn’t going to happen overnight, but if you let that stop you from even getting started you could be stuck. Instead, think about this way: If you start today, in 5 years from now you could be 5 years into your dream career.

Can you offer any advice for those looking for a career change?

I’m not sure we can ever know when we are truly ready to make the leap.  If we waited till we thought we were ready to do anything in life, we might be waiting a very long time. Starting your own business within the same industry is very different than starting your own business after school or as part of an entire career/industry change. Don’t discount the benefit of working for someone else first. You will gain experience, knowledge and resources that school can never teach you. There are so many mistakes I learned from while working with someone else that could have been devastating as a new ‘solo-preneur.’ Passion, education and natural talent alone will only get you so far but if you put all three together, nothing can hold you back.

Passionate about design and considering a career switch? Visit NKBA.org to learn more.

Paula Kennedy_HeadshotPaula Kennedy, CMKBD
Paula Kennedy is a Certified Master Kitchen & Bath Designer, a Certified Aging in Place Specialist, and most recently received her certification as a Certified Architectural Color Consultant. Kennedy currently resides in Seattle where she owns her own interior design business, Timeless Kitchen Design. Kennedy has been published locally and nationally, remains a very active industry volunteer and was recently named a 2015 NKBA Professional of the Year Finalist.

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