Meet Alumna Lilse McKenna ’11, Founder of Lilse McKenna Inc.
Name: Lilse Rodgers McKenna
Class Year: 2011
Organization Name: Lilse McKenna Inc
In one sentence, what does your job entail?
As the founder of a residential interior design firm my job entails everything from reviewing architectural drawings and overseeing contractors, to drawing furniture plans, designing furniture and scheming rooms, to managing the orders, timelines, and installations for a project.
What planned and unplanned events connected you to your industry and your first employer after Holy Cross? How did you learn/decide it was a good fit for you?
During my senior year at Holy Cross I had big plans to go to law school. At the time I thought that it would be the most logical and practical fit for me, and I took the LSAT class offered at Holy Cross to prepare for the exam. We were encouraged to take study breaks in between practice tests, and I found myself filling that time with interior design magazines like House Beautiful, Veranda, and Architectural Digest, and countless design blogs.
After taking the LSAT and starting to pull together my applications for law school I realized my heart wasn’t in it. Since long before the LSAT I’d enjoyed reading about and discussing interior design with my grandmother, and she and my mother both believed I had shown some innate talent in decorating. My Mom had often suggested I pursue it as a career, but I had the impression that most successful designers had degrees in interior design or a lifestyle that enabled them to open a firm “for fun.”
After graduation I applied for jobs in advertising and marketing, but nothing really felt like the right fit. In a moment of frustration with the job search process I googled the phone number for the office of my favorite interior designer at the time and asked if they needed an intern. They asked how soon I could start.
Within the first week of the internship, I knew I’d found the right career fit for me in interior design. Suddenly all of the knowledge I’d accumulated about interior design throughout my life, which I’d long thought was useless and just a hobby, had real value. I also started to see the opportunity to put another interest of mine, business and entrepreneurship, to use. I come from a family of entrepreneurs, and just as my knowledge of interior design had been somewhat subliminal, so too was my understanding of work and business through the lens of an entrepreneur. Having an understanding of how entrepreneurs think and operate gave me a leg up as an intern, and later an employee, of small business owners. I soon found out that neither a degree in design nor a large trust fund were necessary to start a successful interior design business.
What were you involved in when you were on campus?
I volunteered at Dismas House, was a club chair for the Comunications, Advertising & Marketing Club, and interned for the Public Affairs office.
What was your major and how did it affect your career decisions?
I was an English major and I think my creative writing classes gave me some insight into how much I enjoyed creative work. The time I spent working on the assignments for those classes flew by, even when the assignments were difficult.
What are one or two skills that you developed at Holy Cross that you use in your work?
While I was at Holy Cross I learned to be very disciplined about my time because I found that the school work load would sneak up on me if I wasn’t consistently setting aside time at the library. In my industry it is very easy to be distracted by the creative part of the job and put the paperwork on the backburner. Unfortunately that is probably the quickest way to go out of business, so in life as in school I try to set aside specific time dedicated to the paperwork.
What advice do you have for students on campus today?
Trust your instincts when it comes to your future. Don’t force a career choice, or any choice for that matter, solely because it appears to be the most pragmatic. If it doesn’t feel right it isn’t, and you should take the time to find what is right for you. Also, pay attention to what interests you, even the things you think of as silly hobbies or the curiosities you take for granted. Today more than ever there is value in being an expert in a specialized field, so why not take advantage of that?