Lily Kwong and Kyleigh Kühn, now a landscape designer and social entrepreneur respectively, on working with family and finding second careers
This story is part of “Uninterrupted,” a series where female leaders – who also happen to be friends – talk to Moneyish about the issues that matter to them.
For these two former models, the fashion world wasn’t enough.
Lily Kwong and Kyleigh Kühn grew up within close proximity of each other in Marin County, an affluent enclave just north of San Francisco. But they only met about seven years ago in New York, where Kwong had come to study at Columbia University and Kühn was in the midst of establishing herself as a supermodel who appeared in the pages of Vogue and the Pirelli Calendar alongside the likes of Adriana Lima.
The two women bonded over their hometown and shared profession—while in college, Kwong earned money on the side as a model and muse for her cousin, designer Joseph Altuzarra—but developed a friendship beyond fashion. Kwong, 29, now runs her own design studio, creating garden landscapes in New York, Miami and Los Angeles. The 30-year-old Kühn returned to her roots with Roots of Peace, a non-profit founded by her former CNN journalist mother that clears landmines from one-time warzones.
The Berkeley graduate, who recalls spending her 13th birthday walking a landmine field with her mother, is prone to quoting Isaiah’s prophecy— “they shall beat their swords into plowshares” —and spouting the number of cluster munitions still in Vietnam.
The duo left the modelling industry before it really began grappling with issues like sizing, racial diversity and sexual harassment, and they don’t look back with rose-tinted lenses. Kühn began modeling with the explicit goal of drawing attention to Roots of Peace and that helped ward off would-be creeps and stay focused. “It was a protective barrier, because people knew I had this strict moral code,” she says. “When you gain credibility for something you’re not proud of, but is so visible to others, they assume this is something you want to share with the world. There’s so much more.”
Kwong still uses the skills she picked up observing her cousin design a collection from scratch, but she too is a critic. “A lot of female potential is squandered because women are conditioned to put so much energy into what they look like,” she says, banging her fist to emphasize the point. “Do I feel like modeling gave me a platform? Yes. Do I feel like it stunted my growth in other aspects of my life? I feel that too.”
Earlier this year, the two women teamed up with French elderflower liqueur brand St-Germain to build a botanical installation of over 13,000 flowers on New York’s High Line to celebrate the summer solstice. They’re looking to continue building gardens together elsewhere and Kwong credits her older friend, who quit New York to repair and live on a houseboat in San Francisco with her husband, for giving her courage to leave the shadow of her cousin and set up her own firm.
However, that meant abandoning a world dominated by women for the landscaping industry, where she often found herself to be the only woman—and the youngest person—in the room. “I had a lot of difficulty earlier in my career and found my opinion overlooked often,” Kwong says. “But esteem comes from esteemable acts. You build a skillset and do more projects, so when anybody challenges you, you can point to a time when you’ve excelled.”
She’s also particularly fond of a presentation she recently attended by a female startup CEO, who flashed a simple slide: “I’m qualified because I’m f—king doing it.” “I feel that more and more,” Kwong says, who says she goes out of her way to hire women to staff her team. “We’re in a world that tries to disempower us and I’m so tired of that.”
For her part, Kühn continues working with her family on Roots of Peace, though she’s also set up a premium spice company to distribute the wares of Vietnamese farmers. “It’s a mission my mother started but a huge part of my identity as well,” she says. “The biggest challenge is to celebrate family life without work life bleeding into it. It’s something we’re practicing [starting with] planning trips that aren’t just to minefields.”
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