Kansas City Women in Business | Jill Tran and Carmen Thomas of Tran & Thomas Design Studio

The best part of their jobs, they agree, is the “reveal” – the unveiling of a fully implemented design to their clients.  They recall one client, a nun, jumping up and down, “squealing and crying like she was on The Price is Right.”  The topic of their clients brings a natural smile to both Carmen and Jill’s faces, a contagious excitement so fresh that I almost have to remind myself that there is well over 20 years of collective professional design experience sitting across the table from me.  “Our clients are number one,” says Carmen.  When hearing them talk about their projects, it’s obvious that they find nothing better in the world than meeting someone new and helping them express their personality through the design of their home or business space.  Two talented, lovely women pushing all their passion into the design of the spaces you spend your days in?  You can’t help but envy those clients.

Jill and Carmen interact so naturally that it comes as no surprise to discover that their two younger brothers have been best friends since the seventh grade.  Despite this connection, however, these two only officially became business partners last April.  Jill spent her childhood following her mom to design markets and showrooms.  Though she hated it in the beginning, as she grew up she started to realize how much she had already learned about design.  She worked with her mom, painting murals and completing skilled sewing projects, even making “an outfit a night” for herself in high school.  She went to college intending to study apparel design, blazed a trail through every art class they offered, and ended up going into business with her mom designing lamps for the likes of Neiman Marcus and the set of Will and Grace.  In 2001, she bought her mom’s design business, and took off with it – though she never stopped searching for the ideal partner.  Meanwhile, Carmen went to the University of Arizona intending to study photography, but realized after two years that she didn’t want to make a career out of it.  So she switched to Kansas State, where she studied in one of the best design schools and minored in business.  She spent ten years working with manufacturing and architecture firms, and upon completion of a project where she was lead designer for the Amway Arena in New Orleans, came back to Kansas City and looked to start her own business.  She asked Jill out to lunch, and though caught off guard when Jill brought up the idea of being business partners, she readily agreed.  And it’s been a whirlwhind of projects and fabulous clients ever since.

One reason Carmen and Jill fell into step so easily is that they both believe in the power of design.  Design can change how you feel and behave in a space, much like you would feel and behave differently if you were wearing a t-shirt and jeans versus a tuxedo.  After redesigning family homes, Jill relates that “I have a lot of parents tell me how pleased they are that their children’s behavior has shifted and changed.”  Likewise, Carmen notes that good commercial design makes people “want to come back for more than just the food,” increasing both the ambiance and the profitability of a business.  But no matter what they are creating, they always strive to avoid “me too” design – simply imitating what everyone else is doing, and blending into the crowd by failing to express the client’s own personality or brand.  (I couldn’t help but note that photographers, too, are in constant danger of falling into “me too” patterns, letting prevailing trends mask their own creativity).  Jill explains that clients frequently think that they “should” want something, because everyone else has it.  She and Carmen relieve them of the pressure of going with what is popular and help them create a space based on what they are drawn to.  They will go to any length to help a client unearth their style, even if they have to march into the client’s closet and examine their accessories.  The result is the reason that the big “reveal” is so satisfying – clients are excited because “somebody finally understood them.”

Despite their accomplished backgrounds, enviable client service, and wild success, Jill readily admits that running your own business is “terrifying.  There are days when you’re through-the-roof happy and excited, and there are days when you want to go sit in a hole….it’s the most difficult and fun thing all combined into one.”  She has found that growing your own business requires constantly being outside of your comfort zone, talking with people about your business to the point that “there is no on-off switch, you’re always on.”  Carmen adds that to create success, “You can’t be afraid of HARD, HARD work.”  But she notes that entrepreneurship is its own kind of satisfaction, because “all the successes are really your own.”  Both acknowledge that when you come up with any business idea, there will be a crowd of naysayers (even if it’s just in your own head).  Carmen’s advice is to “believe in success from the start,” allowing your own confidence to convince others around you and push yourself forward.  Not being afraid of promoting your business is key, because as Jill says, “If you don’t toot your own horn, ain’t nobody gonna toot it for you.”  Well, perhaps that’s not entirely the case for Carmen and Jill anymore – I’m certain that after all their hard work, plenty of their clients will surely sing their praises unprompted.  And after this interview, I can gladly add my name to that list.



 Tran and Thomas Design Studio will gladly help you with design projects of all shapes and sizes, from home accessorizing to commercial design.

They can be reached at (913) 268-9595.

 Click here to read more Kansas City Women In Business Portrait Interviews.

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