leigh’s “designed life”

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Today I have an incredible Designed Life to share with you. From what started as a simple but intriguing comment on a post I wrote a while back, I have met Leigh of An American Girl in Cambodia and asked her to share her incredible story here on MML in it’s entirety. Read on, it’s an incredible look at what is possible even during a tough recession (or maybe even because of it?).


Leigh’s Designed Life

I’ve always been a wanderlust. I’ve always loved travel and adventure. I’ve always believed that the journey is more important then the destination and that everything happens for a reason.

I’ve always wanted to be of service, but I knew that swinging hammers or building latrines wasn’t right for me. I like fashion, theater and reality television. I want to wear dresses, ridiculous earrings and stacks of bangles to work. I want to be able to do good without giving up the things I enjoy.

Last fall I received the opportunity of a lifetime. I was asked to move to Siem Reap, Cambodia to launch a socially-based weaving business conceived from a simple loom, a need and a thread. So one week before my 27th birthday in December, I hopped on a plane and moved across the globe sight unseen.

While I never dreamed that life would lead me here, looking back it all makes sense. Everything did in fact happen for a reason. Every twist, turn, challenge and triumph was necessary.

I think the road that brought me to Siem Reap started in college. I might have been upset at the time, but ultimately I should thank my parents for insisting that I pursue a second, more practical, degree in addition to theater. Fully expecting to double major in English, I took a political theory class my freshman year to fulfill general education requirements at Drew University. As they say, the rest is history. I loved the exploration of power – both on stage and in politics. I’m certain that the combination of training in the creative process as a theater director while also honing analytic skills in the political science department led me to develop skills as a “pragmatic visionary”.  Throughout my career, I’ve been looked to as a bridge between creative teams and those who are less creatively inclined because I can usually understand the needs of both and negotiate a compromise.

I moved to New York with the intention to thrive in the theater scene. I had high hopes, but the city that never sleeps had other plans. While assistant directing for off-off shows and the fringe festival, I found (like so many theater artists) that I was going to have to find a day job to support myself. After stints as a temp at a couple of financial firms, I finally landed at an iconic fashion brand. The Chief Creative Director and I spoke the same design language (despite the fact that I cut my teeth in theater and she in fashion) and one thing led to another and I became a full-time employee supporting the Chief Creative Director and Director of Visual + Creative Services.

I started a crash course learning about pattern, fabric, color, print + graphic design and the fashion world. I realized that fashion design teams function similarly to theatrical design teams. I felt at home and excited to be involved in the creative process in a completely new capacity. I soaked up information about product development, worked one-on-one with a designer to refine her collections and did as much trend research as time would allow. Little did I know that in a few short years I would find myself across the globe in charge of design, product development and sourcing for a new brand!
The recession hit and my position was eliminated in the fall of 2008. I freaked out. I panicked. I got lucky and found a freelance gig helping to launch a new e-commerce site. I watched an amazing entrepreneur build her business from the ground up. I had my hand in product development, web design, graphic design, public relations, branding and marketing. After six months, the freelance contract ended and I found myself at square one again. I was in a frantic space, grasping at any and every job opportunity. Applying for jobs that I had no interest in or qualifications for at all hours of the day and night. Let’s be honest, employers don’t like desperate. And boy could they sense my desperation.

Burnt out and unsure of what to do next, I stopped and took a step back. I recognized that I was experiencing information overload and couldn’t possibly compute all the possibilities. I knew that I wasn’t going to find a job while I was such a hot mess. So, I took a breather. It was late spring and I knew I needed time. I gave myself the summer. I told myself not to fret being unemployed, that things would work themselves out and that I would really start to put a plan together in September. I set the deadline then promptly let go of it.

During this time, my mentor (who had moved to Cambodia to open her own brand and store) was back in New York and wanted to introduce me to a fellow dreamer who had founded an NGO in Cambodia. Since I was unemployed and had nothing but free time, I made my way into the city to hear all about the amazing things that dreamer was doing. I did something completely new for me – I told him I admired the work he did and would love to be a part of it. At that point, it was one of my rare moments of opening up and staking a claim on the life I wanted. Both my mentor and the dreamer returned to Siem Reap. I felt good about opening up. I gave myself permission to think about what I wanted. I gave myself permission to dream.

Photo Credit, Jessica Swift

I spent the summer dreaming. I blogged. I relaxed. I rested and refueled. I spent a lot of time with my grandfather. We watched old and new movies and ate tons of lunches at the diner. I did a lot of soul searching. I scoured the internet for bloggers and personal development gurus who spoke to the type of person I wanted to be. I added Makeunder My Life, Nubby Twiglet, Gala Darling & Danielle LaPorte to my google reader. I devoured their words and modeled myself in their image – wise, fierce, authentic women who know what they want and dive in. I signed up for a web and graphic design certificate program that was free to the unemployed. I scheduled all of my classes for the fall.

I chose to live as an optimist. I decided what I wanted out of life and told my friends. At first, I only told my most trusted friends. Nervous and fidgety I spilled my guts then waited for them to say, “that’s crazy!” or “impossible!” or “how do you think you’ll do that?” Imagine my surprise when they responded with, “what can we do to make this happen?” Or, “how can I help?” Woah. You mean, there are people out there who want to support me in following my dreams? I was shocked, but buoyed. Encouraged and energetic and happy.

I felt positive. For the first time in my life, I expected that everything would work out.

In September, I began classes in the web and graphic design certificate program. I still wasn’t sure what I wanted, but I knew I had to do something proactive. Then, that dreamer I met in April got back in touch with me to ask if I would be interested in moving across the globe to work for his NGO. Yes! Of course! I jumped at the opportunity.

Now, I’m in Siem Reap, Cambodia. I’m an administrator, creative director, designer, product development and sourcing coordinator, entrepreneur, teacher and so much more. I’m being challenged in ways I never could have anticipated. I’m learning and growing and doing my best to adapt to cultural differences. While many of these roles are new to me, I feel prepared for this new phase of my life.

While much of the last few years was really hard (hello, recession and unemployment!), I now know that I needed that time to explore my intentions and dreams. I was extremely unhappy and needed introspection to commit to living positively and optimistically. I needed the chaos to remind myself that I am in control. Paulo Coelho wrote: the world’s biggest lie is, “that at a certain point in our lives, we lose control of what’s happening to us, and our lives become controlled by fate.” Now, I know better.

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  1. This is a beautifully brilliant and inspiring story, Leigh! Amazing, amazing!

    By any chance–could you provide a link to the graphic design program for unemployed people that you mentioned?

  2. Niki

    What an amazing story! I feel like I’m at the begin of my transition into a career I design myself – so it’s always great to hear a “happy ending” for encouragement to keep going! Best of luck in Cambodia Leigh!

  3. Dionne

    I so needed to read this, today! After being laid off and freelancing for a year, I’ve been in and out of frustration. You touched on the key to keeping your sanity “I set my deadline and promptly let go of it.” So inspiring to read about your path!

  4. rose

    such an interesting story and heartening to hear a personal account of a road less travelled… would love to hear how it all pans out!

  5. Leigh

    I sent an e-mail to Krista, but just in case anyone else is interested. I went through the One Stop Career Program. You can find a branch near you at: http://www.careeronestop.org.

    Thanks, Niki! And best of luck to you too!

    Dionne – seriously, that saved me. And, miraculously, everything happened on the timeline I set. Despite the fact that I wasn’t fretting over it. So, good luck to you! Let go, breathe and try to enjoy the moment.

    Rose – Thanks for your encouragement. You can keep up with my struggles and triumphs at http://www.njtosiemreap.wordpress.com.

    Thanks all!

  6. Bethany

    This is wonderful! I’m so proud to know you! Leigh has toughed it out through a lot of difficulty here in Cambodia, and that smile hasn’t left her face. What an inspiration!

  7. Piper

    Wow, Leigh, your story is amazing and inspiring! I love that you learned to be patient and let go – that’s so difficult to do! I love that you followed your instincts and now you’re on an amazing journey. I can’t imagine the courage that takes to move to a different country and also start a biz – thanks for sharing your story!!

  8. Zina


    I’m embarking on a journey of my own this summer: leaving a stable job to move to LA to pursue a dream. I know it won’t be easy but I have no doubts that the adventure will be worth it. Reading your story has made me even more excited for the next chapter to begin. It’s an inspiration for all of us dreamers.

    Best of luck!
    Zina (yep, the stuart one) 🙂

  9. Ling

    I got goosebumps reading about your amazing inspring journey! Although I’m not unemployed at the moment, but you reminded me to take a step back and take a look at how my life had turned out so far, and I will continue to do so and be optimistic about everything that is happening or going to happen and learn to embrace what’s to come. Thank you! =)

  10. Leigh

    Aw, and thank you Bethany! For visiting me in the hospital and keeping me laughing through all the challenges!

    Thanks, Piper.

    Zina! So happy to see you here and about to embark on following your dreams! Best of luck in LA.

    Thank you, Ling! It’s an evolving journey – we constantly have to step back and evaluate and choose the way we live.

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