Coffee With A Stranger Cup 118 Terah Kelley

Cup 118: Terah Kelley – NOLA native, design junkie, and yoga enthusiast.

The Place: Thai FreshCoffee With A Stranger Cup 118 Terah Kelley

The Cup: Terah ordered a pot of hot tea and I opted for some plain old, but delicious, coffee.

The Background: Several months back I was asked to be a mentor for an organization called The Young Women’s Alliance. I was honored to be asked, but at first was hesitant to take on another commitment. Ultimately, I decided to commit to a year of mentoring and wow, I am so glad I did! My mentee Bre is absolutely sensational! She is bright, driven, enthusiastic, inquisitive, thoughtful, ambitious and an all-around balanced young woman. Mentoring her has pushed me to think bigger and to approach things differently. As I go about my daily business, I am looking for examples to bring back to our next meeting — which causes me to approach things with the same zeal Bre does. This is going to sound clichéd, but it’s sincere. I’ve gotten as much, if not more, from this mentoring experience, than I have given. And I’d encourage everyone to give some thought to mentoring. Enriching – I promise!

So…how does this fit in? Bre Miller Brown is in commercial real estate and is a Tenant Rep Broker with JLL here in Austin. She already has an incredibly impressive client list and has worked on some high-profile projects. One of which is the new headquarters for Kendra Scott. During her time on the project, she met the designer who was creating the gorgeous interiors for Kendra’s new spaces here in Austin, as well as designing some of the new stores around the country. Bre was impressed with her and asked me if I’d be interested in interviewing Terah over coffee. I said OF COURSE! Bre made the email introduction and here we are!

Bre was spot on when she described Terah’s energy and passion for life and beauty. Before we get into her fabulous story, let’s cover a few:

Common Grounds:

  1. What is the best gift you’ve ever given? My dollhouse when I was a kid. My grandfather built it. It’s 5 feet tall. It was the coolest thing. My mom saved all her Barbies and Barbie furniture — like a four-post bed, and a kitchenette with mustard colored appliances and I spent hours playing with it.
  2. What is the best way to unwind? Yesterday, it was a glass of Rosé on the patio and cutting fresh lettuce and broccolini from  our backyard garden.
  3. What’s a food you can’t live without? Eggs. I am such a breakfast person. Eggs and pesto, or eggs and these spicy carrots I found at the farmer’s market, or eggs and goat cheese and basil. They are the best food; so versatile. Yesterday we had our broccoli and I put two fried eggs on top and some fresh parmesan. It was amazing.
  4. Who is your celebrity doppelgänger? I’ve been told Katherine Heigl and, though she’s a hot mess, Tara Reid. And I hear a lot that I look like Kendra Scott. {YES! She totally does! Blonde, bright and beautiful!}
  5. How did you make your first buck? I worked at Wet Seal in the mall. In New Orleans, all the older women that were going to clubs and stuff, would come in with their daiquiris on Fridays and be getting loaded walking around the store. So I was this little 15 year old putting outfits together for them to go to the club in. It was really hilarious! The other job I had was in a tanning salon and I was working on commission and I was killing it. I didn’t even realize how much money I was making, But a few years ago I looked at the W-2’s and realized I was making $35,000 when I was 16. My parents were pissed! They were like, “We were giving you money!?!”  I had no idea!
  6. What’s your guilty pleasure? I love planning events. I love a theme! Right now I’m planning my best friend’s bachelorette party. The theme is going to be Old Hollywood. I just love that stuff.

Big Easy

Take a moment and imagine New Orleans. What comes to mind? Do your thoughts turn to hundred year old Live Oak trees dripping with moss, the stunning architecture of The French Quarter, people sitting on the patio of Café Du Monde enjoying the famous café au lait and beignets? Maybe.  I’m going to guess a few other images come to mind as well.  Images like live music on Bourbon Street, over the top parades during Mardi Gras, colorful beads tossed from balconies, drinks just as colorful as the beads, and people more colorful than the drinks.  New Orleans is rich with history, culture and vibrancy, and if you’ve been, it’s not a city you’d easily forget. Unless of course you enjoyed a few too many of those colorful drinks, in which case it’s a city you may not easily remember.

An image that probably didn’t come to mind was of a little girl, sitting in her bedroom playing with her Barbies and her giant doll house. Or sitting on her bed drawing pictures of fashions or interiors of high-rise buildings. When we think of The Big Easy, it’s easy to forget that people call it home. That they go to work in offices, pick up milk on the way home from softball practice, and that children grow up there. Children like Terah.

When talking about New Orleans, it’s obvious Terah has a profound appreciation for the city. She loves the beauty and the history, but like many of us, that fondness for home really only developed after leaving. Of her childhood, Terah says she was living an adult life as a child. And when it came time to choose a college, she knew she needed to put some miles between herself and New Orleans.

Southern Miss

A chance encounter with an old friend turned her onto the idea of going to The University of Southern Mississippi and when she arrived on campus  she knew it was the perfect fit. Terah says sorority life made making friends easy, but having experienced her warmth and openness, I think it’s safe to assume Terah could make friends anywhere. Terah met more than a set of amazing best friends at college; she also met the man she’s now married to – Jesse.

Terah’s parents grew up in Atlanta, so she knew after college that was where she wanted to move. Luckily, Jesse was also up for that adventure and the pair set off to get to know a new city while at the same time getting to know one another.

Grand Adventure

An internship led to a terrific job with an architecture firm, where Terah spent the next eight years learning and growing as a designer. Over the years, she was approached by recruiters trying to pitch different firms around the city, but Terah was really happy where she was and wasn’t interested in leaving. That is, until the day a recruiter told her about a job in Austin, TX working in design and business development. Terah tells me that when she read the job description she felt as if it had been written just for her.

She flew out to meet with the firm, Sixthriver Architects, and because they felt she was as perfect for them as she felt they were for her, a brief two weeks later she and Jesse were laying roots in Austin, TX.

Terah says she absolutely loves her new city and all that it has to offer. We talk about the farmer’s markets, the yoga studios, the lake, the trails and the sunshine. The foodie scene, the nightlife, and the wonderful people.  There is very little not to love about this beautiful city. The 160 people moving here every day must agree.

Big Fish

One of the reasons Terah was hired was to help the firm land Austin’s favorite jewelry design maven, Kendra Scott. Terah spent her first months learning everything she could about Kendra, her business, her philosophy, her style, tastes, preferences. All the research paid off and Terah landed a designer’s dream project — helping create Kendra’s new headquarters, as well as reimagining what a distribution center could be. In this case, something more like a Four Seasons than a warehouse.

When Terah talks about the 18 months she spent working with Kendra and her team, she smiles from ear to ear. She talks about each of the people she worked with as if they were family. In fact, she shares that she’s been shopping for the last week for the perfect Thank You cards for each of them. She’s painstakingly searched out the most perfect card for each person and their personality. And that’s Terah for you. Nothing she does is by accident or on a whim. Her decisions are made thoughtfully, tastefully and purposefully — including the table she selects at a restaurant.


When I ask Terah about something she believes that everyone else thinks is crazy she describes just this. She says, “My husband is driven insane by this, but if we get seated at a table in a restaurant and I don’t like it, I will ask to be moved. The ambiance has to be right. I did it when I came in here (the coffee shop). I looked at all the tables and tried to decide which was best. And then when I sat down, I moved things around because I want it to be a better presentation. I am all about the environment. I analyze everything. I love trying new restaurants and visiting new places, but I have to get up and touch things and take pictures. I think maybe only designers understand that.”

What’s the most significant thing that’s happened to Terah in the last 30 days? A huge career move. She says, “Changing from design to sales — which I think was my path the whole time. At some point you have to ask, ‘Do I want to do this for the rest of my life?'”

After the Kendra Scott projects wrapped up, Terah decided it was time to embrace the part of her job she really loved — business development. She has very recently taken a new job with Knoll. Terah has been very familiar with the company for years as they have a huge presence in Atlanta. Terah says she’s always been impressed with their beautiful furniture, but beyond that, she loves that they are a detail and design-oriented company, adding, “They understand the details, and that presentation is everything.” She is very excited about the new opportunity!

I wanted to know what she’d try if she had a year to get really good at something and she surprised me with: “Headstands. Or handstands — really, either. But I’m scared. I grew up with my mother who was constantly protecting me so I’m nervous to do things that might hurt me. My husband, who doesn’t even do yoga, can just pop up and do one right now! I know I’ll get there.”

Less is More

I asked Terah to tell me what she wants less of in her life and she says, “Negative energy. Oh, and carbs — to be honest. But dang I love them!” Don’t we all?!?

And what she wants more of?  “Flexibility. And less sitting. They say sitting is the new smoking. I prefer moving about and going to see people. When I talk to people I find engaging, I get all fired up and I’m my best self. Compared to when I sit in one place for a long time. I can almost get reclusive. I think that’s the Gemini in me.”

What is Terah ridiculously good at? She says, “I’m a good cook. I look at a recipe and then I throw it away and I make it my own. I’m also good at reading people. And knowing how to raise up or lower my personality to fit that person and what makes them comfortable.” Both admirable skills!

How about a ritual, habit or practice she feels contributes to her overall success or well-being? Not surprisingly, she say, “Yoga, getting outside, doing things that I know are good for me. Maybe grabbing a Blenders and Bowls. It’s 20 minutes of happiness. I love fresh juices and healthy foods.  One bad meal and I’m upset for a week. I do it all the time, but it makes me feel better to eat healthy. I also love Juice Society. Their charcoal lemonade is really good. It’s potent, so you can’t drink it all at once. But it sucks all the toxins out of you.”

Design Your Best Life

If Terah had 30 seconds to make a speech to the world, her message is simple: “Smile because you never know who’s watching. And design changes the world. I really believe that.”

Wow!  What a powerful conversation! Terah has made a career from her careful attention to detail and now helps create spaces that people feel happy in, and environments where people are productive and comfortable. She’s taken the same level of attention to detail in examining her career choices as well. She could have carried on taking on grueling, and possibly less interesting projects, but instead chose a direction that was better suited for her. And that’s an incredibly valuable lesson, and one I learned later than she has. Just because you’re good at something and a company wants you to stay, doesn’t mean it’s where you’re meant to be. That starts from knowing what you want and believing you can have it.

Terah has taken the idea of design and applied it all areas of her life — almost as a mantra or a compass. A well-designed life is one of beauty and balance; of function and fulfillment. She’s shown us we can make the best of every environment we’re in if we’re intentional with our actions. For Terah, thoughtfully placing a teapot in the ideal spot isn’t about perfectionism. It’s about small alterations that make a big difference. She knows that life is in the details. If you have the choice between a table facing the bathroom or one by a window, don’t say it doesn’t matter. Ask for the one you prefer. It’s your life. Design it how you like.


If you enjoyed this interview, “Like” the Coffee With A Stranger Project Facebook page and you’ll be the first to know about upcoming interviews with new strangers and other fun stuff. If there’s someone in Austin you think I need to have coffee with, let me know and I’ll do my best to sweet talk them into having coffee with a stranger.

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