Kelly Tomlinson, 29

“I’m not trying to change the world, I just want to make everyone I know and everything I work on better in some way.”

In their own words

I founded Coffee & Design in 2014 which is a non-profit dedicated to inspiring, connecting, and growing design professionals in KC. We do this through the monthly programming of diverse events and formats for all facets of design. This has connected hundreds of designers and opened up new opportunities for them.

I was a KC Startup Weekend (KCSW) winner in 2012. I took that winning idea and built it out with a small team, launched it in the app store, got a paying client on board, and won a small grant for continuing work on it. It’s retired now (which was a hard decision) but for not knowing what the heck I was doing, I’m pretty proud of that. After participating in a couple more KCSWs, I moved on to being an organizer and then to a mentor and facilitator.

I helped bring Startup Grind to KC and then was the Chapter Director in 2014, currently sit on the board of directors for AIGA KC (going into my second year) and am a co-chair of KC Design Week, a weeklong celebration of design here in KC that happens every spring. This is my second year as a co-chair and my fourth year as an organizer.

KC story

I moved to Kansas City about six years ago and it was really from a “why not?” perspective. I was desperate to leave Arizona,  and I had a couple of friends here so I had a support system (plus there was Chipotle). So I figured why not? I promised myself when I moved that I wouldn’t serve or bartend and would focus solely on building my design career. I’m really proud to say that’s exactly what I did! I’ve been able to work for amazing companies on amazing digital products for awesome startups and awesome brands! I really found my footing with being involved in the startup community; from doing my own things, hosting programs, attending events, etc. and I took learnings from that to dive into the design community with aims of building it up and strengthening it, too. It’s been awesome that the first half of my time here was filled with a lot of opportunities opening up for myself, and now I’ve been able to focus a bit more on facilitating opportunities for others. When it comes to KC, I’ve had moments where I consider moving again (I mean c’mon, an ocean and mountains please!?) and I’ve also had job opportunities that require relocation. But the thing about it, and why I choose to stay, is this: so many major creative cities are incredible, but they are all already what they are – they’ve been shaped. Kansas City is still growing, still being created, still becoming its own, and the fact that I can be a part of that – how do you leave that?

A day in the life

I think the amazing thing about my everyday, and something that I’m incredibly grateful for, is that it’s largely different day to day. Most days start off with coffee meetings or just grabbing a smoothie on the way to work (I’m pretty obsessed with smoothies), and then during my day at VML I’m usually in meetings consulting for best practices or figuring out exactly what we’re building with different clients. Other days at work I’m getting to build out proof-of-concepts for AR, Amazon Echo/Google Home, smart TVs and more. Or I’m heads down working on documenting and building out our practice and collaborating with fellow VMLers or folks in the community. In the evenings I’m often at a Coffee & Design or KCDW-related meeting, happy hour with my friends, or being a much needed couch potato with my fiancée!


Honestly, I just want to be known as someone who helped improve everything she touched. So however someone may know me, they know I’ve impacted something for the better. Whether it’s a personal relationship, an experience, a product, the design community, their work life, a process or anything else, I hope when they think of me they think of how I helped make it awesome. I’m not trying to change the world, I just want to make everyone I know and everything I work on better in some way.


Most people think I’m a huge extrovert and that speaking in front of people comes really easily. When they find out I get nervous, they think it’s crazy, but I do! My heart starts beating really fast even when I’m just making a welcome announcement for C&D or even just saying who I am and what I do in a meeting!

Also, in the last couple of years I’ve won both a limbo and a hula hoop contest. I believe them both to be those adrenaline rush situations like when a grandmother can lift a car off of her grandkid and I am pretty sure I could not do it again if I tried!  


There’s a phrase that we often use on my team at VML: You will never experience a slower rate of change than right now. And it’s so true. Everything is changing so rapidly, growth is exponential, and honestly we’re only on the edges of it. But that all translates to opportunity, and that we’re on the edge of the greatest opportunities we’ve ever had. So the best thing I can say is to take advantage of that and go after anything you find remotely interesting or exciting because not only may your chance disappear, but also it’s so accessible. We’re in a world where we can keep pursuing things one after the other.

And most importantly: be kind and drink more water.