Women in Business Q&A: Pum Lefebure, Co-Founder And Chief Creative Officer, Design Army

Design Army/Wenjun Laing

Pum Lefebure is co-founder and chief creative officer of Design Army in Washington, DC, where she oversees all creative that comes through the agency's doors. As an award-winning creative director and business leader, Pum has dreamed up high-profile campaigns worldwide for Ritz Carlton, Marriott, Bloomingdales, Lucasfilm, and the Academy Awards, among others. The Thailand native brings a global sensibility to American design--a creative viewpoint that draws from different cultures and resonates with diverse audiences.

Pum was named by Graphic Design USA as one of the top 50 People to Watch, and awarded Rising Star by the Washington Business Journal's Women Who Mean Business.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
Having lived half my life in Asia and half in the U.S. has given me a unique understanding and perspective of the world. I grew up in Thailand with ancient temples in wild, vivid colors and designs. Then I came to America where everything--from McDonalds to Times Square--was mass market, loud, and in your face. This blending of extreme cultures influenced and spurred my distinct voice and style.

Also, when I came to the U.S. as a foreign exchange student, I was on my own and didn't speak the language. Everything took me twice as long as my classmates. But for the first time, I realized I was in charge of my future. I made it a point to work harder then everyone else. By not relying on a perfect translation across languages, I learned how to speak visually, explaining concepts and directions without words. And I taught myself that you create your own luck: the harder you work, the luckier you get.

How has your previous employment experience aided the creation and evolution of Design Army?
The strong work ethic that was instilled earlier in my life carried throughout my career. Before my husband Jake and I founded Design Army, I spent eight years with another D.C. design firm. Starting as an intern, I worked my way up to Senior Art Director, managing a 50-plus creative team. I was the first to arrive, and the last to leave. The agency also went through many transformations while I was there, including being bought by a large advertising firm. I learned to navigate through all the changes and challenges, experiencing the company at its best and worst. It was like getting a first-hand degree in business. That experience laid the foundation and confidence to start my own company.

What have the highlights and challenges been during Design Army's evolution?
We started Design Army at our kitchen table, and it's grown to a top-tier branding firm, which gives me great pride. I'm also so proud of all the amazing work that comes out of Design Army, giving the firm a distinct voice and sensibility all its own.

The main challenge is our location. Based in Washington, D.C., clients assume we aren't as sexy as agencies in New York or Tokyo, or that we only do political work. But despite our location, we hardly have any political clients--most are national or international. And the clients who do their research realize that, while we may not be the obvious choice, we are the right choice. They come to Design Army to do something different. So I suppose, our challenge is a blessing in disguise.

What advice can you offer to women who want a career in your industry?
Be a creative thinker, have passion, and never stop learning. This is a hard industry, not just for women, but for everyone. It doesn't matter what you do, as long as you do it well.

What is the most important lesson you've learned in your career to date?
To be extremely selective with the clients we take on. When we first started Design Army, we took on everything. But the clients you choose today set the foundation for the clients you get tomorrow. It's not about who can pay, it's about who will bring interesting projects to the table, which might lead to more exciting work and help you grow in the direction you want.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
I don't. People think of work/life balance as the separation between work and downtime. In order to balance my life, I need to blend them together. I also love what I do. When I am working, I'm playing. I think that if you truly love what you do then you don't need to balance it.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
The biggest issue is the mentality that being a woman is an issue. To think we can't accomplish as much our male peers or get ahead is bull. We should always feel empowered and ready to take on the world, even if the men around us don't believe the same. I'm able to run a business and be a mom at the same time; I want both and I make it work.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
It's crucial to give back to our industry. I make an effort to speak at events and participate in mentorship programs. I want to help young designers and teach them how to advance in our industry. I've come to realize that mentorship is never completely one-sided. When I spoke at One Show this past year, I worked on a project with a group of young Chinese design students. Even with the language barrier (we communicated via a translator), I learned so much about Chinese culture and design--it was fascinating. You gain so much by giving.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
Cleopatra. She was such a badass. She was strategic, determined, and never let anything stand in her way.

What do you want Design Army to accomplish in the next year?
We are 12 years strong, at the top of our game, and have a great team. My goal for next year is to make Design Army the ultimate place for creatives to work and grow, including designers, art directors, animators, copywriters, project managers, and social media strategists. And to keep reinventing; surprising myself; and taking clients on a creative journey they've never been before.