06 Jan Young Entrepreneur: Deborah Lee
From Tech to Art
For 25-year-old Deborah Lee, illustration has always been in their blood. “Drawing felt natural to me growing up,” Lee says. Yet they never imagined it would one day become a career. Happily, they were wrong.
After graduating from Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Design, Lee took a job at LinkedIn as a designer. Technology companies often hire creatives to design branding materials and other visuals.
During their last year in college, Lee started to take on different types of illustration projects on a freelance basis. A literary agent saw one of their drawings on social media and asked if they wanted to work on picture books. That evolved into projects working on graphic novels and comics.
As Lee received more and more assignments through word of mouth, they realized they enjoyed working on editorial projects and books more than in tech. On top of that, they often had to stay up late each night to get freelance projects done. Lee came to an epiphany: “I didn’t have time for a full-time job anymore.”
With money saved up from working and freelancing, Lee in 2020 began to focus on their illustration business full-time. Having amassed clients such as Wells Fargo, the New Yorker, and PBS, Lee’s reputation has only flourished since taking the leap.
That’s not to say there haven’t been road bumps along the way. Lee’s biggest challenge: fighting for themselves when companies don’t pay enough or expect them to work under unreasonable conditions.
Recently Lee has moved from Oakland, California, to Brooklyn, New York. They are working on a graphic memoir about their life, titled In Limbo, scheduled to be published in 2023.
“It started out from a comic that I made on Twitter about not being able to talk to my Korean grandparents who don’t speak English,” they say. “I can understand them but it’s difficult to say anything back in our native language.” The project has evolved into a deep dive into Lee’s personal experience, delving into such topics as mental illness and the identity crisis some immigrants face.
Though working on the project has been “a very therapeutic process,” Lee believes they have reached their sweet spot when it comes to staying true to their calling to be an artist and running a successful business.
“If [in the future] I could still make art and books at a pace that I’m doing right now while sustaining myself, then I’d be very happy.”