Lily Turner & Anh Tran: Shaking Cincy up Together
Lily is the co-founder of Urban Blooms, a local nonprofit specializing in the design and installation of Living Walls for commercial and residential projects. Through their GROW Cincinnati program, they partner with community organizations to bring the environmental, health, economic, and community benefits of Living Walls to under-resourced neighborhoods.
Anh Tran is an artist, producer, and creator. She is a recent recipient of a People’s Liberty Globe Grant and, along with Sidney Cherie Hilley, has created LOOK – a temporary shop, reading lounge, performance area, and open studio space in Camp Washington.
We meet at Liberty’s Bar & Bottle, home to many of Lily and Anh’s best ideas. It’s an innocent enough starting point for a simple after-work get-together. But with Lily and Anh, a simple get-together can just as often turn into an unplanned meeting of top-tier movers and shakers planning out the next great idea for the city. I’ve been there, and it happens.
Lily shows up with Mable Bacon, a big, friendly pooch that she’s in charge of for a few days. Anh arrives moments later and we claim a back corner, hoping our huddle cuts through the loud buzz of a very happy happy hour.
Being well-known in the creative and entrepreneurial world of Cincinnati, these women are no strangers to interviews. But our focus is a bit different – it is their friendship that has piqued my interest. As compelling as they are individually, when together, the sum of this duo morphs into even bigger things.
So, as Mable Bacon wanders off to a more attentive table, Lily and Anh’s conversion begins to swirl around us, equal parts brilliant ideas and rambunctious laughter.
You seem like old friends, but you met only three years ago, right?
Anh: Yes, we were at Pontiac BBQ in OTR with mutual friends, and that was it.
Lily: We were barbecue drunk.
Anh: We ate that Frito thing.
Lily: Yeah, that Frito pie [laughs].
Anh: I texted Lily immediately after I left. I was like: “We have to hang out; I want to work with you.” We instantly clicked. We recognized an energy in each other, and when you see that in another person, it’s just, “Woah, I need to be around this person.”
Was your idea that you wanted to work with Lily?
Anh: I was excited by her energy, and when she mentioned Urban Blooms, her company, I felt that it was a perfect match for what I was doing at Modern Makers. Both of us have visions for changing the community here in Cincinnati, and it made a lot of sense. So, we did a wall-to-table concept where they brought their versions of vertical gardens into the Niehoff Urban Studio, and we took herbs from the wall and created food and drinks from them.
Lily, can you describe Anh? What are the qualities that appeal to you?
Lily: That list is long, but I’ll give you a couple of solid ones: She is very, very kind. And empathetic. And diplomatic. I can’t stress that enough. She has taught me a lot in the few years we have known each other. A lot of her personal traits transfer over to professional environments. I think [these traits] are part of the reason why she has been so successful. She’s very smart; she’s very hard-working. And she’s humble. She’s “over-humble.” She probably will not tell you about all of her gigs and all of her hustles, and she has some really groundbreaking ones.
Anh, how do you see Lily?
Anh: I would have to say: I love Lily for her truth. It is really hard to meet people who are genuine, and she tells it like it is. I feel like that is important. Also, she’s learned to just go out there and be grassroots – to just do the thing and not be a snob about it.
I feel like Lily and I are similar in that we are both excited by what people can offer to Cincinnati, and we like connecting people.
You trust her?
Anh: Oh yeah. She’s my emergency contact, because I know if anything were to go down, Lily would be the one to show up.
Lily, tell us about your work.
Lily: I’m the co-founder and director of operations for Urban Blooms. Urban Blooms is a social enterprise organization. We specialize in the design, installation, and maintenance of Living Wall systems for residential, commercial, and public projects. We started developing the idea six years ago, and we are now in our fourth year of operation. We have really gained a lot of momentum in the last few years and are now working on larger projects – bigger companies such as Toyota and Kroger. One of our newest projects is installing a Living Wall in the new Tri-Health Cancer Center.
It’s just me and co-founder Tyler Wolf. We are a small but mighty team. We wear a lot of different hats, and that’s part of the fun.
Why are you passionate about Living Walls?
Lily: I’m really passionate about this because our systems are a collaboration of design, art, technology, and health, so living walls can be put to use in a lot of different applications. Sometimes interior designers want to use them for purely aesthetic reasons, but then sometimes hospitals such as Tri-Health, who we’re working with now, want to build them into their cancer centers to see if the presence of Living Walls can actually speed the recovery of people going through chemo. There is a therapeutic benefit to these systems, too.
"I feel like a lot of what makes all of us successful is the ability to be malleable and ready for any situation."
We also have a program called GROW that is a public installation project for neighborhoods. It’s structured as a matching program, so Urban Blooms splits the bill with neighborhood organizations, communities, corporations, and through that sponsorship, we can create a fairly large public installation. Then we assess the social, environmental, economic benefits and see what it really does for the community.
Anh, what do you do? What is important to you?
Anh: I wear many hats. I feel like a lot of what makes all of us successful is the ability to be malleable and ready for any situation. So, in the past five years, I’ve been working with Modern Makers as a co-founder. A lot of our work is about revitalizing the community on Short Vine. We worked under the Uptown Consortium group and created projects like the Style & Sustainability Gala. We had free figure drawing once a month, interactive art experiences, and different exhibitions to revitalize the community.
I also do jewelry design through Hark & Hark, art performances, and I am also doing graphic design. I’ve done comic and children’s coloring books, all digital work. There was a time when I designed an action figure for Tower Records, which now does not exist. It’s been a long career.
I am behind the scenes. In a lot of ways, I am a producer – bringing together a lot of elements, doing the Tetris to make it happen. And I have done that on a community level with Modern Makers, and I am now on the advisory team at The Point Arc [a nonprofit organization in Covington that works with people with developmental disabilities] helping to build their new education program. This is what is such meaningful work to me. I really enjoy being the person behind the curtain.
Is either one of you doing what you set out to do when you were in college?
Anh: Definitely not! I started out in chemical engineering and then landed on a finance degree. For many years I was working on science-related deals, research, and development for a Japanese company that designed underbody coating for Toyota. Now I’m deeply involved in the arts and community building.
Lily: I wanted to go to business school. I thought I would end up at P&G or GE and work a 9 to 5. I did apply for an internship at GE and was turned down. It was the best thing that ever happened to me. I’m just not wired for an office setting. I have a lot of energy. I started in finance and moved to marketing as a major at UC. I still do a little of that, but mostly I handle accounts, develop relationships, and I am very happy where I am now.
Is your life what you want it to be right now?
Anh: The question I’ve been asking myself lately is how to have a greater radius of change. I know what I can do at this level. But how do I reach more people? Am I satisfied with the radius of people I am reaching now or do I make it bigger? And, so is it about scale? Does that make sense? Things feel meaningful now, but how do you have a broader reach? How do you impact more people without giving up too much of your soul?
Lily: I thought I was going to work for a bigger organization and that that was happiness – having a good salary and having a family. But I don’t want that life [right now]. I want to see what I can do first. I’m going to challenge myself professionally. And personally, I joke with Anh that I want to go where she goes, because this is the best. I want to keep hanging out with Anh; I want to keep collaborating with Anh. I adore Anh.
I’ve heard a little about these walks you have. Are they important to your creative work process?
Anh and Lily: For sure [laughing].
Lily: After our first collaboration, we made it a point to meet out more. We started going on walks almost every single day. And these are no bush-league walks.
Anh: During the summer we would wake up a 7 a.m. and go for a 10 to 15 mile walk, every day, and we would talk and hash out ideas.
Lily: We had a lot of bad ones. But some also turned into good ones. But I highly recommend getting a gal pal or a walking buddy because it can change your career.
"We’re hungry and we want to shake things up. And we want to do it here."
Anh: What’s great about a walk is that a lot of us are socially awkward in some ways, and when you take a walk, it energizes you. Walking is an action, and it helps to bring out the ideas. You also don’t have to look each other in the eyes, so you can just throw things out there. And keep walking. [Laughs.]
Lily: Yeah, we walk until we can’t walk anymore. We’ve had some bad ideas, but walk another mile, and you realize it and say, “All right, let’s go with something else.” I think that success is very much cyclical, so when I am feeling down, those walks really help.
When I think about the both of you, it’s of two women who are taking big bites out of life, not just nibbling around the edges. Would you agree?
Lily: I don’t want to speak for Anh, but we say it all the time: We’re hungry and we want to shake things up. And we want to do it here.
How do you want to change Cincinnati?
Lily: I want to change how people design and build buildings. With development, you get a lot of steel and concrete and glass. But the way that we are moving and using up all our national resources… We have to incorporate green landscapes; we have to think about living architecture and biophilic design, or we won’t survive. That’s the message I want to get across.
Anh: For the last five years, it’s been building on giving voice and space to creatives. To express their ideas, to feel comfortable doing it in a safe space, making their vision a possibility.
Is that the drive behind LOOK, the creative space you’ve created with the People’s Liberty Globe grant?
Anh: It is definitely that. Modern Makers was that, too.
What does giving space to creatives bring to a city?
Anh: Well, I think that it revitalizes underserved areas. That’s a lot of what the People’s Liberty grant is about: bringing energy to Camp Washington and to take away some of the inner fear that all of us have to express something.
Lily: I think it’s a great concept, giving artists an arena to thrive; it’s unconventional, and it’s fantastic.
Anh: Lily is my ambassador!
Since you are both your own bosses, do you have any rituals to get the work done?
Anh: Deadlines! I always push up against deadlines.
Lily: I’ve been creating a routine, and I’ve started to make my bed every morning [laughing].
Anh: That’s supposed to make you a happier person.
Lily: That’s what I just read [laughing]. I’m just trying these little things that will get me “grown up.” I also recently joined a co-working space, Union Hall, which I absolutely love. Being an entrepreneur. . . some days are awesome; some days will just destroy you. It’s really nice being around people that feel the same way and know what you’re going through.
Do your families consider you the black sheep or favorite daughters?
Anh: Oh, I am totally the black sheep. They wanted me to be a doctor or an engineer. And it took a really long time for them to accept my career path. My sister is the good daughter.
"Being an entrepreneur. . . some days are awesome; some days will just destroy you."
Lily: I would say, my family has come around. My grandparents were always in my corner. My dad and his family had a successful manufacturing company for 120 years in Cincinnati. I interned for them a little bit, and I immediately knew it wasn’t my jam. I was in a cubicle, had three screens in front of me, and I hated it.
What did you learn from your family?
Lily: I just went on a trip with my mother and really got to know her. She told me that [when she was young], you got married at 25, you got financially stable, and then you had two or three kids. And that was kind of it. You didn’t work if the husband provided. Then my mom got divorced, and she had to go to back to school at 48, intern and do all this stuff. So, she wanted all of us to be independent so that wouldn’t happen to us.
My grandparents were the biggest influence in my life. They were immigrants. My grandfather started by shining shoes, and then he built up his career, became president of a big department store. He really is a fine example that you work hard, treat people well, be empathetic, and you can be successful. I listened to his stories and watched how he interacted with people. He never yelled, and he was very sweet. He would never just say “no” to someone’s idea; instead, he would say, “Okay, but would it be better if we did it this way?”
What about you, Anh? Are there lessons from your family?
Anh: Oh, for sure. They were immigrants. They came to the U.S. in 1975. From Vietnam. They were very, very poor. They have built a life for themselves from nothing.
I love the spirit of collaboration. My parents instilled that in me. They went to graduate school, and they studied together late into the night. They worked at the same company, and now they own a business together. I feel like our history is all built in us with things that our family brings to the table. You can’t help it. It’s inside of you. And I feel that’s a lot of the reason why I believe in collaboration.
Who is an influential woman in your life?
Lily: I love my mother, but I would say, my grandmother. My Yiayia. She was very strong and always sharp, even in her older age. She is very fair. She doesn’t say things because she wants control, but because she wants what is best.
Anh: See? That’s another quality of Lily that I love – her fairness. And I think it comes back to this Yiayia influence.
What about for you Anh?
Anh: I feel like it is my mom. I didn’t know this until much later in my life – the fortitude she had to have to get through so many different things without complaining. And dealing with coming to a new country, a new marriage, and how a marriage can change over time, and being patient with someone, and being steadfast.
What do you hope for each other?
Lily: Woah! I just want her to be so happy, so genuinely happy. I want her to be very happy and comfortable in her own skin.
"I feel so lucky to have found Lily. The last couple of years would have felt empty without her."
Anh: Lily has been developing the idea [through Urban Blooms] where you can buy a [pre-packaged Living Wall] system. Lily thrives on productivity and success, and if this new idea can launch, I want that new success for her.
What does this friendship mean to you?
Lily: We’ve had a hard few years. As an entrepreneur, it is so unbalanced; you can have a great professional week and then something that knocks you down. You can get depressed and almost give up. It really helps when someone is in your corner pushing you, saying that you’re doing the right thing, that this is worth it.
Anh: We’ve both been involved in things that have started from the ground up. There isn’t an instant success with that. It takes many years of figuring out the kinks before it’s okay. I feel like it takes a good five years to even find your groove.
I feel so lucky to have found Lily. The last couple of years would have felt empty without her.