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From Code to Curator: Kathy Lee ’07 Left the Tech Industry to Run Fine Art Gallery

Photo of Seattle Academy Alumna Kathy Lee 06 at their Fossil & Stone Gallery in Downtown Seattle

Written By: Gena Wynkoop, Editorial Content Manager

Seattle Academy alumna Kathy Lee ’07 has a professional title as President of Fossil & Stone, a Fine Art gallery in downtown Seattle. She never studied art in school–nor did she particularly take an interest in art growing up. In fact, she’d argue that she is more right-brained; equations and math problems come naturally to her.

They came so naturally to her that she pursued electrical engineering at the University of Washington, with a desire to enter the biomedical tech industry. She had a love for biology and science and wanted to make a difference in the world. “I wanted to build biomedical devices. That was my ultimate dream. When people ask you as a teenager, ‘What do you want to do?’ I thought if I could build biomedical devices, then I could solve a problem on a large scale.”

Her career took her everywhere, and not necessarily in the direction of medicine. After graduation from UW, Kathy became a tech consultant for Accenture, building custom databases. After that, she moved to San Francisco in search of something new and was hired at Intuit as a Product Manager, essentially becoming the “CEO” of different Intuit products.

After years of working in the tech field, she woke up one day and realized that it wasn’t giving her that certain spark anymore. Layoffs were happening in her company, and after sharing with her boss that she wasn’t feeling the same type of joy anymore, she encouraged Kathy to take a leap of faith– so she did.

“I thought that it would be a nice break—getting away from San Francisco would be the first break I had since I started working. At this point, I think I was seven or eight years into the tech industry before I hit the pause button.”

Kathy’s father, Eddie Lee, is a sculpture artist who ran a Fine Art gallery up in Alaska at that time. He invited Kathy to work in his gallery for the summer. “I decided to go to Alaska. I’ve never sold or worked in retail, and I didn’t know how, but I knew how to talk to people. I know how to talk to customers.”

Kathy found herself embarking on an adventure she never thought would happen. “It was kind of impromptu working in that art gallery that summer. Selling the art was challenging initially because I didn’t know what to talk about. But in terms of running a business, I saw an opportunity. I thought I could make this better.”

Everything ran as normal that summer, but shortly thereafter, the COVID-19 pandemic shut them down. The Fine Art shop in Alaska was closed down for two summers. They returned to Seattle to ride it out.

“During the pandemic, my dad was still carving, and I wondered how to sell it. I ended up uploading 500 carvings to the website, and I started marketing and doing Facebook and paid posts. These were all things that were self-discovered. Obviously, these tools existed, but this was when the experimentation of entrepreneurship really took off,” recalled Kathy.

After waiting two summers for the shop to open, they decided to start looking for spaces in Seattle to open a gallery. After walking downtown and visiting the Pike Place Market in January of 2021, they came across the location on Second and Pine.

“I think we looked at five different retail locations, and there was always something that wasn’t checking a box—and then we happened upon our current location close to the Pike Place Market. Serendipitously, we parked by the Market, came across this space, and signed a lease before anyone knew it was available.”

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Photo of Seattle Academy Alumna Kathy Lee 06 Fossil Stone Article Photo 2 2024

Now, years later, the shop is running smoothly, and Kathy and her dad are in business together. Kathy’s leap of faith to leave the tech industry has become a flourishing next chapter of her career.

“When people come into the store, they will ask me if I know the artist and if we are related before I even show them a picture of my dad. I will ask them why they ask if I’m related to the artist, and they’ll respond by saying, ‘You just have a sense of pride and enthusiasm about the work,’ and then I’ll tell them that it’s my dad.”

The enthusiasm comes easily as Eddie Lee has a fascinating life story.

“My dad fled Vietnam in 1979. He was placed in Seattle. He gets here in the dead of winter, he’s never experienced such cold in his life. He’s just trying to survive by taking odd jobs. His English exists, but it’s not strong. He’s parking cars as a valet, he’s a bus boy, and he’s looking for jobs in the newspaper, as people used to,” jokes Kathy.

“He finds a carving position for a carving studio called Northwest Arts and Crafts, which paid $1.75 in 1979. He thought the hourly wage was dependable instead of all these odd jobs here and there.”

He was asked if he had ever carved anything when he showed up for his interview. He answered no, but that he was a hard worker and to give him a chance. The studio's owner was a German immigrant and saw a bit of himself in Eddie, as a newcomer into the country.

“He gave my dad a fossilized whale tooth, which is so wild that he gave him such a precious material. He sat there with tools he’d never used and carved an eagle's head because it has a pointy beak. He was hired that day,” said Kathy. “He had nothing to lose.”

Eddie stayed with that carving studio for six months and then thought he could do it himself. He built a shack behind his rental house and started carving independently. “His mom would watch from the window and shake her head, like, ‘What are you doing? You’re in America now, you risked your life at sea for a week. Go back to school, you’re book-smart.’ He said, ‘No, this is why I was born.’”

The risk of breaking off and doing his own thing paid off for Eddie, eventually allowing Kathy to take a similar risk in joining him in the business venture.

“When I first joined my dad in Alaska, it was still very much a father-daughter relationship. This was his domain, he’s been selling his art for 40 years. Me, coming from the tech industry, is on a completely different spectrum of the industry. Once that initial dynamic passed, he could see what I was good at. My strengths were his weaknesses and vice versa,” explained Kathy. “We actually make this really great team.”

Kathy shares that it took three years for Eddie to treat her as an equal.

“In Vietnamese culture, it is rare for a father to see his daughter as an equal. When we signed the lease in Seattle and opened Fossil & Stone, I was the president, and he was the vice president. He really wanted to hand the reins over and focus on the art.”

Photo of Seattle Academy Alumna Kathy Lee 06 Art Gallery Fossil and Stone

The space is truly stunning, featuring the works of art made by Kathy’s father and a few other artists that

Eddie has made space for in the gallery. Kathy runs the gallery, builds the community, and sells her father's art. They still live across the street from each other, and Eddie is still carving.

“He is a true entrepreneur and has instilled that in me. In times in my career when I felt stagnant and would think, ‘this is not the place for me anymore, and it's time to move on,’ I think that courage lives inside of me because of him.”

“I think this whole experience for me has been about taking opportunities when they come to you and not being afraid. Being courageous because you never know what’s on the other side. I took this leap because my dad is 67. He won’t always be carving, but tech will always be there.”

Kathy has no regrets about leaving the tech industry, and she sees this time being the President of Fossil & Stone as a major learning and growth opportunity for herself both professionally and personally.

“This is a time I will never regret, and I also don’t regret being in tech either. But I go to work every day, and I laugh, and I play, and I see happy people.”