Kelly Lyndgaard

Ambassador of Possibility

Kelly Lyndgaard was an award-winning physicist and engineer at IBM with very little free time on her hands when she attended a women’s networking event organized by her church. That event changed — but also saved — her life. 

Kelly Lyndgaard

he event speaker, a woman named Emily, talked about her lifelong battle with addiction and recovery. When she was eight years old, Emily was introduced to drugs by a teenage neighbor who thought it would be “funny” to get her high. What followed was a spiral into addiction and homelessness. Lyndgaard, who was at the time managing a $1 billion technology portfolio believed hard work would lead to rewards. She had little to no exposure to addiction as a disease and thought addicts were lazy and irresponsible. But Emily’s story left her wondering how she could hold someone responsible for choices that just were a way of dealing with childhood trauma. Acknowledging she had a lot to learn, Lyndgaard was moved by Emily’s presentation and realized how challenging it could be to recover and maintain sobriety.

Wanting to help, Lyndgaard volunteered to assist with a handbag fundraiser to help recovering women get back on their feet. She had previously turned an old suede coat from her grandfather into a handbag and knew she could teach other women to make bags out of donated coats in order to raise money for the program. “I am a handbag fanatic,” she told us, adding that she was like a kid at the zoo when she shopped. “I stopped and looked at every display.” 

Initially, Lyndgaard found that working with women in recovery was gratifying, but soon the number of relapses she witnessed troubled her. “I watched women with great potential and a commitment to sobriety relapse because they didn’t have a safe environment to go home to or the proper skills and training to thrive in the world.”

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Inspired to help pave a road to long-term success, Lyndgaard had an idea that would solve two problems at once: employing women in recovery to be her workforce, she started a business that up-cycled old materials — keeping them out of landfills — into new handbags. To fully embrace this venture, she made the bold decision to resign from her position at IBM and in 2015, Unshattered, a 501 c3 non-profit, was launched with the mission to end the addiction relapse cycle through ethical, sustainable fashion.

Quitting corporate life also gave Lyndgaard time to tend to some long overdue self-care. The week she resigned, she received the news that she was positive for BRCA II, a gene that left her highly susceptible to breast and ovarian cancer. She was under 40, and with the advice of her medical team, underwent a hysterectomy and double mastectomy followed by reconstruction surgery. As she walked out of her last surgery she reflected: “I have never been more of a brave badass than this,” she said. “It’s all healing from here.” 

The following year — when she was well enough to move forward — Unshattered hired its first employee. Every position at Unshattered starts with a 10-week training program, partners with a recovery center, and helps with transitional housing. Employees must invest 10% of their paid time in personal and professional growth, counseling, workshops, and mentoring to reach their highest potential. 

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The business started by up-cycling family heirlooms — including old West Point uniforms, wedding gowns, and even an old pair of running shoes. Country Living magazine offered the company booth space at an event, and it grew from there. Soon corporations like Southwest Airlines were donating leather from old seats, and interior designers were donating scrap materials. Lyndgaard quickly realized that in addition to making products, the women were problem-solving and working as a team. They were creative and had great pride in their work — before long, she knew she was fulfilling the non-profit’s mission. Unshattered was not just another bag maker.

Committed to high-quality work that emphasizes quality over quantity, Lyndgaard sees the up-cycled bags as a metaphor. “Something that is perceived as discardable and worthless is remade with beauty, purpose, and meaning,” she said, much in the same way the lives of the women who work for her are being rebuilt. 

Each bag has three “secret” components: each is named for a person who is struggling, each features a gold thread to honor the Japanese art of Kintsugi (repairing broken pottery with gold to highlight the beauty of the repair), and each harbors a hidden message from the women who crafted the bag.

The stories of these women — women in various stages of life and recovery — continue to inspire Lyndgaard. Amanda, Unshattered’s designer and product manager, joined the company after years of homelessness, prostitution, and incarceration. Determined to thrive, heal, and grow, Amanda was named one of 40 under 40 Business Leaders for the county, and has spoken at the White House. She is currently finishing college and is about to buy her first home.  

Today, the company employs 11 “talented, committed, tenacious, and loyal women,” said Lyndgaard. The program has an impressive 96% success rate and has recorded only one relapse since its foundation. 

The organization has been featured by Huffington Post, NBC Nightly News, CBS News, Fox Business, ABC News, NY Magazine and The Advocate. Unshattered has won multiple awards, including Non-profit of the Year, an MHAFP award for innovation in philanthropy, best social enterprise by Hudson Valley Magazine, and the company has been lauded by the White House, which recognized Unshattered for creative and effective work in fighting the opioid crisis.

On May 1, 2023, Unshattered moved into its new headquarters in Wappingers Falls, New York. The Castle, a 22,000 square foot building will serve as a factory, retail store, and healing space. The space needs a lot of work, but Lyndgaard sees an opportunity to transform the decaying building using “trauma- and justice-informed design,” ultimately creating a restorative center for the community. To support the work of Unshattered, visit https://unshattered.org.