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How I Learned to Embrace My Creativity Through Flowers


It all started in the basement of The White House

As I re-read Mrs. Obama’s speech to the Democratic National Convention with tears in my eyes, I found myself daydreaming about January 17, 2014. I remember that day well because it was the very first day I stepped foot into the flower shop of The White House. And it was the former First Lady’s 50th birthday.

FLOTUS with school kids during a National Poetry Month event at The White House in 2015

My mentor and friend, Laura Dowling, the Chief Floral Designer of The White House, welcomed me into her studio that day.

Flowers weren’t my real job...yet. I was a speechwriter and digital strategist for the Director of National Drug Control Policy, a senior political appointee in charge of coordinating the federal government’s drug policies. 

Over the next year and a half, I snuck into Laura’s shop every chance I got. I soaked up as much of her knowledge as I could. She shared generously, introducing me to the iconic master florist, Gregor Lersch, and my dear friend Rosie Hunter, a fellow flower fanatic, and psychologist who served in Afghanistan after her White House internship.

former Chief Floral Designer of The White House, Laura Dowling

Like Michelle Obama, I disliked politics. As I grew more confident in my flower skills and realized just how much I had been missing beauty in my day-to-day, I found myself wishing I could spend all day in the The White House flower shop, instead of in one of its policy offices. 

Then I took a leap into #startuplife

After a year and a half of this double life, I took a giant leap into the unknown when I joined an early-stage startup called UrbanStems as the Head of Products. 

It was my dream job. It demanded leadership, creativity and aesthetic sense, along with a deep understanding of the international floral supply chain, an instinct for negotiation and gross margins, and navigating startup life and all its demands. 

Media-approved, it really was a dream job

I was the flower person at a flower company with so much potential. I couldn’t believe how lucky I was.

But in those early days of UrbanStems, I sometimes felt regret. In my previous job, the work I contributed to impacted millions of Americans, and in some cases, saved lives. And now I was...selling flowers? I worried I was shallow, that I traded “real work” for something frivolous.

When I talked to our then-CEO, Ajay, about my doubts, he made a point I have never forgotten: drug policy wasn’t my dream job. Staying in a role you’re not excited about isn’t good for you, or for the organization. By leaving, I opened up the role to someone who might actually get their dream job. 

When I let Ajay’s words really sink in, what I allowed myself to finally accept is: Beauty matters. 

The creation of joy--for yourself, and for others--matters. 

Creativity matters. 

After years of denying my own leaning toward beauty and creativity in my day-to-day in favor of what I thought was a “real job,” I found that actually allowing myself to be honest about what woke me up in the morning made me a better, more effective worker--not a weaker one. 

Then I really went all in

I left UrbanStems at the end of 2018, and spent nearly a year researching, planning and formulating the business model for my company, Poppy. I had the good fortune of help from a few brilliant minds at SRI Ventures in Silicon Valley and the support of friends here in Washington D.C. 

Sneaky selfie at SRI Ventures in Menlo Park, Summer 2019
“First day of school”-esque photo at SRI Ventures in Menlo Park, Summer 2019

My husband, parents, and best friend supported me financially, emotionally, and spiritually during the early months of Poppy, before I had even given my company a name in July 2019.

In January 2020, we finally launched Poppy’s website and began marketing to newly engaged couples. We were receiving, on average, 25 inquiries per day -- and as word of mouth spread in D.C., our weekends during the 2020 wedding season filled up and even began double and triple booking. 

The week before Covid shut down our country, I was about to hire a full-time customer service associate to handle the volume of inbound requests from couples, and nearly signed a commercial lease. 

To say 2020 is not the year I expected it to be when I launched my business would be the understatement of my career. 

My small team and I have bobbed and weaved our way through obstacle after obstacle, from the near total shutdown of the floral supply chain in March, to cascading wedding cancellations and postponements, and the realization that almost every truth, assumption and rule that shaped Poppy’s business model before Covid has vanished into thin air. 

Through it all, do you know what I have learned?

In our darkest moments, through hurt, uncertainty, chaos, sadness, and fear -- beauty still matters.

I don’t think flowers are frivolous anymore.

Flowers matter. They matter because they awaken something deep inside of each of us. It’s the most human need: to connect to what is hopeful, maybe even holy, in this world. 

Flowers nourish the soul. Why do we send flowers to hospitals, to mark births, to decorate weddings? To announce, to celebrate, and to mourn? Flowers give shape and expression to our emotions when words fail us. 

To reach for flowers is to reach beyond the fear and and ugliness 2020 has brought. 

Flowers connect us with the better angels of our nature, even if it’s only temporary. The longing for flowers echoes the same longing that animates the artists, poets and musicians among us. 

What I love about flowers, and why they endure in our economy even when logic suggests they shouldn’t, is that in the hands of anyone -- really, anyone -- they become a paintbrush that can’t miss a stroke, the perfect rhyme, the violin that never goes out of tune. 

I have seen a pulmonologist in the throes of New York City’s Covid surge come home to arrange flowers and shed the unimaginable stress of the day.

Pictured: Shari Brosnahan, Poppy super-user and Assistant Professor in the Pulmonary & Critical Care Division at New York University Langone Hospital in Manhattan

I’ve seen far-flung families re-connect across the continent through flowers.

I’ve seen children light up as they place our roses in a vase. 

I truly believe -- because I have seen it with my own eyes -- that every person nurtures the ember of creativity, even if it has been buried for a long, long time. 

Flowers fan that ember into a flame. 

So, in 2020, flowers matter. They matter more now than ever before. 

What I wouldn’t give to see our former First Lady back in The White House, lighting up the East Room with her smile. To see Laura Dowling’s gorgeous centerpieces breathing life into historic rooms. To see the tulip magnolias blooming over the South Lawn, and the tulips opening in the Rose Garden.

Better days will come again. I am sure of it. 

Until then, I’m keeping hope alive with lots (and lots) of flowers. 

Passing out flowers at protests in front of The White House, Summer 2020

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