We Who Seek: Christina Stembel
Christina Stembel is the founder of Farmgirl Flowers, a direct-to-consumer, floristry business that prioritizes sustainability and waste-reduction. Christina is an inspirational powerhouse—she started Farmgirl Flowers in 2010, without a college education or business owning experience under her belt. Her passion, grit, and determination—formed in part by her own farming roots—have helped her grow Farmgirl into a multi-million dollar business. We are one of her biggest fans and love what she has to say about chasing your goals, trusting your gut, and the importance of building community and supporting other women.
1. What’s your most valued travel advice you’ve been given or have to give?
Wear comfortable shoes! It sounds simple, but as women I feel like we’re often sacrificing comfort for style. I’ve spent more than my fair share of time with Band-Aids on the back of my heels to learn that it’s not a sacrifice worth making. I’d rather be enjoying the city I’m exploring in a pair of sneakers than having to take an afternoon off my feet because my cute shoes weren’t cutting it.
2. What do you wear to feel the most free and confident?
I’m lucky, I think. Living and working in California and especially San Francisco, wearing what I feel most free and confident in is also considered office appropriate. I love a great pair of medium wash jeans, a top with a generous cut and a pair of booties. For tops, I tend to gravitate towards knits or shirts with oversized patterns. High rise jeans help me feel nipped in and put together while a looser top gives me freedom of movement - good for working on my laptop or working with flowers when we’re in the middle of product development.
3. What article of clothing or outfit do you wear most often?
I’m a true California girl - jeans. I’ve got a million pairs now - most are high rise. I love to dress them up or dress them down. But they’re the building block of 90% of what I wear.
4. How do you incorporate sustainability into your life?
The same way I support other causes that are close to my heart - by shopping brands and companies that incorporate sustainability into their mission.
5. What do you do or where do you go when you need to be inspired?
I think this is ironic since I grew up in a landlocked state (Indiana), but I go to the ocean when I need to be inspired. When I graduated high school I moved to New York, then hopped, skipped and jumped around the US until I found myself in San Francisco. I started Farmgirl in my apartment there and, after getting kicked out when my landlord found out I was running a business out of my dining room (woops!), I wound up down in Half Moon Bay. It’s a commute to Farmgirl HQ up in Potrero Hill, but having the ocean a half block from my front door more than makes up for it. On the weekends I’ll take walks on the sand to help clear my head (usually while listening to a podcast or a book on tape), and if I’m really swamped I’ll just take my laptop to a table overlooking the water and work there. If I have to spend all day crunching numbers I can at least do it with a view.
6. What is the best advice you’ve received so far and who did it come from?
Oprah - of course. She’s incredible. What she did - what she built - and when she did it - her story is amazing. She’s such a powerhouse and I have so much respect for her.
I read somewhere closer to when I was starting my own business that Oprah says she always trusts her gut. I’d often said this (and felt this) when it came time for me to make my own big decisions, but it sometimes felt like - well, what do I know? But when I read this, I figured if it works for Oprah it can definitely work for me!
These days, I never ignore it. That said, I always back up my gut instinct with numbers. I live for Excel and will do a data dump and organization anytime I need some data to help me prove out my point.
7. How can women seek a sense of support and collectiveness for each other in the future?
As a woman, I don’t say this lightly: we are each other’s greatest source of strength but also our greatest weakness. I think it’s a result of there being a lack of women in positions of great power - there’s a scarcity complex. If you look up and see only one woman at “the top” it can feel like there’s only one spot. It feels like this often makes women compete with one another, rather than help one another, on the road to success. It’s frustrating - this isn’t something I often see happen with men, but I know by being aware of it, and talking about it, that we can change it.
For me, support and collectiveness looks like voting with our dollars. Every time Farmgirl purchases an item to fill our gift boxes or as an “add on,” we actively seek out other small businesses owned by women. We’re not soliciting giveaways or asking for complimentary product so we can build brand awareness because we know brand awareness doesn’t pay the rent or keep the lights on. We want to pay other incredible entrepreneurs and business owners (who are also female) for their goods and services so that they can continue to grow their businesses and, at least I hope, help other women to do the same. I think by being intentional about seeking out other women in business we can create a strong community of incredible female founders and business owners.
8. Journey note: what are you seeking more of this year?
I hate to say “me time” but I guess that would be accurate. This year I’m focusing on spending just a little bit more time on myself. Mostly this looks like getting myself to workout classes during the day. There’s a pilates studio (Rocksalt on 16th) down the street from Farmgirl HQ and I try to grab an AM or lunchtime class three to four times a week.
I haven’t prioritized my own fitness since starting Farmgirl and I feel like I’m making up for some lost time. There’s a little vanity to this choice - getting constantly photographed from every angle for press needs has incentivized me to want to look and feel my best - but it’s mostly about getting out of my headspace every day. Giving myself even 50 minutes away from my inbox and the office helps me to be more effective and efficient when I get back to both after class.
9. Out of all the places you’ve traveled to, which have you connected most to? Which felt most foreign?
It’s not overly exotic, or even a crazy plane ride away, but New York City is where I feel most connected. I moved there when I graduated from high school and worked a few jobs just to make rent (including Starbucks, where, at the time, I couldn’t believe how much money people spent on a latte - if only 18 year old Christina could see me now).
Now, every time I go back for a press meeting, it feels like home. I love the energy, the rush of people - it makes me feel alive.
10. Sustainability is one of the essential facets of the Farmgirl Flowers mission. How did waste and sustainability in the industry inspire you to try to disrupt the flower delivery business?
Waste is rampant in the floral industry. So many florists need to purchase in anticipation of customers’ needs and wants. Sometimes they’re right but, in the event that they’re not, it means a lot of wasted product. And that adds up!
The model for Farmgirl allows for, at most, two percent waste. In the nine years we’ve been open it’s never gone above this and, in most cases, is below 1%. This is because we don’t buy anticipating needs or choice - we make the the flower choice for the customer. Customers can choose the size or the price point they want to pay - we choose what to fill those bouquets with based on what looks best and most fresh from the growers we work with. When I started Farmgirl, and even now, this feels disruptive to the industry. So much about flowers feels particular - it’s another way people can express themselves, in a gift or at an event. We don’t give customers that option and for some that can feel foreign. But by bypassing this step it allows us to prioritize quality and freshness over hitting a specific ask and in the end I think our customers recognize this. I also know it feels great at the end of the day not to be trashing loads of flowers and greens that have gone bad and we can’t ship to customers.
We also work really hard to reduce the plastic that is so prevalent in the floral industry. So many growers and florists use cellophane and plastic to wrap flowers. We intentionally chose a different presentation for our bouquets - burlap - to cut out this step and save the plastic. We’ve also worked with our growers to, whenever possible, send flowers not in plastic but in paper. It’s a small step but it adds up - we saved over a ton of plastic last year from going into the landfill.
11. It must have been scary to start such a multi-faceted production without prior business-owning experience. How did you do it, and what advice do you have for others who have dreams of starting their own business but don’t necessarily have a traditional business education or background?
Especially since starting Farmgirl, I’ve never let the fact that I don’t have a college education hold me back. Here in San Francisco it can sometimes feel like I’m missing some essential piece of the pie, but there has been nothing I’ve needed to know for bootstrapping Farmgirl that I haven’t been able to learn through Google, Lynda.com or finding the right person to ask the right question.
So - my advice? Don’t let lack of experience or education be a limitation. I really don’t think there is a “right” time to jump in. You can always be more ready, or have more money, or more experience under your belt - but you will never get younger. And, especially as an entrepreneur, the long nights required to grind it out don’t get easier as you get older. So figure out what you want to do, write a business plan (and check it more than twice) but then just go do it!
12. Something that really sets Farmgirl Flowers apart (and its in the name!) is that you work closely with farmers. Can you tell us a bit more about where you source your flowers from and why?
I started the company in 2010 with the intention to source from only domestic growers. Having grown up on a farm I know firsthand the struggles of American farmers. Starting Farmgirl I wanted to support the domestic growers and help to reinvigorate American grown stems. And that worked, for a little while, but in 2016 I hit a wall. That year we received 26% of our confirmed purchase orders, and when we’re growing at over 50% year over year, that math equation will never work out. So I made the incredibly difficult decision to start sourcing internationally.
At the time, it felt like I was turning the business upside down. I’d grown an incredible customer base that was dedicated to Farmgirl, but I wasn’t sure they would feel the same if I changed one of the parts that made our company what it was. But I was wrong - they did follow. And have continued to follow us as we’ve grown our supply chain to partners in South America, Europe and right here in the US.
13. You grew up in a farming family. Have your farming roots been a help at all for running Farmgirl Flowers?
Yes, most definitely. As a kid, my chores looked a little different than mowing the lawn or vacuuming the living room. I was mowing the back few acres and cleaning the barn (and then some). All of this hard work, and repetitive hard work, helped me to develop my work ethic, and it’s this grit that has served me well since starting Farmgirl. I’ve never run away from a big job - I’ve run towards it. And I think this attitude has served me well since starting Farmgirl. Growing this company has been the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but, thanks to my upbringing it’s one I’ve been training for since I was a kid.
14. You started Farmgirl in San Francisco, where you’re still based. How did the California environment and landscape affect your business offerings or aesthetic direction?
I think starting and growing a scrappy, floral startup in San Francisco was the right choice for us. Don’t get me wrong - it’s expensive. I feel that every month when we’re paying taxes or rent on our 30,000 sq. foot warehouse. But northern California, and, in particular, Silicon Valley and San Francisco are home to some of the most giant of giants in the tech industry. It’s help to breed a culture of first adopters. Customers feel adventurous and are always looking for the new or cutting edge. I think this mentality helped customers really grow on Farmgirl. We were the new kid on the block and, when we weren’t new anymore, we were the black sheep. We’ve always done things differently than typical florists and in some markets, this would have been the death of us. Here, in SF though, it’s made us endeared. And I’m forever grateful to the incredible community here for that.
15. We love how wild and gorgeous your bouquets are, and their burlap wrap! A Farmgirl Flower bouquet always feels uniquely thoughtful and expressive. Can you tell us a bit about how you achieve such elevated design on a large scale?
One day at a time.
Building and maintaining a workforce that comes to work and is both creative and on a time clock every day is incredibly challenging. It’s meant building an infrastructure that supports efficiencies but also requires artistry. We’ve worked really hard to build a management team that can help to strike this balance, but it’s a moving target. We never really get “there” but we work incredibly hard to get as close as possible.