At Home With Christina Stembel
Have you ever scrolled through endless flower options online only to be disappointed when a lackluster bouquet was delivered? Christina Stembel was, too. That's why she founded Farmgirl Flowers in 2010, from her one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco. Since then, the female-founded company has grown to become a nationwide flower delivery service, known for its signature burlap-wrapped bouquets made from donated coffee bags and plant arrangements sourced from the best U.S. and international growers.
But Farmgirl Flowers is more than just a flower company. As part of its With Heart program, it partners with nonprofits and donates to various causes, contributing almost $1 million since 2016.
Farmgirl Flowers is a primarily women-run e-commerce flower company, dedicated to sourcing from other women-owned or women-run businesses when possible. The company's team of mostly women carefully curates beautiful arrangements that they themselves would want to receive. Offering a range of gorgeous options, including specialty tulips and garden roses, So why settle for lackluster flowers when you can have a one-of-a-kind Farmgirl bouquet? Read on to learn more about Christina’s inspiring story and the impact she's making on the floral industry and beyond.
Hello, Christina! Welcome to the McBride Sisters Collection “At Home With'' series, where we raise our glass to individuals who inspire us, toast their outstanding accomplishments, and get to know each other in true McBride Sisters fashion - over intimate conversation and a nice glass of wine. We are so happy to be here with you!
First of all, thank you for having us over to the Farmgirl loft, right here in our own backyard in Oakland, California! What can we pour you today?
Thanks so much for thinking of me for this series, and for doing this series in the first place! My passion is supporting other females in business, especially entrepreneurs who happen to be female for the simple reason that success comes harder for our gender for so many reasons. Not to mention the fact that we’re socialized to compete with instead of support each other, so anything I can do to change that narrative, I’m here for – even when there isn’t delicious wine involved, but not going to lie, I’m super excited that there is today! My go-to is a big red wine (usually a cab) although I do enjoy a glass of champagne every now and then.
Farmgirl Flowers is the only large-scale, female-founded and predominantly female-run direct-to-consumer e-commerce flower company in the business. And, just like us, you too have been called the black sheep of your industry. Cheers to that!! Of course, these are things we can truly appreciate and would love to hear more on how you got here. Was it always a priority for you to do things differently, from the start?
SO much yes to the black sheep!! I think I’ve always been that from a very young age, so it just makes sense that I would be in business too.
I had the idea to start my own business long before I actually started Farmgirl. I’d just moved to San Francisco and it was 1999 - the middle of the first dot com bubble. I say all the time that it felt like a business plan was to an SF entrepreneur (and for context, there were usually at least four of them in line waiting next to you anywhere you went) what headshots were to aspiring actors in Los Angeles. Start-up culture was a thing you could feel, and, personally speaking at least, it felt revolutionary to me. And that feeling was one that I wanted to feel personally, so I didn’t want to just take someone else’s idea and tweak a tiny part of it - I wanted to swing for the fences and change up an entire industry. Which is a lofty goal, and partly why it took me many years to figure out what industry and idea I wanted to take the leap with.
For context and more specifics - there were a few things that led to the idea for Farmgirl, but the moment I knew this was the idea I could build into a big business happened back in 2010. I was researching the e-commerce floral space and found that the industry in general was ripe for disruption. One of the very problems that had led me to our first business model (i.e. the endless scroll I had to navigate on so many giant e-comm flower delivery company’s websites when sending flowers to my mom back home in Indiana) was also a problem I found was shared by so many other consumers.
While deep diving into research, I discovered that the online flower space was actually shrinking for customers in my age group at the time, and this was at a time when just about every other industry was growing by leaps and bounds online. And that was the key. With just a few major competitors in the space who weren’t appealing to consumers like me, and with a market size of billions of dollars, I knew the idea of Farmgirl had the potential to build into something big - and checked the box of creating something completely different.
As Founder and CEO, you launched Farmgirl Flowers in 2010 with just one daily arrangement. Since then, you have fully bootstrapped what has grown into an international organization, shipping hundreds of thousands of flower bouquets each year. No doubt, you’ve seen your fair share of hard work and challenges. What keeps you going?
That’s a question I get asked a lot, and I’m not really sure what the most accurate answer is. Maybe it’s a combination of all of them really. First, my parents raised me to know what it is to work hard and to respect the outcome of that work. They weren’t giving lessons in entrepreneurship when I was little per se, but there’s nothing like having to mow the entire back forty to teach you the meaning of resilience.
There wasn’t ever a conversation about what it took to get the job done - it just needed to be done. So it felt like, while I was developing this sense of persistence and grit there wasn’t space for a conversation around motivation. The work itself was/is motivation - the want to get it done. I think that’s served me almost every day since starting Farmgirl. There are very few instances where I have to set up specific circumstances to get a certain task done or to get through a day. Just like it’s always been, it’s one foot in front of the other. Then repeat. But the other thing about me that I’ve found to be far less common than I thought was the fact that I believe in myself. That may sound narcissistic or self-centered at best, but I promise, that’s not what I mean. I definitely have my fair share of insecurities like everyone, but I’ve always had an inner voice that has told me that I can do what I set my mind to. I think if more people had that, they’d be far less scared of failure and be able to be more courageous in every area of their lives.
All that said, I’ve definitely had my fair share of difficult days, and when I feel like I’m getting knocked down more than I can get up (which happens more often than I ever thought possible), I do what I need to do to clear my head and get back in the game. I love to move when I’m feeling stuck in a problem - do a Peloton ride or a Pilates class. I’m also a prolific white boarder. When a million and one possibilities are flying around my brain it helps me to get them all down in front of me and sort them in terms of priorities right then and there. And resting is key, too. For me that usually means spending time at the water.
We think you have a great sense of humor and simply exude positivity. Have you ever had a “laugh out loud, but also how did I get here??” moment feeling beside yourself in the midst of everything you have going on?
Haha, well thank you! I feel like I could write the book on these moments! They happen almost weekly if I’m being honest. A particularly funny one just happened a couple months ago during one of our biggest holidays, Valentine’s Day. I was in California making bouquets at one of our partner facilities and then needed to fly out on Monday, Feb 13th for a speaking engagement I had booked for Feb 14th. That’s another story why I said yes to speak on our second busiest day of the year, but it made sense, promise! ;) So, after making bouquets for probably 16-18 hours a day that week, I went to check in to my hotel the night before the flight at midnight, and there was a snafu with my hotel reservation (which was at the Best Western, not the Four Seasons to give you a glimpse at how we travel) via Hotel Tonight (because that’s how I roll) and I couldn't get into my room until they sorted it out with the front desk agent which required him to reboot his entire computer system which was taking a pretty significant amount of time. I hadn’t had time to go to the hair salon and my roots were in dire need of some covering, so I did what every self respecting CEO does, right? I bought an at home kit and planned to do it from the hotel room prior to the event, and this was the last chance I had before the speaking engagement but the stars were definitely not aligning for me. I was watching the clock on my phone keep getting later and later and with it my anxiety level was too. So after waiting probably 20-30 minutes, I asked the front desk agent where the hotel bathroom was and if he had a towel (he did!) and proceeded to dye my hair in the sink of the lobby bathroom at the Best Western at almost 1am in the morning. When I came out the front desk agent thought I was nuts, but had my room ready for me so I could get a few hours of sleep with newly dyed roots before hopping on a plane for Texas. I swear, you can't make this stuff up!
You put the “Farmgirl''in Farmgirl Flowers, because you were actually raised on a farm in Indiana. We imagine this is how you developed such a stellar work ethic. Your grit. What was childhood like for you?
I grew up in a very traditional home. I was expected to go to church, marry a man (ideally from said church) and have children who I would then raise in the church as well. My parents meant the very best, and still do - they are, hands down, the two nicest people I will ever meet, period - but that life was just never for me. What I found, then, when I moved to San Francisco was what it felt like I’d been looking for my whole life.
Ever since I’d left home I always ended up turning a 40 hour/week job into an 80 hour/week one - there was always something left to do or to make better. Suddenly being immersed in start-up culture, the idea of being an entrepreneur, and putting all those OT hours in for a business I was building myself made sense in a way that nothing else had before.
I also have to say, I don’t know if that light bulb moment would have been as bright had I not had (and have) the work ethic I do. To that 80 hour/week job tendency, my parents raised me to know what it is to work hard and to take pride in that work - whatever it was. I worked so many wage level jobs in my teens and twenties, from fast food, to coffee shops, retail and hospitality, and each one taught me that there are no shortcuts to doing the work. So while SF was the spark that lit the kindling, the particular mix of variables that helped make me (and Farmgirl) what it is today very much started with my parents back home in Indiana and all the wage level jobs that taught me how to do mundane tasks for long periods of time – which is Angela Duckworth’s suggestion of how to build grit (from her book by the same title). And, while I wasn’t super grateful for that “education” at the time, I am forever so now.
With Mother’s Day just around the corner, which is the busiest time of year for Farmgirl (you’ve been quoted calling it “the Superbowl of the flower business”), do you manage to send your own mother flowers for the holiday? If so, what does her bouquet look like?
Despite the busyness of Mother’s Day, I always make sure to send my mom flowers. My mom is the OG farm girl, and the kindest and hardest working person I know, so I want to make sure she knows how much I appreciate and love her. I tend to send her flowers throughout the year because moms do so much and deserve to be treated more than once a year. I usually send her our gerbera daisy bouquet (the Whoopsie-Daisy) because those are her favorite flowers, but for Mother’s Day I’m sending her our fully designed Force of Nurture because I designed it with her in mind. She loves to garden - I swear she’ll be gardening into her nineties at least, and this arrangement feels like an English garden, which is something I know she’ll love!
Are there any particular memories of your mother that have resonated with you the most?
The term labor of love always comes to mind with my Mom. She’s the most selfless person I know who will always choose to give instead of receive. She used to always come help for holidays - even Mother’s Day when she should be on the receiving end of the celebration. But in true Beth Stembel fashion, she would be the first in and last out on those really long holiday production days - even though she’s physically challenged and probably shouldn’t be on her feet even a fraction of the time needed to get through a peak day.
A story I’ll always remember happened on one of those holidays when she came out to CA from Indiana to help - and that she did. Back then we used to cut burlap by hand with very heavy industrial scissors (which makes it especially challenging for me when people complain about having to use the much easier equipment we grew to finally have!), and to say it was the worst job in the workshop would be a gross understatement. We would limit that duty to one hour increments because it was so dirty and laborious and, frankly, not fun. I asked my Mom to cut some burlap first thing that morning so I could get the rest of the team going on their tasks and then had about five level ten fires arise back to back all day, which (please don’t judge me too harshly!) caused me to forget about my Mom in the back of the warehouse cutting burlap. Probably 8-10 hours later, I finally remembered to check in on her, wondering where she was, and found her still at that cutting table – with literal burlap bandages wrapped around her hands to cover the blisters, covered in burlap dust and probably sweat, but still cutting burlap. I don’t think anyone on the team had ever endured more than a few hours of cutting time, but my 60+ year old, physically challenged Mom not only did, but had figured out a way to cut them more efficiently so it would stretch longer (b/c we were short a few hundred pieces that holiday) - and never complained once about the blisters, burlap dust, exhaustion, or boredom. And once again, proving she has more grit and resilience in her little finger than most of us have at all.
If you could drop everything for a “Spring Break” and travel anywhere in the world, where would you go? Who would you bring? What would you see? What would you eat!?
Oh wow, that sounds amazing! It’s been a while since I’ve been able to drop everything and truly go on vacation. Most of my trips are 99% work, 1% play time. I think the last time I went off the grid was a couple years ago to Bora Bora for a quick 3 day Thanksgiving trip with a couple of my closest friends - and even though it was short, it was literally a bucket list trip. I’m so lucky to have friends who have let me be their 3rd or 5th wheel and act like they’re winning by having me along.
I’m hoping to get more time to put the computer down and enjoy being in the now more in the near future. There are so many places I’d go for a spring break trip - back to Italy which is one of my favorite places in the world, or a new bucket list place like Iceland, Greece, or Africa, which are all on my short list. Italy and Greece would be for the food, wine, and views. Africa for the experience, culture, and wildlife. Greece for the natural beauty, views, and design. But my list is really, really long. I’m hoping after Farmgirl that I can take an extended spring break of sorts!
What area do you spend the most time in, in your home? Do you have a space that you would consider a retreat?
The water is my retreat and I just moved to a house on the water in Washington State which is literally filling my soul. The life of a CEO/bootstrapped company doesn’t come with a ton of downtime and I spend a lot of my time working so my office location is crucial. I set up my desk right in front of a window facing the water so I get to enjoy the views while I spreadsheet, zoom, whiteboard, and everything in between. That’s my version of balance. The water not only calms me, but when I’m challenged with a problem I’m not sure how to handle, it provides focus and grounds me in reminding me how small and really insignificant I (and my problems) are in the grand scheme of things.
How do you prefer to enjoy your wine? Over dinner with friends, while cooking, out at restaurants? Do you have any wine-drinking rituals, personally?
I’m definitely a social drinker. I rarely ever drink at home by myself, as I think it makes it even more special to enjoy it over dinner with friends. Although I will sometimes pour myself a glass while I arrange flowers - I’m pretty sure there’s a few Sunday DIYs on Instagram where I’ve done this, but then I feel like I’m with friends while chatting about flowers with our followers who feel like friends!
What are you looking forward to, personally and/or professionally?
Hmmm…so much! I’m really looking forward to the economy rebounding in the next year hopefully (fingers crossed!) which has been especially tough for us this year professionally. I’m also really focused on what my next chapter is right now - and I’m not sure if that’s because it’s my light at the end of what has seemed to be a very long tunnel it feels like we’ve all been in since March 2020 with the pandemic, or if it’s because of my age (being in my mid-40’s officially now). Whatever it is, I know I want more in my life than continuous 100-hour work weeks so I’m working to hopefully create space for more diversity in my day-to-day life. I don’t like to really call it balance because we all have choices of how to fill our 24 hours each day, and I’ve made the choice to fill it mostly with professional goals, but now I’m working to make different choices to hopefully allow for fulfillment in other ways as well. I’m not there yet, and hope to be in the near future!
We can't wait to see what Christina comes up with next as she continues to bring joy and beauty to her customers' lives. For more information and to order an arrangement, visit the Farmgirl Flowers website and follow them on Instagram: @farmgirlflowers.
Wine and flowers is a match made in heaven, in celebration of amazing women-owned business, enjoy15% off any order of flowers or wine with code BLACKSHEEP from now through December 31st 2023! Cheers!
Terms and Conditions: Discount is valid on purchases made from Monday, May 1, 2023 12:01a PT to Sunday, December 31, 2023 11:59p online at farmgirlflowers.com and mcbridesisters.com. Discount applies to products only - not gift cards, applicable taxes or shipping. Offer cannot be combined with other discounts and is not applicable to arrangements, plants or other merchandise in the Sale or Free Ship Shop categories at farmgirlflowers.com. Offer cannot be combined with other discounts and is not applicable to gift cards, gift sets, shipping or taxes at mcbridesisters.com. No adjustments on previously placed orders will be given. Promotional offer is subject to change without notice. To use, enter promo code BLACKSHEEP at checkout.