I walked over to the middle of the cafeteria-style room to find Kat hidden behind bushels of flowers that she had brought for the styled shoot with my good friend Alisha who I was assisting that day. I bent down and started smelling the flowers and got to talking with the amazing woman behind the flower farm (yeah, it's a thing) in Illinois, called Wilrett Flower Co. If y'all aren't aware, I'm kind of obsessed with incorporating florals into my portrait sessions with clients, so hearing from the one woman show who owns her own farm blew my mind - I had to hear her story.
A few weeks after the styled shoot where I was first introduced to her, Kat and I met up for coffee and bites at Blue Door Farm Stand where I got to hear about her amazing and winding path to becoming a flower farmer and then we went to Lincoln Park Zoo for some (freezing) portraits. I couldn't wait to share her story with you - no doubt you'll find some serious inspiration here!
Thanks again to you Kat for braving the cold for portraits (I love when people face the cold for me like it ain't no thing) - and thank you for letting me share your story. :)
Q. What's your title? Small business owner, planner, etc.
I consider myself a farmer-florist. Didn't know it was a thing? I am a floral designer who grows her own flowers!
It's hard to pick an all encompassing title, most people who own their own business wear a lot of hats. Some days I'm in the office planning out next seasons crops and others I'm at a gorgeous wedding venue designing flowers.
Q. Was this always where you intended to be in your career, or were there alternative career paths you considered?
At 20, if you had asked me where I wanted my career to be in 5 years the answer would have had nothing to do with flowers. I graduated with a degree in Kinesiology, I worked in an ER, and planned on going to graduate school to be in the medical field forever. But life is weird.
Sometimes you fall in love with an old friend you met in New Zealand and you decide to move your whole life to Illinois. When I first moved from Kansas, I was working a medical sales job in the suburbs of Chicago. It did not take me long to realize that I couldn't live my life sitting in an office all day. I learned a ton of valuable lessons working in sales. I didn't love it, but I found I had a knack for it and in the end it gave me the confidence to start my own business. As far as ‘why flowers?’ goes, I looked into a lot of things. Flowers have always been close to my heart. Some of my happiest times as a kid were spent digging in the garden with my mom. My sister and I spent hours in her flower beds. But I didn't think I could seriously make that my job. I thought about opening a coffee shop, or maybe even a coffee truck. But I just kept coming back flowers.
Agriculture has been front and center throughout most my life. I grew up on a cattle ranch in Kansas, and now I literally live on a farm. My fiance Jake (that NZ guy) and his family own and operate a certified organic grain farm (Willrett Natural Farm), so the land was available and I had access to some pretty great farming mentors. A whole lot of research and a few months later I ditched my corporate job and Willrett Flower Co. was born!
Q. Why did you choose to be a flower farmer in Chicago?
I didn't, but I am so glad I ended up here! After college Jake moved home to Illinois to farm with his Dad. This meant his life was tied to this area, there's no moving a farm. So I packed up my life (and dog) and moved here! I absolutely love this city and I feel like the opportunities are endless.
Q. Do you feel like you're connected to a creative community, and if so, how has it affected you and your work?
I am definitely working on it! I've only lived in Chicago-land for two years and my creative business just turned one. Entrepreneurship can be lonely, especially if you are a one woman show. But I've been blown away by the creative community in Chicago. Since I started putting myself out there I've been welcomed by so many incredible people. There really seems to be a mindset of lifting each other up and I love that!
Q. What's your favorite part about running your own business?
I'm a real problem solver. At my corporate job I felt like I was always running into road blocks. If a problem arose, or a new opportunity came up, I had to go through 9476 (maybe a slight exaggeration) other people to address it. I love that as my own boss I am involved in every aspect of the business. I can really dive in and make something happen. I get to choose what values my business stands for and actually live and work by those.
It's also a real bonus to be able to spend my days outside treating our earth the way it deserves to be treated. Farming organically is challenging and rewarding and I absolutely love it. Playing with flowers isn't bad either.
Q. What surprised you about being an entrepreneur?
Turn's out owning your own business is more than setting your own hours and not having to wear real pants! Who knew?! Just kidding. I'm a believer in both of those things, but it's way more than the usual "perks" people think about. I'm always amazed by the skills it takes to run your own business, especially in the beginning. One day I'd love to outsource all of the tasks that I am not good at. But when you're just starting out, you have to do everything yourself. There's no IT team to call when your websites down. I don't have a customer service person to deal with clients. If plans change and I need all white flowers for an event instead of all pink I'm the one that needs to go cut them. I knew entrepreneurship was a lot, but I'm the most surprised by how capable we are of getting it all done ourselves when the pressure is on. It's actually been really empowering!
Q. Where do you find inspiration for your work?
Nature. It's impossible to walk through a field of blooming flowers and not be inspired. If I'm in the middle of a design day and I'm not feeling it I always go take a walk for inspiration. I did this even a few weeks ago in the dead of winter. It's amazing how much it changes my mindset. As farmers, our whole lives change with the seasons. I've realized my design style tends to as well, and I love finding new inspiration as the scenery changes.
Q. What role does a styled shoot play in your business?
For me styled shoots are a chance to really let loose and be creative. I love making someone's vision come true for their wedding, but it's so fulfilling to design exactly what I want for a shoot. It's also been an awesome opportunity to meet other creatives (like you!) Everyone is kind of in their element at a styled shoot and it's so fun to watch other people do what they do best!
Q. Tell me about the name Willrett Flower Co.
Willrett Flower Co. is sort of like the younger sister of Willrett Natural Farm. Actually, the great great great grand daughter would probably be more accurate. haha! Willrett Natural Farm is Jake's family farm. They grow certified organic corn, soybeans, oats, and wheat. He is a sixth generation farmer, so the Willrett's have been doing this for awhile! The flower farm is literally ON the grain farm. I am lucky enough to grow in one of their fields that has been certified organic for years. The name was less about me becoming a Willrett in a few months, and more about the land and legacy of an awesome farming family.
Q. Final thoughts?
THANK YOU!! I'm so honored to be included in a series with so many incredible business women. What Katie is doing with this project is so important. I've found so much inspiration in the previous Chicago creative features! I hope my story might help someone else take a step towards the life they want to live. It's scary but its worth it!!