There’s a secret flower shop hidden among the office buildings downtown. You can’t walk in and grab a bouquet to go, but you’ve probably received a vase of their handiwork at least once. It’s a few weeks before Valentine’s Day at UrbanStems and their flower shop / office is bustling with activity. While some people cut flowers and arrange bouquets, others walk around talking business. In the middle of the madness, Cameron Hardesty and I lounge on a couch and hash out how she went from working for the White House and high-powered PR firms, to becoming the head of merchandising for UrbanStems. I ask her if her house is filled to the brim with fresh flowers and she laughs. Pulling out her phone, she shows me her Instagram, “My Instagram story is very illustrative of that fact,” she jokes, showing me a picture of a beautiful bouquet surrounded by vintage photos.

What started off as a casual hobby has blossomed into a career for Hardesty. When she’s not flying to Bogota or reading up on the Dutch flower market, she’s in D.C. coming up with new (and better) reasons to get people to buy flowers. She still has a hand in the design of every bouquet available at UrbanStems, but her job is about far more than flower design these days. “It’s not really a creative job anymore, it’s an entrepreneurial job,” she says, “And I’ve always had an inkling that’s a place where I would thrive.”

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What was your first job?

My very first job was in eighth grade. I was a swim instructor. My friends mom had a swim instruction academy, so I was one of the instructors.

Did you like it?

I realized that I’m not a natural with kids during that job. I had a bob haircut and I was awkward and in middle school. My hair was wet and slicked back and I was holding this kid while they were paddling, and he just looked at me and goes, “Are you a boy?” I was like… “Kid, you’re about to get dunked.” I liked it. It was a fun summer job.

I read a little bit of your Forbes interview, and by a little bit, I mean all of it. In it, you mentioned you used to volunteer at the White House flower shop while you worked there. How did you get in to arranging flowers?

Actually, it was my outlet when I was working at Edelman, a PR firm. I was working in crisis and corporate communication, which was really stressful and not super creative. I loved working there and I really loved my team and my boss, but it was exhausting and I didn’t have enough beauty in my life. I signed up for this arrange your own flowers subscription service and I would have it delivered to the office. This was… six years ago? It would come once a month and I would stay after everyone was gone and I would arrange the flowers at my desk. I felt so gratified and at peace, so I knew that I liked doing it.

Then when I was at the White House, again, I loved the job and I loved who I was working with, but there was something missing. I was touring the White House one Christmas and the flowers were incredible. It just kind of sparked something in me. It lead me to google the White House florist and there was a Washington Post profile on her. I put two and two together and realized we were in the same email address book, so I emailed her and she wrote back and was very nice. She invited me in and the first time I went into the shop was Michelle Obama’s 50 birthday, so they were setting up for that party. It was so cool. I remember getting the flowers ready and she said, “Go put these centerpieces out in the east room.” Beyoncé was performing at the party that night, so her backup dancers were stage testing while I was setting flowers up and I was like, “Don’t look, try to be cool.” That was my initiation into the world of flowers.

Cameron Hardesty of UrbanStems

What I love more than anything is learning about specialized  jargon. What is the inside baseball of the floral world?

I say this is inside baseball because it’s obvious to me, but it’s surprising to almost everyone outside the industry: 90 percent of the flowers that are bought and sold in the US originate from Colombia, Ecuador and other Latin American countries. So to me it’s the most natural thing in the world to be like, I’m going to Bogota, I’m going to Quito to visit farms. Also, Miami is actually the hub. It’s kind of like a portal for flowers for the whole United States. So if you want to do anything in the flower industry, you go to Miami and if you want to see the farms, you’re going to Ecuador, Bogota, Medellín or maybe Costa Rica or Guatemala. The other 10 percent is produced domestically and most of that is in California. There is some east coast production… I guess production might be an inside baseball word, when you’re talking about growing flowers, it’s called production. Then there are farms where they make the bouquets as well and those are called bucataras, even if they’re in the US. It’s a very Spanish-speaking industry and I speak Spanish.

You lived in Spain right?

Yes! Another interesting part of it is that it’s not just the Latin American culture in the flower industry. In Europe, the node for flowers is Holland. So it’s an industry that draws together Dutch people and Latin American people in a really interesting way. Their cultures are so different, so when you’re an American buyer, you’re kind of right in the middle of that. It’s really fun to get to know how business is done in different cultures. Sitting at a table and negotiating with a Dutch packaging manufacturer is a really different conversation than doing business in Bogota where you’ll go out to drinks at night and stay out all night. That’s how the deal is done. It’s a very international industry.

Would you say the Dutch / Latin American split is like the new school / old school of the floral world?

So the way that the industry developed is the Dutch have always been pioneers and leaders in the flower industry. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of the Dutch flower auction?

Yes, I think they made that movie about it?

I think it’s the second biggest building by footprint in the world. It’s seven million square feet. It’s right by Schipol Airport in Amsterdam and it’s basically where all the flowers in Europe and much of Russia and Asia are processed and sold. There are a good deal of growers in Holland about an hour away from Amsterdam… But there’s also a lot of production in Africa and they also bring in flowers from South America through the Dutch auction as well.

I think the auction began in 1912 as a grower’s cooperative. Then in about 1962 or 63, if I remember this correctly, there was a PhD student who did his dissertation on the best place in the world to grow flowers. Given its proximity to the equator, its micro climate and its altitude, this student found that the Sabana, which is right outside of Bogota, is the best place in the world to grow flowers year round. So a group of Colombian businessman started flower farming and over the past few decades a lot of the market has migrated to Latin America. So they are kind of new school in that the Dutch industry came first and then the Latin American / Colombian industry came second. Now most of the flowers that are bought and sold in the US are not Dutch, but in the 60s and even 70s, it was the opposite.

So when is UrbanStems moving to Miami?

That’s a great question. I have internally called dibs on setting up that office. I love going to Miami. It’s such a blast. I’m actually going down there to help prepare for Valentine’s Day next week. We don’t have plans to expand to Miami right now, but if and when we do, it will be really easy to turn on because so much of our product flows through Miami. I think there’s a really great market there for us.

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In general, and tell me if I’m wrong, it seems like the flower market is expanding.

I think that it is, and I think our data show that we are sort of cultivating a new kind of flower customer. I think for a long time the flower customer didn’t have a good experience. In fact, Ajay and Jeff started this company in response to how poorly rated e-commerce flower retailers were in the e-commerce space. I think they were rated the lowest of all e-commerce retailers because the experience was so bad. So basically people used to buy flowers because they had to and I think we’re making it possible for people to buy flowers because they want to. We make it really affordable and easy. So we’re finding that our customers were repeat buying instead of just buying for Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day. They’re sending flowers four and five times a year, and not for massive holidays, but just to say “I’m thinking of you” and “See you at yoga tonight,” stuff like that.

You guys have a subscription that goes along with that as well, right?

It’s interesting because we sort of conceived of the subscription as a gift, but we’re finding that people are using it to send flowers themselves, as a self-care type of thing. So 65 percent of our customers are women and 35 percent are men, but we’ve reviewed sales data from last year and found that women are two times more likely to buy plants than men and that when they’re buying plants they’re more likely than the average customer to send them to themselves. So we’re seeing this sort of burgeoning group of customers who are treating themselves.

I’m glad you brought up self-care. A lot of the things you see on Instagram or social media is about living your best life, or your better life, and a lot of those beautiful well shot images involve fresh flowers on the table or on the night stand.

Yeah, which is totally the kind of thing that I think would resonate with someone who would go to our site, see a beautiful bouquet for $45 or $35, and think, that would look great on my kitchen table and they send it to themselves. You probably wouldn’t spend $75 or $80 to send flowers to yourself, but if it’s $35 and you’re feeling like treating yourself, it’s like, do I want to go to happy hour tonight or send myself flowers for when I get home?

It’s certainly cheaper than a facial.

It’s so much cheaper and it’s probably cheaper than a happy hour, honestly. That should be our new tagline. Cheaper than happy hour.

How do you guys standout in the floral market? How are you making yourself different from the other flower providers that want to get that bouquet in your house?

So people tend to pick up flowers on their way home, like at the grocery store. This is a little bit inside baseball, but grocery stores aren’t there to sell you flowers, they are there to sell you food. They’re not even making money on the flowers that they sell. It’s kind of a service to the customer. Less than one percent of grocery stores sales may be derived from the floral category. So if they lose money on it or they break even, that’s fine because grocery stores look at it as a service to the customer. I think it’s great that they’re expanding access to flowers and making it more an everyday purchase for consumers, but the downside is that you don’t really get any aspect of design.

A grocery store or a flower buyer isn’t a designer. They buy bunches of flowers from the farms and they pop them in the display at the grocery store and that’s it the end of the day. My background is from floral design, that’s how I got into the company. I wouldn’t say I’ve moved on, but my role has expanded to capture basically all of the merchandise and products that we sell. There’s a woman on my team now who exclusively focuses on floral design. So all of our bouquets, the thing that makes different is the design. We’ll work together on a bouquet design, she’ll come up with an exact recipe of what a bouquet will look like and then we’ll look at it together, make some edits, finalize it and send it directly to the farm. And that just doesn’t happen at a supermarket.

I didn’t realize how much of a hand you had in the design.

Every single bouquet is a bouquet that I’ve looked at, approved, edited, talked to the farm with and negotiated on a price. Our hands are in every step of the process.

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How do you decide what the trends are in bouquets?

There’s a really big difference between what is trend forward and what people want, so you always need to balance that. So a piece of it is, let’s be responsive to the market and what people are showing us that they’re interested in, but I think part of our job is to also set trends and to show the customer different types of flowers that they might not be able to find on their own. That’s how we create value and deliver value to our customers. So on the one hand, we do all kinds of qualitative and quantitative research. We do focus groups, we have a focus group that we send a survey to every month and we use them as a gut check for products that we’re considering. They help us filter out the crazier ideas or they just give us an initial market reaction and then we respond to that. But, I think if you only respond to what your customers are telling you that they want, and most of your customers aren’t designers or experts at floral, you’re going to end up with a pretty boring selection.

So Cecilia, who is the floral designer on my team, and I actually go to this workshop every year. It alternately in Germany and out in Virginia by Leesburg. I’ve been going for three or four years and it’s with this master designer named Gregor Lersch. He’s incredible. Actually Laura at the White House was the person who introduced me to him and he’s probably the best floral designer in the world. He’s super, super talented and just an incredible artist who’s written dozens of books on the art of floral design. He’s a genius and his workshops are where I get the trend forward stuff, like trend forward for Europe, which is always a little bit more avant-garde and art forward than the design here. Not all the trends carry over, but what I see there, I’m like, “Okay, in five years this is going to be hot in the US.” So I think three years ago he was using these caramel, terracotta colored carnations in these really high-end avant-garde designs that you would sell to a hotel for $500. People say carnations are the worst flowers ever, but I was like, wait, these are a really cool novelty. They don’t look like anything I’ve seen in the market before. In that moment I was like, in three or four years, carnations are going to be cool again.

So I started integrating them into designs. I’ve gotten push back, but I’m actually starting to see traction. Last year Vogue published an article that said carnations are making a comeback. I’ve seen it in the press. Google the carnation come back. It’s starting to trickle out, but it hasn’t gotten all the way down yet. I know that because I sent a Vogue bouquet to my mom for her birthday that had carnations in it and she emailed me some pictures and said it was beautiful… And then her third email commenting on the bouquet was, “I don’t understand these carnations… They look like they’re dying in the color of the carnation, but they’re not wilting.” I was like, no mom, that’s the color of the carnation. They’re not pink, they’re not red, they’re a caramel color. I was like, okay, the carnation crusade is not over yet because it has not gotten to my mom in Dallas, but we’re working on that. So we try to stay at the edge of what’s going on in the floral industry, which can be kind of inside baseball. So you have to filter that through what you think will sell to the customer. It’s always this balance of pushing on the design side, but not confusing people and making sure that what you’re offering is broadly appealing.

Definitely. This is a comforting kind of job where you’re sending flowers to comfort and make people happy so you don’t want to alienate anyone.

You don’t want it to be too crazy. Even with the Vogue collection we have to have balance. We’re working with the editors at Vogue, so these are people who are on the vanguard of fashion and culture. I love working with them. It’s so fun because they have really fashion forward, trend forward ideas about design, which is really cool. I jive with that and so does Cecilia, but you also have to filter and make sure that what you’re putting out there is something that you know your customers will respond well to. I think we really hit the right notes with this collection. It’s an art and a science.

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This might be another inside baseball question, but I’m curious, at this conference did you see a forecast of the insane succulent movement?

I did not see that. When I saw the carnations, succulents were nowhere to be found, but at the same workshop, Gregor created this bouquet out of plants. So I think he was seeing that people were into plants, but that was how he interpreted it. With succulents, I actually credit my high school friend Kelly. I was living in Madrid, this was seven years ago, and she came to visit me and we went to the botanical gardens and they had these incredible succulent gardens. Kelly was like, “Succulents! I love these, they’re so cool,” and I was like, “What is she talking about?” And now they’re everywhere. Kelly is a corporate lawyer and she has been since she graduated from law school, but I have to give her credit. She forecasted the succulent trend seven years ago.

Are you sick of succulents?

I’m not actually sick of succulents because they’re a gateway drug to other plants. I think one thing that sometimes prevents people from spending money on flowers is because they’re like, “They’re going to die.” Our flowers last two weeks because we get them directly from the farm, they don’t sit in a warehouse anywhere. One of our bouquets that we’ve had since the dawn of UrbanStems, which is the Jackie, has a succulent in it. So it’s cool because it’s, yes, these flowers will die, but you’ll have something leftover that you can plant and it’s really easy to care for. I really like having it in a bouquet in particular.

Do you have a dream bouquet or dream bouquet ingredients that you haven’t been able to work with yet?

I would say tropical flowers. We tried very early on to do a full tropical bouquet, but it didn’t perform very well for us. We did it in October, so that might be part of why, but I think people were just like, “What is this?” But adding tropical element to a bouquet that’s not tropical otherwise is really cool. The stem that I’m always trying to get us to use is anthurium. They’re different colors, but mostly you see them in red and pink and they’re a big waxy leaf with a long pistol. They’re so cool and they come in really interesting colors. The problem is you want to keep flowers cold, between 34 and 37 degrees at all times if they’re not tropicals. Tropicals need a different cooler. So you store tropicals in a 50 degree cooler and you store your flowers in a 35 degree cooler. If you put the tropicals in a cold cooler, they blacken… “Burn” is the inside baseball term. So if you make a bouquet and you keep it in the cold chain, like you should, but you put tropicals in it, you could be damaging the tropical. It’s hard for us to use tropicals.

So going back a little bit and talking about the days before you started working at UrbanStems, one of the things that really stood out to me from your Forbes interview was how many side projects you were working on to fulfill your creative passions. Is that something you still have time to do? And also how did you find the motivation to do that?

I’ve actually found that since I’ve joined UrbanStems, I haven’t had the time or energy to pursue a side hustle. I also think that I haven’t had the same motivation to pursue a side hustle because I literally have my dream job. I love it. So I come to work and I want to be here and I want to do it and my creative energy is going into my work. The thing that’s been so great about it is that if I had gone to work at a flower shop, I wouldn’t feel this way. I would have been gone after a month because I would’ve been bored. Here it’s like, okay, you start with flowers, but now you have to figure out all these other product categories and where do you buy them, what vendors do you work with what do the margins look like and how are you sourcing?

Then I’m working with our business intelligence team to crunch data and look at data in new and interesting ways and I’m working with our marketing team to figure out how to market the products. It’s not really a creative job anymore, it’s an entrepreneurial job and I’ve always had an inkling that’s a place where I would thrive. It just scratches every itch. So the motivation that I had before was I had an unmet need and I wasn’t exactly sure how to get the need met. I tried a lot of different things before I landed on one that made sense. I was an English major when I was in college and I was very into creative writing, particularly poetry and so when I was 20 or 21, I thought it was going to be a poet. Fast forward 10 years I was like, well I’m, I’m not going to make very much and this is going to be a hard life. So when I first got in flowers, I felt really good about it because it was something where I can be creative. I can combine the creative side of me with the rational analytical business side and my full snapshot of needs are met.

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One of the things you mentioned is that you created your own job. Do you have any advice for anyone looking to do  the same thing?

So going back to the side hustle question, my actual, I think really viable side hustle is being a career coach. So many people come to me asking this question who are just starting out in their career. I’m mentoring a couple people right now and they’re both at about the same stage where they’re like, how do I transition? What do I do next? And I love giving this advice. Both my parents are psychologists and they both work in leadership development, so I think I’ve absorbed a lot of how they work and the kind of work that they do.

What I have said most recently to one of my mentees is if you’re early in your career and you have two or three years of experience, you’ve had enough time to build up a skill set. If you want to leave, if you’re in a big a corporate environment and you want to try to pivot to a startup, take the skillset that you have, find a company that is a little bit further along, maybe even a little bit further along than us. They’ve raised their Series B, they know what their full game plan is and they’re moving forward. Find a company like that and bring your skill set to that company. Once you’re there, it’s still going to be small enough for you to learn about your entire business and then start looking for that next step within the company. You’re already bringing value to the company, you’re earning your keep, but at the same time you’re learning new skills that can also benefit the company.

What I would say is don’t abandon the skill set that you’ve already built. Part of my thought process when it came to UrbanStems was that I’ve built up seven years of experience in communications and that’s not just going to disappear. It has certainly come to bear here and has been really helpful in my job now, like talking to you and doing media appearances. I would say the best advice is get some hard experience, get a skill set, take it to a company that’s looking for someone like you and even if you don’t love what you’re doing at the moment, sometimes a change in scenery makes all the difference. Then you can start to really learn different aspects of the business and figure out what it is that you love.

That’s what I did at my first job after college. I was at Customs and Border Protection in the commissioner’s office. I was an executive assistant, basically, and I was frustrated because I felt… maybe this was an entitled millennial thing, this was before millennial in the zeitgeist, and I was like, I went to a great school, I graduated cum laude and now I’m a secretary. But I looked around and I was like, speech writer? I could do that. So I wrote a speech. Then I was like, oh photography? That seems cool. So I asked the photographers to train me and they did. That led to a job in public affairs, which was what kick-started the rest of my career. So be where you are, but look for opportunities around you.

I want to go back to the fact that both of your parents were psychologists. Was your childhood very motivational?

I think so, yeah. They had funny ways of disciplining. My parents were very, very thoughtful in how they disciplined. So when I did something wrong I would be grounded, but they would make me write. I would write an essay on what I did wrong and how am I going to improve moving forward. So they were sort of intellectual and cerebral about how they meted out their parental discipline.

You were an english major and you’re a poetry fan, what are you reading right now?

I was just invited, in the fall, to an awesome book club. I actually inadvertently ended a book club couple years ago with a good group of friends because when it was my turn to recommend a book, I recommended this 450 page tome on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and no one could get through the prologue, including me. No one read it. One girl read 40 pages and then gave up because it was very dense and very dry. Then we all just had to fess up when we got there that no one had read it. After that it became basically a wine club… But the book that we just finished is called A Little Life and it’s really good. It was very well written and very moving. I read another book recently called Beneath the Scarlet Sky. The first 50 pages I was just sobbing. It was so good.

I’m also reading a book called Tulipmania. It’s basically a non-fiction book about the Dutch tulip craze. A good friend of mine, gave me a book for the new year called Simple Abundance, which is a book specifically for busy women. It’s a lesson every day of the year and it’s just one page that you read and it gives you some tactics and tools. I love it. And I’m also reading a book by James Michener called Mexico. I listen to audio books all the time. I share an Audible account with my dad and he has a great Audible account, so I just pilfer his audio books. The book that I’m listening to is one I’ve been trying to read in print for years, it’s really long and I finally getting through it as audio book. It’s The Path to Power which is the first book in the LBJ biography trilogy by Robert Caro. So I’ve got James Michener’s Mexico at night, which is giving me crazy dreams, then LBJ in the morning, Simple Abundance at work, and Tulipmania on my kindle.

What’s the worst part of your job?

I think the worst part of my job is I have a tendency to try and get my hands in everything. I’ve learned, particularly working in a startup, that you really have to focus. When I was employee number 13 or 14, everyone had to do everything, so it really scratched that itch for me. As we’ve gotten bigger, I’ve had to reign myself in a little bit and be like, okay, well you’re not an operations expert, so don’t try to do more than what you should be doing. Just focus on your thing. It’s still hard for me. I wouldn’t say it’s a bad thing, it’s certainly something I’ve had to learn, but focusing in and honing in, that’s been a challenge for me. I’ve learned a lot about every aspect of the business and it’s given a great respect for earned expertise. I’ve passed off pieces of projects that I’ve worked on and I’ve gotten them to a point where it’s a minimum viable product, but then we bring on a packaging designer and she makes the packaging 10 times better than what it was before. It’s a good thing to give stuff up because it makes the company better.

What’s the best part of your job?

I think my team is the best part of my job. I feel like so lucky that I get to work with the people that I work with, especially the two women on my team. It’s funny, we don’t call our weekly team meeting a ‘team meeting’, we call it a family meeting. I really just love them and respect them and it’s so fun to work with them. They make everyday great and I don’t know how I would do any of this without them. I also really love traveling. I get to travel to Miami and I get to go to Colombia and Ecuador and Holland. It’s so cool. I feel like I have to pinch myself.

Words by Kaylee Dugan
Photos by Jeff Martin

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