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SELF START 101

Creating Farmgirl Flowers taught me my high school education is more than enough

AP Photo/Eric Risberg
Delivery.
  • Christina Stembel
By Christina Stembel

Founder and CEO, Farmgirl Flowers

As a founder, there are a few constants in my life: a full inbox, an even fuller schedule, and constant rounds of networking events and speaking engagements.

Since I run a business in San Francisco, attending these engagements means I’m often rubbing elbows with the most giant of the giants of the Silicon Valley tech companies and prominent startups. It’s a crowd that makes it easy for anyone who has less than giant status (like me) to feel like a black sheep. But bootstrapping a startup as a female founder with only a high school degree makes the comparison feel all the more stark. 

I founded Farmgirl Flowers in 2010 in San Francisco. We’re a manufacturing operation with a perishable, physical main product—flowers. We’re an operation predominantly staffed by skilled manual laborers, run by a small but scrappy team of managers. Bottom line, my company just doesn’t look, or function, like many of our neighbors. 

Another thing that goes against the Silicon Valley grain? Me. 

I’m a sole female founder with a high-school diploma who spent my childhood on a corn and soybean farm in Indiana. I attended a tiny public school, the same one from kindergarten through 12th grade. I worked multiple part-time jobs to save enough money so that as soon as I graduated I could move to the biggest city I knew of—New York. 

Amidst a sea of prep-school graduates, fancy MBAs, and pedigrees, it’s hard to resist comparing yourself to others. But I learned early on that there’s more than one way to get an education. 

While my classroom looks a little different than those of most of my peers, my education has helped me master the knowledge and skills I need, all while keeping the grueling schedule that comes with being an entrepreneur. 

For the other non-pedigree entrepreneurs out there, here’s my crash course in how to get there, and how to not feel like a black sheep on your way up. 

Houston, we have a pedigree problem

It might not always be a degree from Stanford, but it’s likely that throughout life you’ll encounter lots of people with pieces of paper that imply that they’re smarter or more qualified than you are. This may or may not be true; regardless, it’s easy to feel like you just don’t stack up if your education looks different.

I can’t say I’ve never felt less than. But I discovered ways to not allow that to get in my way. 

There is no substitute for drive when you’re burning the candle at both ends.

When I was creating Farmgirl, I intentionally created a business model that could be bootstrapped. I knew that without a pedigree, I wouldn’t be able to go out and raise a round pre-revenue like I saw so many other startups doing. 

Once I got the company off the ground and started to hit some speed bumps, I pretty quickly realized that having some peers to lean on would be super helpful. This is partially because having a person, or a community of people, to commiserate with is helpful when times get tough. But I also needed peers to go to for advice, to trade tips with, and to help me reflect on experiences. Peers also help with connections for access to funding. 

Had I gone to business school or made my way through some of northern California’s more well-known companies before starting Farmgirl, I may have come into that naturally. But as it stood, I found myself on my own.

I had to be resourceful. Eventually I found my own through groups by joining other networks, like Young Presidents’ Organization and EY’s Winning Women program.

There are a lot of different paths to an education

In some ways, the decision to not go to college was made for me due to the circumstances in which I grew up. My parents were incredibly hard working, but with three kids, a mortgage, and a single income, there was no denying that we were not living high on the hog. The cost of a degree alone was reason enough for me to not even consider college as an option. I also grew up attending an incredibly conservative church. The expectation was that both I and my sister would finish high school, get married, and have children. While it sounds (and felt!) antiquated, this was the reality afforded me and the other young women I grew up with in Indiana.

While I certainly recognize some of the benefits I believe a formal education could have provided, I learned a lot by moving out on my own at 18 years old and making my way through the series of jobs that would eventually lead me to founding my own company. I’ve worked as a barista, a hair model, a front-desk clerk, a general manager for a boutique hotel chain and, just before Farmgirl, the director of alumni events at Stanford Law School. And that’s the short list.

I’ll be honest. There was a lot I didn’t know that I didn’t know. But I was fortunate to come of age at the same time as the information “universities” of Google and YouTube. There is obviously a lot of misinformation out there, but in the information age, we have very few excuses to not be able to find an answer and resources with the right search terms. 

When I started Farmgirl, I knew nothing about flower arranging. I spent time pouring over tutorials on YouTube until I felt comfortable enough to create the designs for our first daily arrangements. The same goes for business models and pivot tables in Excel. And for digital marketing on Facebook and Google, graphic design for collateral material, even wireframes for website building. The list goes on and on. 

Bottom line: If you have a question, what does Google say? And if Google doesn’t know, then it’s time to phone a friend.

Invest in a village, not a mentor

It’s probably an unpopular opinion, but mentorship feels a little bit like the career equivalent of a fossil in today’s workplace environment. Given what a typical day looks like for me, it comes off as inconvenient at best, and plain presumptuous at worst when someone approaches me with an ask to “pick my brain” over coffee. 

That said, the instinct to turn to those in the trenches of your chosen field is a good one. After all, there’s no one who can advise you better on how to do what you’re doing better than someone who’s actually doing it, and most likely has been doing it for longer than you. My best advice? Build a village, and be clear and concise in your ask for help. 

Finding one person to rely on for all your career needs can very quickly turn into a huge mental load for the mentor. Finding a group of skilled, successful, senior colleagues in your field helps you to crowdsource mentorship and gives you the added benefit of having access to multiple perspectives. 

When making your ask, be clear about what you need and how much time you think it will take—and then stick to it. For example, instead of, “Can I take you to coffee for thirty minutes on Thursday?” try, “I have a question about the best way to talk to my boss about looking for a new opportunity at the same company. Do you have 15 minutes to talk it through with me?” If you make your ask a known quantity, it’s a lot easier for the mentor to say yes (or no). And showing a person you respect their time will go a long way.

Hunger is the best sauce

One of the things I get asked most often since I started Farmgirl is what advice I’d give to entrepreneurs who are just starting out. While there’s a lot of practical knowledge I’d like to pass on, I think the single most important thing is to stay hungry. 

There is no substitute for drive when you’re burning the candle at both ends. Know that there is always going to be at least one obstacle in your way to achieving your next goal. The difference between those who move it out of the way and those who give up often doesn’t come down to smarts, but instead perseverance and grit.

I’ve always applied this determination tactic when solving problems at Farmgirl. New sales tax legislation? I’m a weekend and an internet deep-dive away from being an expert on new regulations. And no, I don’t have a deep and abiding love for reading every nook and cranny on the Board of Equalization’s state-run website. But I do have a deep and abiding love for growing Farmgirl as much as humanly possible. So, if hours of dry paragraph after dry paragraph on tax reform get me there, you can bet your bottom dollar that’s how I’m going to be spending my weekend. 

The take-home? There isn’t any secret recipe or magic formula beyond this: If you want it badly enough, find a way to do it. And then go do it.

And if your education looks anything like mine, or if your experience does not fit into the status quo, remember that we black sheep deserve a place at the table, too.

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