Alumni Q&A: Katharine Gilman '12 Turns Law Degree into Springboard for Low-Carbon Footprint Floral Business in New York City

Katharine Gilman '12

"What is perhaps the most special thing about UVA is the people. This is saying a lot, considering everything else it has to offer academically," said Katharine Gilman '12, who started a floral business shortly after graduating from the Law School.

August 3, 2015

Katharine Gilman '12 says she always knew she wanted to use her degree from UVA Law in a creative way, but she still refers to her business venture as "accidental entrepreneurship."

Gilman's company, Petal by Pedal , locally sources flowers in New York City and delivers them year-round on bicycle.

The lilac lover's customers receive bouquets of flowers in reusable Mason jar vases, and the card (written on a typewriter) is tied to the jar with twine. She said she intends for the package to give a rustic, authentic and personalized feeling.

"I couldn't resist Petal by Pedal once the idea took root," said Gilman, who came straight to UVA Law after completing her undergraduate degree at Princeton University. During summers in law school, Gilman worked both at public defender offices in New York City, New Orleans and Washington, D.C., and in top law firms.

"I loved aspects of both, especially the practice of individual advocacy," she said.

Gilman talked about her path to becoming a business owner and offered advice for law students who have an eye on entrepreneurship.

Do you have advice for law students or alumni who want to start their own business?

The best advice I can give is to keep your ears and eyes open, both while in law school and once you've graduated. Lean on the incredible staff at the Law School and all of the wonderful alumni who are so generous with their time and knowledge. Those conversations helped me to be brave enough to jump into starting my own business, and helped me navigate difficult moments along the way to where I am now.

In what ways did UVA Law help prepare you for your career?

UVA was the best possible law school experience for me (and I'd argue, for anyone — go Hoos!). From the collaborative, collegial student environment to the inspiring professors, to the charming city — there is nowhere else I'd rather have spent those years. Classmates and I have schemes for early retirement back in the 'Ville. What is perhaps the most special thing about UVA is the people. This is saying a lot, considering everything else it has to offer academically. Two people that were particularly inspiring for me were [Law School Foundation President and CEO] Luis Alvarez '88 and Professor Lillian BeVier. They offered their time generously to me, as well as their sound advice, both during my time in Charlottesville and in the years since then. As an entrepreneur without a large number of colleagues or employees, and without a clear career road map, you can feel a bit out at sea — it is mentorship from people like Luis and Lillian that kept and keeps me compassed.

How did you get interested in the floral industry?

For me, it was much more accidental entrepreneurship than something I set out to do from the start. I knew going to law school that I would use my degree outside of traditional practice, but it wasn't until I graduated and was close to starting a job at a litigation firm in New York that I made the decision to jump into a more creative use of my degree. I was living in Greenwich Village during the months between graduation and my work start date and I had enough conversations with local growers at the city Greenmarkets to see a pain point in the floral marketplace. As a consumer, I always knew I wasn't satisfied with the options I had for buying flowers, but it wasn't until seeing the other side of the equation, and how fragmented an industry it truly was, that I saw an opportunity for a disruptive flower business right here in New York City. Coming from Charlottesville, I think I brought a mindset of conscious consumption and local agriculture that I had experienced in Virginia up to Manhattan.

When did you start Petal by Pedal? How did you go about getting it started?

Petal by Pedal was launched as an idea in 2013 and as a business in 2014. Once I decided to take the leap and make [it] a reality, I created a thorough, organized business plan and went about filing for a trademark on both the name and logo of my company. I then began the process of creating a functional e-commerce website on a budget and growing a network of local farmers who I would source our flowers from year-round. I hadn't done any of these things before, so it was definitely a learn-as-you-go experience. There is nothing like creating a small business from scratch — in the process, you learn as much about yourself as you do about the industry you're in. It's incredibly important to be humble enough to see your limits clearly and to ask for help when you need it. It's also vital to allow the business you have in your mind to change with what the actual market wants. I had to let go of some original plans and grab ahold of others that in reality, worked much better.

How is your company different from other florists? How are you able to do it?
It was important to me to keep simplicity close to my heart throughout the process of launching Petal by Pedal. This is because the flower industry in which it sits, is anything but simple. The vast majority of cut flowers sold in the United States each year are imported from thousands of miles away, traveling for days in planes and trucks before arriving at a local florist to sit in a cooler until it gets to your vase. We simplify that supply chain by going right from a New York farmer to your door, cutting out all of that travel time for a perishable product and keeping them more ethically grown (both environmentally and as a human rights labor issue). As a result of that low-carbon footprint, our flowers last longer than traditional blooms bought from overseas. We also simplify the packaging, using only a mason jar and twine and cutting out all of the boxes, bags, cellophane, ribbon and extras that florists use. We enhance the card aspect of giving flowers — such a special part of sending gratitude to someone — by using thick recycled card stock and a clean typewritten message, instead of watermarked perforated paper with illegible handwriting. It's less an afterthought and much more of an integral part of the bouquet.

What is a typical day like for you?

On a typical day I am doing a bit of everything for the business — from meeting with farmers, to curating the bouquets for the day and week, to holding workshops with our individual and corporate clients and looking for ways to grow the business. The trick of having a small company is being able to manage your time and find ways to both execute the day to day and have the right kind of help so that you can look to the future.

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