Sometimes you have to abandon your true love to know how important it really is to you. Rebecca Bullene grew up gardening, but it took a successful publishing career for her to realize plants were her passion. Now Rebecca brings nature to the concrete jungle through her botanic design company, Greenery.
You are a native New Yorker?
Yes. I'm originally from Rochester, which was a beautiful place to grow up. It is full of parks and nature. I spent a lot of my childhood outdoors. My mom is an amazing gardener, so a lot of my chores were garden-related. Instead of doing dishes, I would pick up all the chestnut seeds. [Laughs] I didn’t realize how much I took nature for granted until I moved to the city when I was 18. I thought it would be this fabulous, glamorous life! It’s funny; you often think you have one dream and you work towards it, and then when you’ve achieved it you realize it’s not what you wanted after all. That was my journey in New York during my 20s.
I feel like when you grow up with something, you always need to leave it for a while to know that it’s really what you want.
I totally agree with you. I couldn’t understand or see what I truly wanted in my teens and 20s. It wasn’t until my early 30s, when I had more life experience, that I was able to ask myself why I was rejecting something that I connected with so deeply. Rejecting something you connect with because it’s what you grew up with is not a good reason.
But growing up, you always wanted to move to New York City?
Yes, although I took a little detour in Florida to go to college, where I studied English. I loved storytelling and thought that was where I wanted my career to go. While I was studying, I set myself up to work in publishing. I had a professor who ran a small printing press called Fiction Collective Two, and he let me intern there while I was studying. When I graduated, I applied to NYU for the masters program in publishing. Moving to New York all happened so quickly. The summer before starting my masters degree, I did a six-week intensive course at NYU, found a job and an apartment, and got myself set up here.
That is super quick!
I just got really lucky! NYU is also a really amazing place for connections. It's such a huge part of New York City—once you’re in that community, you have so many resources. It was by meticulously asking around about jobs and people in publishing that I got a job at Random House. It was an entry-level position as an assistant to a publisher, but it was amazing. I managed to move up in the company and was there for seven years. I climbed the corporate ladder. After a few years there I had an editorship, my own office and assistants.
What is an editorship?
It’s sort of like being an editor, but more about acquisitions. I was one of the people going out and deciding what we were going to publish, which was an amazing position. I felt like a patron to these authors, which I loved. Being able to make someone’s creative work come to life, to be able to make it happen for them, was a great feeling.
But then publishing started to shift when e-books took hold. There was a lot of turmoil in the industry, and my role changed. I was still doing acquisitions, but my goal was more about making money for the publisher, often to the detriment of the author. That was tough, especially for some of the authors that I really respected and whose work I loved.
It was then that the corporate environment also started to wear thin. I was tired of wearing a pencil skirt and button-down, working in this hermetically sealed glass box everyday on the computer. I kept getting promoted and got raises and more assistants, but I just got more and more miserable. I found myself crying in my office.
That's not a good sign.
Not at all! And, technically, I had achieved what I had wanted. I was signing really big books, getting bonuses and climbing the ladder. I had to take a step back and ask, "Why am I so miserable?" To try and figure out what my next step might be, I started making lists of stuff that I liked. But at that point I was so entrenched and comfortable with the lifestyle, money and stability that job offered. I couldn’t think clearly. I had to take a dramatic step.
One day it all kind of fell into place. The head of my division came to me and said, "Hey listen, we're going to lay off your boss. We want you to take on some of these responsibilities and we're going to have you report to this other person." This was all behind the back of my boss, who was a great mentor of mine, and someone I’m still in touch with today. I just thought it was such a terrible thing to do to someone who had given so much to the company. It was the perfect example of why I couldn’t work anymore in that environment. So I quit.
I gave them six-weeks notice and made the transition really easy for them, so I could really close up all my accounts and help train the next person. It worked for selfish reasons, too, as it gave me six weeks to get my shit together!
I decided that I needed to travel. I knew that staying in the grind of New York wouldn’t let me figure out what I really wanted to do. I found this really amazing place called Punta Moana, which is a permaculture center in Costa Rica, and I did a work trade there.
Even after a couple of weeks there, being in that environment felt so good. Being back in nature was amazing. After my work finished there, I traveled and worked at other farms for a while before coming back to New York. I had to figure out a way that I could live here and still work with plants!
That’s a tough one! [Laughs]
That started a whole new journey! I loved this plant store called Sprout Home in Williamsburg, so I applied for a job there part time and got it. It was just $12 an hour, working in the garden shop to make ends meet.
I still had a lot of connections in publishing, so I floated it out there that I would do freelance editing. Doing that at the same time gave me enough money to keep going on what I was really working towards. The stars aligned after a while and Brooklyn Botanic Garden put a post out on Craigslist that they were looking for an editor. They were going to rebrand the company, and needed a content editor to create all the content, help with design, and facilitate everything. They also needed someone to work with the gardeners on a line of how-to books. It was a dream job, but it was the slowest hiring process of my life. It took about seven months for me to actually get the job. I became merciless with my harassment and pretty much tortured them until they gave me the job! [Laughs]
Getting that job was a huge turning point in my life. I was able to take what I knew about plants already from my parents, plus my work in publishing, and put it all together. I learned so much from the curators, staff, and gardeners there. I took what they knew, and translated it into articles, guides and books for the general public. It was an amazing education. It was also a beautiful place to work, and is still one of my favorite places in New York.
After working so closely with the gardeners and being out in the grounds for a while, people would start coming up to me and asking me questions about their gardens. More and more conversations like that happened, and some visitors would ask me if I could come to their homes and help them with their gardens.
Because the Botanic Garden is a nonprofit, the money there isn’t great. So a lot of gardeners there would moonlight as private gardeners to wealthy New Yorkers. I started consulting with people, essentially telling them how to lay out their gardens, or the plants in their home, telling them what would work and what wouldn’t. They’d recommend me to their friends, and I started to gain a large base of clients.
After a while, it occurred to me that this could be a business! I loved helping people connect to plants, and changing their environments for the better. So many people are looking for this connection to nature, even in this super-urban environment, but they just don’t have the right knowledge. And there is so much shame when people see themselves as a plant killer. [Laughs] But when someone sets you up with the right plants and environment, it's very easy to maintain plants. That informed everything I've done with Greenery—it’s all about creating systems that make it very easy to care for plants.
And now you have this incredible business!
It started so small, just doing smaller residential garden projects. Now, we have 15 people working here and we do huge corporate installations. It’s been incredible to be able to change spaces that thousands of people move through everyday.
How long ago did you leave Brooklyn Botanic Garden?
I left the Botanic Garden in 2011, but I incorporated as a company in 2010. While I was working full time at the Botanic Garden, I was hustling to get things off the ground as a company. I don't think I actually started working full time on Greenery until 2012.
Was that a scary transition?
It was crazy and scary, but I've just been really fortunate that there have been a lot of people along the way that have supported me. While I was transitioning between the Botanic Garden and Greenery full time, I was able to work with some of my colleagues in publishing again to bridge the gap financially until I was able to pay my bills with Greenery.
Was there a turning point for Greenery when you really felt like you’d made it?
A big turning point for us was working with Etsy. We were working with them for a while at their old office space, just maintaining the plants they had there. After about a year of working for them, they said, “We're going to move to a new office. We're doing this massive buildout, and we're also trying to go for the Living Building Challenge.” It’s one of most difficult environmental processes to achieve.
What does it mean to be a living building?
The idea is that every part of the building is sustainable and comes from a good source. From my end, that means I had to look at where the soil I was using came from, where the plastic came from for the irrigation system. Every single ingredient in everything has to be sustainable. It can be a huge process to look at every item you currently use. You may have to scrap a lot of it because there is a volatile chemical used to make it. It’s a lot of work but it also encourages change on a micro-level for manufacturing, by letting companies know that you will be taking your business and clients elsewhere because of the processes they use.
So working with Etsy on their new location was a change for myself, and for our company. It grew our sustainability mindset, and was also one of the largest contracts we've ever had. We made some incredible living walls for them, and they supported research and development on new product concepts I had been developing. One of those products is actually the living green room divider you see over there. It’s a completely self-automated green wall. All you have to do is fill up the tank at the very top of the wall, and the whole thing is systemized so that each plant gets the exact amount of water it needs.
Wow, that is incredibly complex!
It’s an idea I had for a long time, but it’s expensive to prototype stuff. Working for Etsy was a game changer, because they supported the development. Now, we can offer them to our clients as a way to divide a room using plants, while still allowing light to come through.
What’s the best piece of advice you could give?
I have two pieces of advice! First, take the time to really identify what your passion is. That’s so important if you want to start your own business, and something you also hear all the time. The reason, though, is that you will not be successful as an entrepreneur if you don’t love what you are doing. It takes so much time and effort to start a business. There are so many instances where you want to throw in the towel. If I didn’t love plants I would have quite a long time ago.
My second piece of advice: don't be afraid to ask. It’s especially true for women. I think we often have a really hard time asking for help, because we don’t want to be seen as vulnerable in a business setting. It took me a long time to figure that one out. When I was younger, I used to think that asking for help would make people think less of me. I thought they would think I was a fraud who didn’t know what I was doing. But that is not the case! When you expose a vulnerability to someone and you ask for their help, you're actually making a deeper connection with them, and you're going to get so much more out of the relationship. Everybody is vulnerable. Nobody knows everything. It's a really great feeling as a human to help somebody out.
What does New York mean to you?
I love New York. I love the energy, the environment, the creativity. I can't imagine living anywhere else. I feel that New York, more so than a lot of other places in the United States, actually needs my work. People in New York are craving a connection to plants and nature. At the end of the day, my goal is to put more plants in New York City. I want to try to make this a better environment for everybody—and people are better when they're around plants!
Learn more about Greenery NYC here.