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“Growing Spaces” - Success from Anywhere w/Karen Mangia Special Guest: Donna Letier, CEO, Gardenuity


About the Episode:


KM:

Today, on Success from Anywhere we will discover the breakthrough desktop design, proven to grow gratitude, creativity, and productivity for every employer, and employee. Please welcome to the show an entrepreneur, wife and mother who's not afraid to get dirty: Donna Letier, a co-founder and CEO of Gardenuity. Welcome, and thanks for being on the show with us today.


Listen to the podcast here: https://geni.us/sfapodcastkarenmangia

Watch the episode here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iCjZdj2YFYc

DL:

Thank you for having me. I'm really excited about this conversation.


KM:

One question I like to ask every guest is, what was your first paying job? And how did that influence your career and your trajectory?


DL:

I would have to toggle between when we were living in Alaska as a child. And I don't know why I just always wanted to work, and we set up a haunted house in our garage. Mom and Dad let us do it and we charged people to walk through. I think about that now, and I think my parents were so sweet to let us kind of disrupt the house. Forward a few years, where I had some high school time in Singapore. And at that time, I was blonde. And so in Singapore, it's pretty easy if you were blonde, to model. It was great money. You didn't have to be that cute, you just had to look different. And so I made some money modeling and then jumped to a career at Pizza Hut, as a waitress in my senior year. So, I've kind of always worked.


KM:

Well, it sounds like you were an entrepreneur from the start, and in talking about this variety of experiences, what was it that took you from living in Texas to Singapore and London and California, Alaska, and Denver back to Texas? What took you around the world?


DL:

My dad was the marketing director over the eastern hemisphere for an oilfield equipment company. During that time, he also became an ordained Episcopal minister. So he kind of did both of them side by side. We moved around a lot. And I had one sister. I recall my parents always saying before we moved here, we were going to take a family vote if we were going to move or not. And I always voted to go because I thought it was kind of a fun experience. And my sister always voted to not go, as she didn't. She always wanted to kind of get her nest settled and not go very far. But I always had a good time moving and learning about new cultures and meeting new people. After graduation from college, I moved around a little bit to LA, New York, and Denver, but settled on Dallas, because my youngest daughter has pretty severe special needs. The airport here is so easy. I knew I could get to the east coast or the west coast if I had to, and I could get back the same day. So that actually made a big impact on where I knew I would settle and raise the girls.


KM:

That's such a lesson in adaptability. And although my locations were not as exotic, I moved around quite a bit growing up and I found it helped me learn how to be adaptable and curious. I mean, I think curiosity is a helpful skill when you change environments frequently.


DL:

I think that's right. And I think I'm open to different cultures. Do you know what that was? That's a life lesson that I think you learn as a child. And you know, in Singapore when we traveled to India for vacation, or we'd go to Penang or whatever it might be in Alaska and it made me appreciate kind of where I was, at the time. I wasn't always worried about tomorrow, I was appreciating the beauty of where I was today.


KM:

Learning to live in the present moment.


DL:

Yes, and that's a hard one. But having a child who's really not enabled can be daunting some days. She has taught me the power of "the pause" and certainly given me the foundation of resilience. Her new thing is, “no more phone”. So she has taught me when she wants me to really look at her. When you stop and really listen, you learn to listen when somebody doesn't use the kind of words you and I are using now. I think that's a life lesson that's kind of gone. To be into part of the culture of Gardenuity, I think that if there are little things that you can have around you, that remind you of your values, or the choices you're making, because one of the things I remember moving around a lot, my mother would always hang a little plaque where you're planted, and I have that plaque today (she's no longer with us.) But I actually turned it around. And I think you have to choose to bloom. So we have one in our house that chooses to bloom because blooming is a choice. I think growing is a choice, but you have to choose to do it. And so I think that it becomes you have to be an active participant in the choices you make.


KM:

You referenced your daughter and blooming is a choice, listeners might be surprised to discover that she is an Olympic gold medalist. So tell us more about that.


DL:

She is. I'm the mother of a gold medal Olympian in the Special Olympics. And I will say I think every human being global should witness the Special Olympics just once. It is life-changing. To see these children and adults work so hard at being competitive and doing something and they're not doing it for everybody else. They're doing it for themselves. And they work really hard at it. But what is really exciting is when they cross the finish line. It's not because they've got sponsors, they do it for the joy of it. You get to witness joy in a world that is moving so fast around us, which I think is something that is really affirming. I really do believe that witnessing joy on something like that is cool. And getting to see her work really hard to be in a 15-meter race is life-changing.


KM:

What was that moment like for you? You were right there, as she was crossing the finish line. And you're realizing not only did she medal but what she had accomplished? I mean, how was that for you at that exact moment?


DL:

The doctor said she would not live past the age of five. That was not an option for me. And I didn't grow up around special needs, so I wasn't really sure what I was dealing with. But I can tell you that she has taught me that it's okay to be a little bit selfish because I'm learning from her that I can't have pity parties every day. I've learned patience and perseverance. I knew how hard she trained for that 50-meter walk, things we take for granted. So when she crossed that finish line, I was sobbing. She was sobbing, her sister was sobbing, it was pure joy. And it wasn't because it might make her popular, it was truly because she'd worked at it and accomplished something that the doctor said she couldn't do. And I think that is a life choice. Either you can sit back and let it lead you or you can lead it. And forever, as a single mother, I was always asked to talk about work-life balance, which I always thought was ridiculous, because it's a minute-by-minute choice. But I think since the pandemic, people are more comfortable saying life-work balance, and the mindfulness of it all. I think that that's a cultural shift that's happening that I think is really, really important.


KM:

And throughout our conversation, you've been describing character traits and choices like pause, presence, perseverance, and no pity party, all of which are very worthwhile character traits for entrepreneurs as well. Tell us more about your business. And how you got started as an entrepreneur because you grew your roots in corporate America as an executive


DL:

I did what I think was best, that my co-founder and I had worked together for a long time. She's a systems analytics girl. I've always been the product development side. And you know, if somebody asks you at a certain age in your 50s, what do you want to do? Well, you know, I think it's okay, just that I want to change the world. And you do that one person at a time. I think that's how you change communities. I think that's how you change culture, one person at a time. And so we said, what is it that can be part of the wellbeing space, and to be well, really means being mindful, it means being conscious of foodist medicine. And it means being conscious of the environment that we live in. And so we said, let's do something in the gardening space. But let's do it in a way that we work with corporate partners. And we bring gardening experiences, to teams and to people. And because these experiences give us an opportunity to take micro steps to mindfulness, I mean, if someone told me, I need to start a garden in my yard, and it's gonna take six hours every weekend, that would be daunting and 90% of first-time gardeners fail. But with Gardenuity, we said, Okay, our mission is to make gardens and gardening experiences accessible to everyone. But that means you have to ask why? Well, if it helps you to pause for a moment, to think about what you're putting in your body, to think about the environment around us. And to think about being mindful, and being grateful. If these really become tools for micro steps to overall well-being, then we're delivering on what we said we were going to do. You know what, when you're an older entrepreneur, I think you can draw on all of your experiences. And, yeah, it can be daunting when you're in a room when everybody's in their 20s. And you have patented technology, and you're really in a different arena. But you just have to kind of say, okay, I'm jumping in with both feet. And I'm going to do this because it's important. And it's an important mission. And I have to say I love what we do every day



KM:

You're planting seeds to help people be well at work. And I have an example over my shoulder here of what's possible. So tell us about your desktop garden. Now I happen to be in a home office. And you also do this for third-party workspaces. Huge companies. Tell us more about the concept and how this works.


DL:

Absolutely. So, you know, it's great to have just a plant on your desk, right? There's been proven scientific benefits that talk about increased productivity and creativity and all kinds of things. But actually, when you have the act of nurturing a garden and putting it together, then the benefits are tenfold. And so we send a custom blended kit. And it may take five minutes to put together. But it's in the act of doing that you reap so many of the benefits. And we talk about, for example, I think you have a tropical desktop garden, we also send a mister. And we really encourage people that before you turn on your computer every day, take three or five seconds, mist your garden, because that's good for the garden. But it's in those three or five seconds that you can think about something that you're grateful for. And that changes your mind for the day. And if you can get in the habit of changing your mindset, then you're in a better place to lead and deliver on what you have to get done. And so the desktop garden is really just that the way we work with corporations is whether it's a team building exercise, because, we can't unknow what we know and teams are hybrid, and the way we work is different, but what we have to deliver has not changed. So how can we help bring teams together? We do a program and an onboarding program with a big company. And so anytime When a new employee is added to the roster, they get a garden, whether it's an outdoor garden or a desktop garden, and they put it together, and they're asked to be in there, whether it's a Slack channel or whatever, post about it. Well, that all of a sudden opens up conversation starters with their new colleagues. Oh, what garden are you doing? And, oh, what are you harvesting? Or did you name your plants? And the conversations start when they've already created this community around conversations that have nothing to do with, well, what's your resume, and the results have been really beautiful. We love that we're part of someone's workspace. And they're starting out with a culture of care.


KM:

Culture of caring—that is key. And so many organizations and listeners who are hearing our conversation right now are thinking about this challenge of how to successfully onboard new employees and help them create that sense of community early on in their experience. And I love what you said there about making it personal, we instantly have something in common that doesn't have to do with our work history or our work product. We are relating at a human level. And also, you pointed out something that I think is important, the plant represents that nurturing is a habit that we can all cultivate and create the plants, just the vehicle to do that.


DL:

That's right. Stress is unavoidable cumulative stress is avoidable. And so if we can put some micro steps, some habits into our workflow, that kind of help us to do that, then I think we're in a better place. And I think it comes full circle with the power of the pause, right? So I've got grow bags out on my small patio, I've tested everything from growing corn on the cob, to watermelon to herbs, you name it, I've grown it. And in the mornings, after a run, that's when I am not tethered to a digital device, watering my plants and I get to witness growth. And I get to think about what the day is going to look like for me. And what am I grateful for? And what can I do for others, it's that mandated pause, that kind of helps set the tone. And I think that that's, you know, I talk all the time about self-care is not selfish. I'm not great at it every single day. But I think about it every day. And I think putting yourself on your to-do list is not selfish. But a lot of times people have a hard time doing that.


KM:

In addition to witnessing growth, which is a very rewarding aspect, whether that's a plant or a person, when we create opportunities to witness growth, what we're doing is participating in something living and breathing, that's dynamic and that matters.

DL:

That's right. I mean, I always say that I grew that sounds good in any language, whether you're growing a bank account, a business, a healthy child, a plant, it sounds good, to be able to say, I grew that, it feels good. And we can't just put our feelings in a closet and bring them out for 30 minutes a day to nurture them. I mean, it's part of who we are. And so I think if there's a way to manifest that into making us mindful, then I think, again, we're better leaders.

KM:

You've also incorporated the concept of grow one, give one, and some giving-back opportunities as part of your business as well.


DL:

We have we've done some really remarkable programs, where people gather together and now that, you know, conferences are happening again, a lot of times, we are invited to go to a conference where people have flown in from around the country, they build a garden because we talk about the ideas of growth, and it's doing something with a colleague or a customer, you're actually doing something tactile. And they can't bring the gardens back on the plane with them, so they donate them to a local school or to a senior living facility. And then they have a garden waiting for them at home. But it's the act of giving that feels like such a great way to give back. And a lot of times, teams bring us in for team-building opportunities. And whether it's quarterly, or annually. What's really fun is when they invite us back because they want to share conversations about okay, we're harvesting this or we're growing that or this is you know, part of the conversation that's gone from just what's on the to-do list to what's happening in life. Life and what's growing around them in real life.


KM:

When you're sharing these lessons, what strikes me is how you are bringing new life into the world of work. And I think we're all looking for a breath of fresh air right? In this new office workspace environment bringing that new life in can be as simple as a single plant. Or you taught me when we met for our authority magazine interview, that you can garden over slack and collaborative technology. So how does that work?


DL:

We do anywhere from five to 25 virtual events every week, where everybody gets a garden kit at home, which includes everything you need for the garden, including the fully rooted plants, and everybody gets online. And we literally build the garden together. But we talk about the mindfulness of building it together. And how a successful outcome for a garden means you have a good foundation, you provide me with a great HR leader, who I just think the world of and set your onboarding plans for success. That kind of makes sense to me. We've done the hard heavy lifting with our technology base of guard duty match, we match people to plants based on predictive weather time to harvest if it's indoor, we match everything to the right nutrients, companion plants, we kind of make the process easy. But when we get to be in front of people, whether it's virtually or in person, we can actually see their reactions. And a lot of people are gardening for the first time. Or they will say I kill everything. I can't keep anything alive, just like meditation, right? If somebody came to me and said, Okay, you have to meditate for 30 minutes twice a day, I'd be like, Okay, that's really daunting. I'm up for about five minutes. And that's really good for me. But if you say, we're going to take baby steps, because the outcome and the benefits are so beautiful. We're going to just make gardening, easy where that entryway to letting gardening nurture you.


KM:

What other limiting beliefs do you find that people hold that get in their way of peak performance in the workplace? I mean, you just mentioned that you know, I'm not a gardener, I can't grow something I'm not good at, while we've talked about these, but what do you find are some of the most limiting beliefs that keep us from being fully alive in this world of work or living well, and working well?


DL:

That's actually, that's a really good question. And I think that for me, and I've talked a lot about that obnoxious roommate in your head, who is, you know, not the coach, it's the roommate saying, You don't know what you're doing. You're too old to do this. You're not a Master Gardener. You didn't go to Harvard, you didn't go to Stanford, and those play a big part; you got to figure out how to kind of put them aside and let the coach speak. Like, you're doing something really good. I think that we are all and social media plays into this, right? People post things when they're doing really well. They're not posting a lot of times when they are down on their luck. And this is really, this is really terrible. And I think that we have to be calm, bring confidence into our day, whatever that looks like so that we can then share that with others. I really do think that if somebody could figure out how to shut up the obnoxious roommate in your head, then I think we'd all be better off. I think meditation gets pretty close to that exercise. I'm a big believer in, what we eat, it has a big impact on how we feel. I mean, if we put really bad gas in a really nice car, it's not going to run very well. Not unlike food. If we're always rushed, and we're sticking Twinkies in our mouths because that's what's easy. You're not going to run to your full potential. And I think gardening has this underlying life lesson that let's eat seasonally. Let's grow something that's good. Even if you're picking up dinner on the way home because I know that there are some days that you just can't get it all done and you have to be willing to take some things off the to-do list and be okay with that don't add something without subtracting it. But if I'm picking up dinner, on the way home if I harvest fresh herbs, put it on a plate and sit down with the family. I'm still keeping some of the things that are important to me intact. I'm having time with Family, it's on a plate. And I put something green on it. So I think that there are little life lessons along the way that we have to be open to hearing. And I think listening is a skill that we have to practice. Every day I talk I have shared that you're in your 20s, I think you listen with the idea of getting ahead in your 30s and 40s. For me, I listened in a hurry, because I had a lot going on with young kids, and I was still working full time. But in your 50s and beyond, I think you listened with the joy of learning something new. And if we can master the art of really listening, I think self-care is better. I think camaraderie is better. And I hear you are really important words. And I think Julian reminds me of that every day.


KM:

And speaking of exercise, and micro steps, you just took a really significant garden walk. Can you tell us about that? I think listeners would be interested.


DL:

It was an unbelievable bucket list for me. You know, when you have somebody whom you admire, and you think is not only incredibly smart, but doing something that can change the world, and you meet them, one on one, and you get to go, you know, on a walking meeting with them. So they're real. There are no cameras around, there's nobody taking notes. And they are perfect in real life as you wanted them to be. It is affirming and I got to go on a walking meeting with Ariana Huffington. And I have long been an admirer. And she is Real Deal means she listens with the intent of learning. She is full of wisdom. She's so smart. She's so personable. It was an opportunity for me. And I will never forget it. I think she is one of the most important leaders of our time.


KM:

And the work Arianna Huffington is doing is focused on helping us all to thrive. And I resonate with her message also that you've referenced micro steps. Or another way to say this is—think big and act small. I summarized it as doable. We don't always have to have the grand gesture of a two-week tropical vacation when we could have a tropical plant here and take five minutes a day to enjoy it. When I think about trying to create living, breathing, nurturing caring cultures and organizations, what are some small steps that every employer and every employee could take? What are some micro steps that you would prescribe based on your guard duty expertise?


DL:

People talk about, oh, they missed the watercooler talk. That didn't really happen at a water cooler. It happened, just because you were listening and engaging. And so I think some of those little things you can do are listen and, and slow down enough to pause, take five minutes, meaning, five minutes can change a lot. And five minutes and five minutes and five minutes every day adds up. I mean, if you decide, Okay, five minutes, I'm going to walk in the mall every day, all of a sudden, you've put some nice miles on. And I think that that's something that I think these cultures that we're now getting to witness and be a part of are doing. You know, they are creating this culture of caring for each other. And it's all about caring for the customer.


KM:

What you said brought to mind a powerful image of being a kid with a styrofoam cup at school and putting dirt in it and some flower seeds to grow. I think it was a miracle in time for Mother's Day. For my mom, I think probably other people have done this. I remember drawing a flower on the cup. And what I remember most of all that your story sparked is I took great care of that plant. I wasn't just interested, I was invested, because it demonstrated an act of caring towards someone I cared about. And I thought what would happen if to the point of your five minutes we all plant in one seat? I mean, what's that Styrofoam cup for Mother's Day that you attentively nurture? Because it's a symbol of your caring about the people around you whether you're a colleague or leader of an organization.


DL:

Yeah, that culture of care and watching something grow. Not only does it spark a community of conversation, but it's a sense of friendship. And nowadays projects take a long time, right? But a garden, you can kind of witness right away and see the changes and see how the little things you're doing impacts its growth. And that's a good feeling.

KM:

And speaking of that, as people are listening, someone, somewhere is thinking, Oh, we must be able to measure the ROI of this right? During economic uncertainty or trade-offs with other programs in the business. What are some ROI, measurable metrics, and statistics you've discovered for organizations with the work you're doing, with gardens, and with garden variety?


DL:

I think mental health is something that every organization needs to be focused on. I think it's the pandemic of our time. And I think that mental health is something that people feel comfortable raising their hand now saying, I need to talk about this, I need help. Well, a lot of times that starts with a conversation. And when you create opportunities to converse, then, you know, people stay at companies, not just because they're paid well, but because they feel valued. And because they feel like they're a part of something that's bigger than them. And if that starts with a conversation, and we can be the conduit to bring those conversations to life, then that's a good thing. And I think that for decades, the act of gardening has been linked to mental health benefits. And we can measure that with some of our corporate partners, by how long people stay. How many people within their team did we actually study, where people were part of a team, but they didn't really know each other because everybody was hybrid? Well, they looked at how many conversations were happening, whether it was in Slack or whatever, about things outside of what was on their to-do list. And when such a high number of those conversations were about their gardening experience, and what they were cooking with their harvest they attributed that communication, and the feeling of being part of something to the act of gardening. And that's a good ROI.



KM:

Meet me in the garden. That was the headline that jumped to my head, instead of the water cooler, the virtual water cooler. Imagine if everyone had their desktop garden set up behind them and we could have a meeting in the garden. Well, in speaking of which, we have a segment on the show that is the virtual water cooler because people do say they miss this to-your-point, casual conversation, and connection that really occurs from a spontaneous, unplanned connection. And I have five lightning round questions for you. That might be something we would discuss around the water cooler. So you're just gonna say the first answer that comes to mind. Are you ready? So I call it the water cooler: take five segments, five questions. First, when you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?


DL:

An ice skater, I wanted to be Dorothy Hamill.


KM:

Oh, that's awesome. What is your favorite guilty pleasure office snack? Chips and salsa. You and I would get along famously, you're probably growing the herbs for yourself. So you're growing your own salsa garden. But what's the best excuse you've ever heard or given for entirely missing a meeting?


DL:

I can have a pretty good BS radar. So people usually just shoot me. The truth. I mean, I forgot it is probably the most normal.


KM:

And what's the funniest or most unusual for example, I have one where someone started a meeting where I was presenting, and there were a bunch of executives. And the reason that was provided was due to Cat related anxiety. That was the first for me.


DL:

That's a good one for me. I have to say we had a customer call and say my whole garden didn't work. And so I called her when we first started and said, Well, what happened? She said a bear ate it. And she was in upstate New York and I'm thinking to myself, that means you didn't water it, like what happened? So she sent us a video. A bear actually ate the garden. So, you know, sometimes there's a truth somewhere in some of the funniest stories.


KM:

Instead of "the dog ate my homework"; yours was the bear that ate my garden. That's a good one. What do you keep on your desk that inspires you?


DL:

A stone that says faith.



KM:

One closing question as we conclude and I've taken so many lessons as a take away from our conversation today, growing gratitude, creating cultures of caring, and nurturing as a habit all begins with planting a seed and watching it grow, and that there's so much joy and growing something worthwhile. And I think about what might change if we brought new life into our office spaces, whether those are big buildings or our home offices, and one closing question as we conclude, what is the most important seed that you've planted, that you're nurturing that you hope is going to flourish and grow? Resilience. That's a great story of our time.

KM:

Thank you, Donna, Co-founder, and CEO of Gardenuity for showing us how to grow greatness here today on success from anywhere because as a reminder, success is not a destination. Success is not a location even the garden success is available to anyone, anywhere

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