“Plants make people happy.” This is the motto that Eliza Blank, founder of The Sill, believes in — and built a business around. The Sill was founded on a growing need for a brand that’s relatable, trendy and plant focused. Started almost a decade ago as an online shop, The Sill has grown into a plant lover’s community, spanning the country with five brick-and-mortar shops in New York City, Los Angeles and San Francisco.
As a fellow plant lover (or hoarder) and aspiring business owner myself, I talked to Blank about her journey to becoming a successful business owner, girl boss extraordinaire, and all-around inspirational role model.
CL: How did you develop your interest in plants?
EB: My mother is from the Philippines and I grew up in a small town in Western Massachusetts. My mother maintained a connection to her roots through gardening and tending to a growing collection of houseplants. My childhood was very green! That said, I took a lot of it for granted. I didn’t realize how meaningful plants and nature were to me until I left it all behind to go to school in New York City. During my freshman year at [New York University], I realized I needed grass underfoot to feel at home. My roommate and I would make the long trek from Washington Square to Central Park — on foot — through the bustle of Midtown, just to lay in Sheep’s Meadow on a Sunday morning. Once I got my very own apartment, I realized I could satisfy my need to connect with nature through houseplants.
CL: When did your plant hobby become a business? Is The Sill your first business?
EB: I spent the first few years following graduation fighting to keep my houseplants alive in my various apartments. I would fight the bustling sidewalks of the city, navigate the subways, not to mention my 6th floor walk-up — just to get plants from Home Depot on 23rd Street back to my apartment. I would end up killing many, many houseplants. I didn’t understand how to keep plants alive in a dim apartment that was hot in the summer and even hotter in the winter (thanks NYC heating systems!). Meanwhile, I started a career in brand strategy. It wasn’t long until I realized a consumer brand in plants was needed. I didn’t know which plants to buy, how to properly take care of them, and, more importantly, I wanted them to fit in with the rest of my home décor. Home Depot just wasn’t cutting it. After spending five years working for someone else, I quit my job and set off to start The Sill, my very first business.
CL: Was it always your goal to own your own business?
EB: I don’t know that it was always my intention to run my own business, but it certainly seemed appealing very early on. I was always a very hard worker, and at some point, you have to ask yourself, “If I’m going to work this hard, shouldn’t I do it for myself?” I also had role models, including my brother, who had already started businesses of his own. If I look back at what I was thinking about when I started formulating my plan, I can say I honestly had no idea what I was about to embark on. I was thinking very short-term about how to get the business off the ground, not what it would look like three, five, eight years out. It’s been tremendously exciting, challenging and satisfying to start and run The Sill. Sometimes it’s terrifying. But I wouldn’t have done anything differently.
CL: Has being a woman, as well as Asian American, ever affected your business (starting up, investors, media, etc.)?
EB: Before I decided to raise any venture capital to help fuel The Sill’s growth, I was able to secure a small business loan. The loan was from an organization that specifically sought to support businesses in underserved communities, as well as businesses owned by underrepresented or disadvantaged groups such as women and minorities. I was very lucky to have received that loan because I don’t think I would have been able to get one from a traditional lender, like a bank, at the time. I also happened to start The Sill in Chinatown in New York City. The community is hustling and bustling from dawn until dusk and really keeps you inspired and motivated. It’s hard to imagine finding another community that works so hard. It kept me going.
CL: Why do you think the houseplants trend resonates so much with millennials? With a boom in the market due to that, what do you think the marketplace for houseplants looks like in the future?
EB: Houseplants hit home for millennials for so many reasons — new living arrangements (urban, renters), new value set (sustainability, authenticity), new influences (Instagram, Pinterest, technology in general), overall a desire to connect with something real and tangible that was still relatively low risk. We’re the Tamagotchi generation after all! All that said, these are macro trends that I don’t think will reverse. I believe houseplants will be even more important to Gen Z and beyond.
CL: What advice would you give to entrepreneurs who want to turn a passion into a business?
EB: I believe everyone who has a desire to be an entrepreneur needs to give it a try. Trust me, not everyone wants to — it really is a lifestyle that is self-selective. I just worry that there aren’t enough role models out there yet for young women to look up to — even more [of a] reason I want to encourage everyone, male or female, to follow their gut. We need more young people solving problems out there!
CL: What’s your favorite plant?
EB: A Philodendron cordatum — it has beautiful green, heart-shaped leaves that grow on vines. It grows quickly and is very resilient. A lot like me!
You can follow Eliza Blank on Instagram and also order online from The Sill during social distancing and shelter-in-place.