Women’s History Month Spotlight: Elise Bernhardt of Fleur Elise
March 31, 2021
This Women’s History Month, Downtown Brooklyn Partnership is proud to share stories of our many women founders and business owners. We interviewed local florist Elise Bernhardt on her home-grown flower business, Fleur Elise.
Elise credits much of her success to Ikebana (the art of Japanese floral arrangement) and her experience as a dance teacher. She is able to combine her love for teaching and for floral arrangement through her business. She forayed into the world of pop-ups right here in Downtown Brooklyn, at City Point. We asked her how she made the switch from non-profit executive to florist, what inspires her, and for some floral arrangement tips.
DBP: How did the idea for your business come about?
Elise Berndhardt (EB): I had almost thirty years of leading nonprofits and I was up for a job interview. The morning of the final interview, I woke up, and the word “reinvent” flashed before my eyes. I am not making this up. I thought to myself, “I’ve been thinking about this for a long time — it’s time to change.” Additionally, one of my previous jobs had me walking through the flower district in Manhattan every day, so I would take some floral design classes! I had also previously traveled to Japan and took an Ikebana class — ancient Japanese flower design art.
DBP: When you first started, how did you get the word out about your business?
EB: I really started doing it with my synagogue — Kane Street Synagogue— and did the flowers for bar/bat mitzvahs that folks were having. I also went to my non-profit colleagues in the dance world. I am a firm believer in word of mouth in everything! Then you start to get recommendations. Mostly, people who take my floral design classes tell people about my classes. I’ve also done a bunch of pop ups.
DBP: Have you done any pop ups in Downtown Brooklyn?
EB: Yes, in fact, my first pop up was in City Point. When City Point first opened in 2018, Regina Myer (DBP President) was the connection. I had a little stand right at the entrance. I sold flowers and got people on my mailing list - it was great. They had an empty storefront so I could prep — that was my first pop up and it was really great! Pop ups are a really wonderful way to get to know people.
DBP: What is something that has surprised you about running this business?
EB: One of my really fun classes is a father-daughter class. It’s hard to get men to take this class sometimes, and then they get in and they’re really good at it. Their children are like, “wow, dad! We had no idea.” So that’s always fun. I also do a class at a senior living place, and that is really interesting, too. Working on the edges f the spectrum of human life, from seniors to kids — it’s been interesting to see how different people learn and free themselves up.
DBP: How did you end up teaching classes?
EB: I taught dance a long time ago. I love teaching and had not had a chance to teach in a while. I love teaching floral design because it brings together my love for teaching, love for floral arrangement, and my love for bringing people together. I always say “flowers are forgiving, there are no ugly flowers - you can make anything beautiful. For most people, that’s very liberating.
DBP: Where do you get your flowers and supplies?
EB: I used to go to the Manhattan flower district, but for a while they shut down. I’m not embarrassed to admit that Trader Joe’s has an extraordinary collection of flowers. You can make a stunning bouquet with Trader Joe’s flowers for fifteen dollars. Really, anybody can do it. Just about every bodega or every little store has an array of flowers! I also love going to flea markets and antique shops to get old vases. But when I teach classes, I go to the flower district because I want my students to have the experience of working with hard-to-get flowers.
DBP: Do you have any tips for budding entrepreneurs, especially women, who want to start their own organization?
EB: Big takeaway: take the leap. Patience, passion, and perseverance. Three Ps. Be willing to ask for help: there’s a big part of knowing what you’re not good at. Knowing where you need to get help. Also, make sure you have some balance in your life. Lastly, networking is key! I’ve been doing a lot of networking, which makes it easier. I would check out Flyfemalefounders, NAWBO, and Adrian’s Network. You can find some great friends and colleagues to help you.
DBP: Any tips for flower arrangement?
EB: My only rule: no two stems should be the same length! Change the water every other day and trim the bottom of the stem at a forty-five degree angle for the most surface area, and your flowers will last.
Elise offers online floral arrangement classes in addition to working events. Her website can be found here.
On May 2nd Fleur Elise will be popping up outside of the Brooklyn Museum, and will also resume outdoor classes in the backyard of design store Wanderlustre.