Key business takeaways
- Creating community-centered initiatives helps foster an inclusive, accessible environment for marginalized groups
- Go beyond selling a product—identify the key values that you and your business stand for
- Getting to know your consumers on a personal level will ensure a supportive community of buyers
María Blum-Sullivan vividly recalls memories from her childhood in Michoacán, Mexico, where she watched her grandmothers tend to their beautiful, lush gardens. Surrounded by greenery in and out of the house, María’s grandmothers also taught her how to tend and care for the plants. When she was five years old, María and her family moved to California, where she put down her roots and eventually started a family of her own. It wasn’t until being diagnosed with postpartum depression in 2017 that she realized she had lost her once deep-rooted connection with nature—and similarly her connection to life.
In that time of darkness, María turned back to gardening—clearing the weeds and overgrown grasses from the backyard of her new home. What started off as a day of tough physical labor turned into a regular practice of waking up early, pulling weeds, and planting new life. Slowly, María began seeing progress—not only in her garden, but also in her mental health.
This reconnection with plants and life led her to start Paraíso Plant Studio, a Berkeley-based plant shop, in 2019. María is not only a first-generation immigrant but also a first-generation business owner. Despite the constant struggle to exist and survive as an entrepreneur, María’s goal is to make Paraíso a pillar of the community. We spoke with her to hear the visions of her business and how she wants to make the studio a place where people who don’t have access to economic resources can learn and grow together.
Where did the idea of a plant studio come from?
I started using little succulents and air plants and creating these really beautiful chandeliers. One of the things that I thought about and think about when making them was this idea that maybe someday we won’t be here anymore, but our stuff is going to stay for a bit. So I just have these images—I picture a chandelier hanging in some beautiful, old mansion and everything’s collapsed around it, but it’s hanging with Spanish moss on it or whatever form of life found its way onto this thing. I wanted to recreate that aesthetic and that image.
I made some for my mom and my family. At one point, I had 10 chandeliers in my living room, and I don’t have a fancy living room. It just looked really cool, so I decided to take them to the flea market. I think I spent $300 in supplies at that time, which was really tough to find because we were really broke, and I sold a bunch, and I got really excited that someone else liked what I did. And really slowly—it did not happen overnight—really slowly, one foot in front of the other, going through depression, working my way out of that, I grew into this thing.
My business was called Plant Chandeliers, which my husband always made fun of. It was just such a literal name. But I’m like, “What else am I going to name this? It’s a plant chandelier.” So we also started selling plants.
How did you decide to make the leap to a storefront?
We built this little following, this group of people who were so supportive of us from the jump, who found us at TreasureFest or at the Alameda Antiques Market. At that time, I think I had 500 followers, and I probably at one point or another had met every single one of them. Because of all of those people’s support and encouragement and also my family, I got to this point where I was like, “We need to open a store. I want a Plant Chandeliers store.” I could just picture it in my mind. That was a really big deal for me too, coming out of depression. Just having a feeling where I had lost my vision, and all of a sudden, I could see again.
I found this little spot in downtown Berkeley, just a really cool landlord who was willing to take a chance on a plant chandeliers lady. I built this incredible, magical little space, and it’s how we got our start, and it’s how we built our following, and it’s how a lot of people got to know us. It’s really small, so I feel like it kind of forces you to talk to people a little bit more, to get to know people a little bit more. I got to know a lot of my customers’ moms and families, and it was a really incredible and important part of our story.
What does Paraíso represent for you?
As a queer Latina, inclusion—creating a business that’s inclusive for my employees and for everyone who walks in—is really, really important. When I was thinking about the name, paraíso means paradise in Spanish and in other languages too. It just resonated with the part of me that wanted to create this paradise of a place in a period of time where there was so much uncertainty, where we’re all in the United States as people really divided. I wanted to create a space where people could come together around something that we had a mutual love and admiration for, like nature.
I just imagined this paradise, this paraíso. It’s been important for me to have paraíso written out in Spanish too because I’m Mexican, and I wanted my heritage to be represented in my business, and I wanted it to be obvious—especially because I think that there’re a lot of ways in which communities of color are not or have not been historically included in spaces like this.
How do you integrate social and community activism into your business?
Because of my dad’s heritage, I’m biracial, and in my own family, I have seen and experienced the same division that we see expressed in the media or everywhere. I think that when we’re divided, it’s really hard to find a way forward. When I think about my contribution, I used to be a community organizer, and I used to be in this position where I felt like I was actively involved in progress, and I want to have that same feeling now.
One of the divisions that exists is around the question of climate change, unfortunately. One of the things that I see about this business and about bringing plants into peoples’ homes is that I can give people a piece of nature that they can reconnect with, that they can see the impact of. That same impact, like if you don’t care for a plant properly, if you don’t give it enough water, if you don’t give it enough sunlight, if it’s in a drought state, or if the sun is obstructed, it’s not going to live. And that’s what our rainforests are experiencing. I kind of see it as this small gateway contribution into reconnecting people with that process of photosynthesis and of plants perspiring and breathing in and out the air that we all depend on.
What other obstacles do you face as a small business owner?
I had this experience once where (and it’s something that happens a lot in many different ways) I walked in to pick up an order that I had placed with a wholesale distributor. I had my daughter with me. I think at the time she might’ve been around two years old, and I was immediately told, “Ma’am, we’re not open to the public.” The immediate assumption that I was not a business owner, that I wasn’t going there to do business, whether it was because I was a Latina or because they saw me as a woman or a mother. This person could not imagine me as someone with a business. You experience small versions of that.
Sometimes it feels like this daily battle to just fight for our existence… In every aspect of what I do, I’m always fighting to assert my ability to exist, my business’ ability to exist.María Blum-Sullivan
Sometimes it feels like this daily battle to just fight for our existence. In the absence of having a lot of wealth or capital, I’m a first-generation business owner in this country. I feel like there needs to be studies about what’s happening to me right now. In every aspect of what I do, I’m always fighting to assert my ability to exist, my business’ ability to exist.
There are lots of problems with diversity. There’s not a lot of people that look like me in the supply chain, and that’s a really big problem. There are a lot of things that people will never know when they come in here; [they say], “Wow, this place is breathtaking. It’s so beautiful.” But what has to happen for it to exist on a day-to-day basis, it’s incredibly hard. When it feels really hard, I always think about the days when I was out in the naval base at the Alameda Antiques Fair, where my booth got blown down with all my chandeliers at like 3 a.m. when it’s 30 degrees outside. The fact that I have this represents progress, the fact that it’s incredible what we’ve been able to do, and I want so much more for this too.
How have you made Paraíso more than a plant shop?
My goal in life is not to just sell plants to people. I want this to be a pillar of the community. I want this to be an economic engine for people in this area, people who live in Richmond or in Oakland who are entrepreneurs, who are people of color and want to start their own business. I want this to be a place where some of the products we sell so they can get their foot in the door and bring their product to market and test it, and there’s just so much potential for the type of community that we can build as long as we can exist. I think that when things get hard, in addition to the way that watching my daughter grow up drives me, that’s a driving force.
What do you hope consumers take away from a visit to Paraíso?
My highest hope for this business, for somebody taking home a plant, is that it’s something that can bring them joy, that can help to reconnect them with nature, that can nurture them in the same way that they’re nurturing the plant. And that they get to experience being in a place like Paraíso that’s grounded in community, that really cares about people as much as we care about plants.
Select photos of Paraíso Plant Studio on Yelp
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