Their journey was exhausting, but worth it. Entrepreneurs inspire Northeastern community at Women Who Empower event in London

Siân Sutherland co-founded A Plastic Planet in 2017 with the single goal of ending our “addiction” to plastic. Photo by Carmen Valino for Northeastern University

LONDON—What do a global flower brand and a plastics-free solutions company have in common?

Both were founded by women who were told “no.”

In a celebration at Northeastern University’s Devon House on Monday night, two inspiring women entrepreneurs took to the stage to discuss how they’re using their business acumen to change the world, and how they overcame obstacles along the way. 

On Wednesday, Northeastern and the world will celebrate International Women’s Day.

“These are people with the willingness to really lean into their passions, to take risks, to not play it safe,” Diane MacGillivray, senior vice president for university advancement at Northeastern, said as she introduced the speakers.

Part of the “Women Who Empower: Our World” series held in honor of Women’s History Month, the event inspired the nearly 100 attendees, which included students, faculty, staff and other members of the Northeastern London community. President Joseph E. Aoun was in attendance, as were the a capella group the Nor’Easters, who gave a special performance.

Moderated by Julietta Dexter, an entrepreneur herself who co-founded ScienceMagic Inc., the event featured a fireside chat with Whitney Bromberg Hawkings, founder and CEO of FLOWERBX, a flower delivery brand, and Siân Sutherland, who co-founded A Plastic Planet in 2017 with the single goal of ending our “addiction” to plastic.

In their honor, Devon House was decorated with flowers from FLOWERBX for the event, which was plastic free. 

Hawkings began her story with a simple lesson for the students in the audience: Don’t give up. After graduating with a degree in French literature from Columbia University in 1998, she moved to Paris to pursue her dream of working in fashion, specifically the magazine French Vogue. 

But when she got there, “I pounded the pavement and got rejected everywhere,” she said. In Paris, she said, she was “knocking on doors that were closing constantly.” Hawkings worked as a bartender before finally getting a job as designer Tom Ford’s personal assistant. 

In that position, she worked “so hard,” she said, showing up for work before 7 a.m. and leaving after 9 p.m. “I was never not going above and beyond,” she said. The hard work paid off. Over the years, she rose through the ranks in the company, eventually becoming vice president of communications. 

Learned to be resilient

The journey was exhausting, but it was worth it, she said. For one thing, she learned to be resilient. 

“Had I taken the first 50 nos, I would have gone home and that would have been history,” she said. “You have to build that resilience muscle early on.” She also learned the value of hard work, something that, she said, “should not be underestimated.”

All of this came in handy when, nearing 40, Hawkings decided on a career change. Though she was comfortable in the fashion world, she saw a gap in a completely different market, and decided that she should be the one to fill it.

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“I was a working mom, I couldn’t buy flowers online,” she said. She could buy anything else online, but found that buying single bouquets of flowers wasn’t possible. 

So in 2015, Hawkings founded FLOWERBX. Known for its simple, single-variety bouquets, FLOWERBX is now in 24 countries, including the United States and the United Kingdom, with a mission to offer fresher flowers with less waste, all while keeping costs low. It also puts the environment at the forefront, with sustainability built into the business model. Flowers are delivered using electric vehicles, and they use compostable materials.

The chief changemaker

Despite Hawkings’ success, she still gets plenty of nos, as does Sutherland, the co-founder of A Plastic Planet.

Actually, Sutherland knows rejection very well. The chief changemaker—”That’s one of the benefits of being the boss is you can make up your own title,” she said—at A Plastic Planet faces an uphill battle: to work with industry, government and media to “turn off the plastic tap.”

Sutherland started her first business at 26, when she opened a restaurant with little knowledge or experience in the industry (it still earned a Michelin star). A serial entrepreneur, Sutherland has a long, varied and impressive resume, including founding a cosmetics brand. 

Now, she’s applying her business acumen to help rid the world of plastic. She challenged students at the event to put sustainability first in whatever they do, reminding them that extreme weather patterns have increased in frequency and climate change is impacting food production.

“Twenty-five percent of the major crops of Italy did not grow last year,” Sutherland said. “Our home is on fire and we have to do something about it.”

“Plastic is the gateway” to solving these problems, she said, as something that indirectly and directly impacts so many other components of climate change. Toward this end, at the event Sutherland announced the launch of, “the world’s first innovation platform for materials and systems solutions,” according to its website.

The biggest obstacle

Like Hawkings, Sutherland has been told “no” many times. When you have an idea, she said, it’s natural to  think the world is going to love it. “It’s always a little bit of a shock when they don’t,” she said.

For Hawkings, funding is the biggest obstacle she still faces. Most venture capitalists, she said, are men, and it can be difficult to convince them to take her seriously as a businessperson selling flowers. But her years of learning and developing relationships—and yes, failing—in the fashion world prepared her to succeed here. 

“I don’t think you can sidestep the journey,” she said. When asked where she planned to go next, she didn’t mince words: “Global floral domination.”

For her part, Sutherland has learned not to take no for an answer, even when she’s diving into a brand new venture. Rather than thinking of her “radical naivety” as a detriment, Sutherland said it’s actually her “superpower.” 

“You just bulldoze through things,” she said. 

In the end, Hawking’s message to the attendees was clear. “Keep going,” she said. “Persevere.”