From Tragedy to Triumph with Random Acts of Flowers’ Larsen Jay

March 11, 2015

JOHN SHEGERIAN: Welcome back to Green is Good, and I’m so honored and excited to have Larsen Jay on with us today. He’s the founder and CEO of Random Acts of Flowers. Welcome to Green is Good, Larsen. LARSEN JAY: Thank you. It’s a pleasure being here. I appreciate the opportunity. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Hey, Larsen, I’ve been looking forward to this day for a long time. I heard an interview with you a while back, and I was just so inspired and so moved by your story. Before we get talking about Random Acts of Flowers, which is such a great organization, and for our listeners out there, check out more of Larsen’s great work at randomactsofflowers.org. Larsen, please tell a little bit of your story first of how you took some personal hardships and made it into this amazing mission and journey that you’re on now. LARSEN JAY: Absolutely. The year was 2007, and ironically, this was a year where I went up in British Columbia skiing, I went to the Everest base camp hiking, and went to all these places where you should get broken and battered or come back with some sort of injury. I was a film and television producer for 15+ years, and came back just fine. For some reason, on an early Sunday morning, July 29, 2007, I was doing a do-it-yourself project and fixing a roof on a workshop that I owned, up and down the ladder, and tools, and tarps, and just kind of doing my thing. For some reason, on the 14th or 15th time down the ladder, I stepped on the top and the bottom collapsed out from underneath me, and I fell about a story-and-a-half face down on the concrete and ended up in a really, really bad spot, to the point where I probably shouldn’t be here with you today. I fell about a story-and-a-half and broke my left arm, left wrist, right wrist, right elbow, right femur, nose, 10 skull fractures, and pretty much the only reason I’m here is I hit the ladder and not the concrete, otherwise it would have been a whole lot worse. Two seconds and a really freak accident changed everything. I was rushed to the University of Tennessee level 1 medical trauma center and right into surgery. Two days in the ICU, 10 days on the trauma floor, 10 days in intensive rehab, and about three-and-a-half months in a wheelchair, followed by 11 surgeries to date and counting. It really put me back together, very much parts and pieces and pins and rods and screws. I’m alive, I’m upright, and it’s a good start. That’s where it all began. That was summer of 2007. When I was in the hospital, the idea sort of spawned from the fact that when I was there during my early days of recovery and what was the hardest week of my life, I got overwhelmed with support from people, locally, regionally, nationally, even internationally, as word spread about the accident. That support came in the way of flowers. I had never been given flowers before. Most guys are never given flowers or sent flowers. It just made a big impact on me. It changed the environment of the room. It took what was a bleak and dark and pretty sterile environment, and turned it into a lush, green, joy of jungle and happiness and celebration of life, and really shifted my mental state from woe is me and how is this going to change my life to recovery and looking forward. It was a huge outpouring of support that really came in and helped me in those first crucial days. By the end of the first week, I got a little stir crazy. I don’t sit for a real long time very well, and I had to convince my family and the nurses to get me into a wheelchair and get me out of my room. After that took quite a while, we went outside my room and we left what was this amazing room of happiness and flowers and brightness, and we entered stark, sterile, industrial hospitalization, which is what you find everywhere. We saw room after room after room, how many rooms had no plants, no flowers, no visitors – just lifeless. It was such a huge contrast that, quite simply, it sparked an idea and I said, “Let’s go back and take all the cards off my flowers.” We loaded up my wheelchair. We didn’t ask permission. We didn’t see if it was OK. We didn’t follow protocol. We just did it. It was the right thing to do, and room after room, it made a huge, profound effect on people that were unknowingly going to get this little visitor that rolled in with some flowers. That’s how it all began. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That is just amazing. That is one of my favorite stories we’ve ever had on Green is Good. It’s just such a great story. How did you, then, decide to take that and make it into something bigger, such as Random Acts of Flowers? LARSEN JAY: I spent a long time in a wheelchair. I spent a long time by myself, so I kept thinking about those interactions with patients. A lot of times I asked people, “When is the last time an absolute complete stranger did something nice for you, when it wasn’t around the holidays, when they weren’t trying to sell you something, preach to you, change your mind, or ask you to do something else?” It doesn’t happen very often. I remembered those first few interactions. The very first room we ever went into that day was a woman who was in full headgear traction, wired to the gills, and she had a look without exaggeration of I’m done. Pull the plug, those desperate eyes you never want to see in somebody. We gave her a big bouquet of flowers, and she went from smiling to crying in two seconds. We fundamentally shifted her entire mental state from desperation to happiness. I kept remembering those interactions with the patients. At the end of the day, it came down to somebody must be doing this. This is a no-brainer. So I actually sought out somebody locally and said who can I support or be involved in? I couldn’t find anything locally, couldn’t find anything regionally, couldn’t find anything nationally. I found a few stories of people who had done this individually. I didn’t invent sliced bread. People have been repurposing flowers forever, like churches sometimes takes their flowers to their constituents, or maybe a wedding florist might do something for the nursing home down the street, but I couldn’t find anything that was a bigger organized process. I think as part of my healing process, it was an opportunity for me to do something to take this idea, and it was six months later that I came up with a half clever name, a bad logo, and sketched out a few ideas, and sat down with my family and several of the people who had sent me flowers. I said, “I’ve got an idea. Would you help?” They all said, “Great, let’s go for it.” Just like that first day, when we didn’t really spend a lot of time thinking about it, we just did it, we just started it. We didn’t spend a lot of time planning it out and theorizing and doing lots of meetings. We just sort of started it and said let’s see what happens We knew it was the right thing to do. A year to the date of the accident, my wife and I wrote a check and incorporated our paperwork and started the charity and reached out to the hospital that saved my life and helped me get better and said, “Hey, we’d like to do something for the other patients.” They said, “Come on.” We just started, and that’s how it all began. We didn’t really think about it ever being what it is today. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That’s so interesting, how great leaders, great visionaries, inspirational folks like you said you didn’t ask for permission, you just started. You just acted. That’s just great. That’s how great things come about sometimes. LARSEN JAY: I think when it’s right and it’s true and your intentions are right and true and your focus is on someone else, the rest is logistics. You’ll figure that out. Instead of trying to figure out how are we going to do the most good for the most people right off the bat, we said let’s just start and see it in action. It just took off. We had a company. We had other professions. We started this thing with 199 donations, most of which were under $100. We started, ironically, out of the warehouse that I fell off of because I owned it. I figured might as well use it, and we just started putting people together and saying let’s go try it out. Quite honestly, I think that we thought we might do this for a few years, pass it onto somebody else or another non-profit, or do it for a few years and that would be enough. But here we are, almost seven years later, and we’ve delivered over 60,000 floral bouquets and we’re now in cities across the country and growing. My wife and I have abandoned our careers and taken this on as our full-time endeavors. We had no idea where, but it’s really turned out to be quite an amazing journey so far. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Thank God you both have taken on this full career. Over 62,000 bouquets delivered. I’m reading some other great stats. 73,000 vases recycled nationwide, how many people you serve. Random Acts of Flowers serves an average of 2,350 people per month. That’s amazing, the lives that you touch every month. LARSEN JAY: Yeah, and it’s growing so fast. I would say of those 62,000+ people that we’ve impacted, half of that is in the last couple of years. It’s just really taken hold, and then there’s so many different touch points with our green initiative. Tens of thousands of pounds of green composting waste, all that kind of stuff. The program goes on and on and on, but at its core, we’re a mental health charity. We are focused on changing that person’s life and that healthcare facility for just that little second in time. We’re not trying to cure cancer, we’re not trying to build a building, we’re not trying to cure homelessness or change social policy. At its core, as goofy as it sounds, we’re taking garbage and turning it into a grin. We’re trying to make the world a little better place with somebody else’s trash, which sounds bizarre, but it works really well. JOHN SHEGERIAN: You are. You really are. You are making the world a better place. I just love the name of your company. Again, for our listeners out there that just joined us, we’ve got Larsen Jay. He’s the founder and CEO of Random Acts of Flowers. To check them out, to support them, to jump in and help his great organization, it’s randomactsofflowers.org. I love the logo and the tagline, recycling flowers, delivering smiles. Come on, this is just amazing. We have so much to cover, though, and I want to make sure we get to a lot of this. The vision for Random Acts of Flowers, you’re now seven years into it, you’re touching all these lives every month. Talk a little bit about the vision now for you and your wife. Where can you take this, and what’s your vision for the next seven years? LARSEN JAY: We’re doing far beyond what we ever thought. The goal, ultimately, is how do we have a Random Acts of Flowers or a similar organization in every city across the country, maybe beyond into the world? The formula is pretty basic. You have an endless supply of flowers being thrown away every single day in every community across the country, and of course across the world. You have an endless supply of volunteers who really, really want to help their community and make it a better place and impact people, and you have an endless supply of people in healthcare facilities who could just use a boost of mental health and a pick-me-up, and really nobody doing it on the scale that we are. We’re this great opportunity to be a great catalyst in all of those parties involved. It’s a unique situation. A lot of times in business, people talk about the white space or the blue ocean of how do you find a new niche or how do you find a new opportunity. At Random Acts of Flowers, we complement and don’t compete against the floral industry. We serve a new part of healthcare that really is quite ignored, the mental side of healing, and we don’t compete with any other non-profit organization in our services, so it’s one of these half by design, half stumbled into, this great little white space where we can operate and impact a lot of people that hasn’t been done before in a really effective way. The great thing about Random Acts of Flowers, there’s lots of things that I love, but one of the core parts of our mission is that we never charge for our services. We’re all privately funded. We don’t seek any public funding at all. It’s all donations, grants, corporate support, foundations, things like that. For somebody who has a wedding, a funeral, a special event, a Christmas party, or even a grocery store or wholesaler, literally all they have to do is say, “Yes, you can have my flowers.” Tell us where and when, we do all the work, we do all the logistics, we do all the pick-up. We never charge the healthcare facilities. It’s not based on money, politics, religion, social cause. I think that that gets to the root of our mission and our core as an organization. The giving of flowers is a universal gesture that cuts across all races, all religions, all income levels, demographics, disabilities, you name it. In 60,000+ deliveries, we have delivered to every walk of life you can imagine, every type of person you’d never imagine, and the end result is always the same. It’s a big smile and an opportunity to just be appreciative that somebody cared about them. That’s what healthcare should be, is something that affects everybody the same way and has an impact for a really simple way to pull it off. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Larsen, not only do you recycle the vases and the bouquets, but you do so much other green things. Can you just give a little bit of the laundry list of how green your great organization really is, that contributes to the sustainability and the greenness of every community that you do your great work? LARSEN JAY: Yeah, we do our best to be as green as possible and be as sustainable as possible. When we get our donations, we break down every bit of the flowers we get, down to its core materials. We never just take a centerpiece and give it to a patient. We want to make sure all the flowers have maximum life, and we also want to reuse and try to use every part and piece. Behind every arrangement is stems, wire, foam, cardboard, and this and all that kind of stuff, and we break it all down and we reuse as much as possible. If we can’t reuse it, then we try to recycle it. We know it’s coming back anyway, so we use it, send it back out, it comes back, and we do lots of little things. All of our green waste is composted in a local community garden or a landscaping company where it gets mixed in and turned back into mulch or other landscaping for different uses. We try to get our vase drives going, where every time we go to a hospital, we pick up more vases than we came with a lot of times. Those go in and out of the system. When you think about the footprint, just take one city for example, Knoxville, where we started this, Knoxville, Tennessee. They’re serving over 1,000 people a month, so we have to process 1,200-1,300 vases every month just to keep up, and we do. That’s pretty indicative of all of our branches. Whether it’s the vase, whether it’s the flowers, whether it’s the parts and pieces, we do everything we can to reuse and recycle and upcycle, which is taking something that otherwise goes in the dumpster and doing something good with it. We’re trying to get better at that every day and every week with different recycling initiatives, whether it’s the plastics or the metals all the way to the basics, which takes flowers and reuse and repurpose them, give them another chance. I think the giving of flowers, the using of flowers, also comes with a purpose. You give flowers for love, celebration, happiness, remembrance. We’re just simply giving them a second life and giving them a second life on behalf of someone else. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Larsen, I’m on your great website. Again, for our listeners out there, it’s randomactsofflowers.org. I see now you have branches in Chicago, Silicon Valley, Pinellas, Florida, Greenville, Tennessee, Knoxville, Tennessee. How can you open more branches? What’s your vision to opening more branches, and how can our listeners get involved? Because we’re going to have listeners who will want get involved. How can our listeners join your great mission to help make the world a better place? LARSEN JAY: I think the first thing they can do is, of course, support us nationally as we continue to grow. The formula and our program, it’s pretty much everywhere. What it comes down to is local leadership and strong financial support to get it going. I think most people that are involved with charities focus on the mission and they don’t often know how much goes into making a successful mission on the business side. Really, as we strategically grow, we’re looking at places that, obviously, have a lot of healthcare facilities and people to serve, have a lot of flowers, of course, but have a lot of local leadership that can help raise enough money to get it off the ground and then keep it going. It’s not terribly expensive, but it does require some staff and some space and some delivery vans and things like that. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Got it. What’s next for you and your wife? When you guys are mapping out this year, what’s next for Random Acts of Flowers? LARSEN JAY: Right now, we open our Silicon Valley branch in California in April, and that’s underway right now. That will have an official launch this spring, which will be great to be on the West Coast and bring our program. Then, we’re going to focus on Indianapolis in the fall, which is already in the works. Then, we’ve got several conversations with other cities around the country that are already in development in places like West Palm Beach and Salt Lake City and Cincinnati. We’re trying to grow organically in a way that makes sense without getting too big too fast. We spend a lot of time focusing on keeping it simple, keeping it focused, keeping it effective, and not trying to conquer the whole world. I think as we grow, it’s about having enough internal resources on a national level to make sure we have everything in the right direction and also finding great leaders around the country who say, “You know what? This ought to be in my town,” and reaching out and saying hi. After that, I don’t know. We had no clue we’d be doing this five or seven years ago, and we’re not really planning too much down the road. We just stay focused one day at a time. JOHN SHEGERIAN: You took a tragedy and you made it a triumph. We’re so honored to have you on, Larsen. You’re doing just amazing stuff with your wife. We thank you for being the founder and CEO of Random Acts of Flowers. For our listeners out there, please get involved. Please help support Random Acts of Flowers in whatever way is appropriate for you. It’s randomactsofflowers.org. Thank you, Larsen, for being a recycling rock star. You are truly living proof that green is good. LARSEN JAY: Thank you. I appreciate it.