Maria Navarrete-Olvera, owner of Zena Florist in Toughkenamon and Kennett Square, smiles as she describes how she loves tucking a succulent keepsake into every bridal bouquet she designs. “It’s so nice for brides to have something from their bouquet that will be alive forever.” On request, she and her designers will add a succulent to any arrangement. It’s one of the special touches that makes Zena Florist unique, and the theme of a tiny living thing symbolizing hope, love, and dreams coming true runs through Maria’s story.
When she graduated from Penn State with a degree in Human Development and Family Studies, Maria knew she wanted to work in education. Through a position she helped create at Chester County Penn State Extension: 4-H Programs to advance diversity education, she designed and led programs to help school-aged kids in underserved communities develop life and leadership skills to prepare them for the next school year, trade school, or college. “This was really my passion for years,” she says. “We brought the programs to the kids, and we went all over Chester County.” A Kennett High School graduate, Maria reached out to families in neighborhoods close to home and as far away as Spring City, Parkesburg, and Atglen. She loved the kids and the inspiring people she worked with, including mentor Laurie Szoke.
About twelve years ago, when Maria was expecting her son, Alex, she made the difficult decision to leave the nonprofit world with its all-consuming hours and endless fundraising. “I needed more time to spend with my baby,” she says with a smile. She found a job at a bank in Kennett Square, and a few months later she was offered the position of branch manager. Suddenly, the job became a career. Because she’s a people person, Maria loved working with people at the bank and helping them with their financial needs. But as she donned the many hats the job required, from customer service to dealing with security concerns and auditing, her stress level increased. “The job started to change me,” she says, “and I was really missing something.” She began doing floral design as a way of coping with job-related stress. As she progressed, she learned from various mentors and took classes at Longwood Gardens.
Her mentor Laurie saw how this creative outlet was bringing Maria back to herself. “Laurie was such an important person in my life,” she says, “and she knew how artistic and hands-on I am. She began to encourage me to open my own shop.” The seeds of this beautiful dream had been planted, but it still seemed a long way off to Maria.
In November 2016, Laurie was diagnosed with multiple myeloma. “Even when Laurie was in the hospital, barely able to speak, she was still encouraging me to follow my dream and open a floral shop,” Maria says. When Laurie passed away a few short weeks later, on Christmas Eve, Maria was devastated. “I also realized how short life is, and I realized that either I do it now or never,” she says. “I decided to follow Laurie’s voice and purchase a flower shop.”
When plans to buy an existing shop didn’t work out, Maria decided to build her own brand and reputation. When she started thinking about a name, her thoughts naturally went to Laurie. “Laurie did so many wonderful things for our community, changed so many lives, and helped so many youth and families—including many who will read this story. Laurie wasn’t the kind of person to talk about herself, but I knew I needed to keep her memory alive. When I thought about what Laurie loved most, I realized she loved Zena, her dog the most,” Maria says. “Zena, a service dog, was Laurie’s baby. Zena came with us to the programs we ran for the kids—they loved her, and she helped the kids to open up.” And so Zena Florist was born. “Lots of people think my name is Zena,” she says with a laugh. “But that question gives me an opportunity to continue to tell Laurie’s story.”
With a name for her new business, Maria still needed a logo. “Laurie always looked for signs in nature,” she says. “She especially loved butterflies and believed they were the souls of those who had passed away.” Quotes from Laurie like this one have been meaningful for her over the years: “I have always thought that we as humans are each butterflies with a broken wing and here to learn to heal and fly again.” Maria knew she wanted a butterfly to be part of her logo, and she had an image in her mind of a butterfly alighting on a pink lily. When she tried to tell her husband about it one day, he couldn’t envision what she was describing. Ten minutes later, Maria stepped out of her house and saw this mental picture come to life—a beautiful Spicebush Swallowtail butterfly alighting on a pink lily. She took a photo (above) to show to her husband and knew this was her confirmation that she’d found the perfect logo for Zena Florist—an enduring, living memory of the friend and mentor who had encouraged her through everything to make her dream blossom into reality.
Starting a business from seed takes many hands, and Maria has a deeply rooted network of friends and family who have supported her and her growing business over the past few years. “My husband Bill is a huge supporter of everything I do,” she says. “When I told him my idea, he said, ‘Let’s do it! What do you need help with?’” Despite MS-related disabilities, he installed the floors and built the countertops. “His hands are on everything,” she says. “He always goes above and beyond, and if it weren’t for him, the shops wouldn’t look as they do.” Maria’s brother is her landlord in Zena Florist’s first location, on West Baltimore Pike in Toughkenamon.
Maria learned early on, she says, that local flowers are the best, and from May to October she sources most of her flowers locally. “I love going to the farms to see the fields and meet with the growers,” she says. She also spends extensive time researching growers and farmers, and especially those who are out of the country. Her approach to her business is very relational as well. “I really focus on the quality of the product, and on creating innovative, unique, and one-of-a-kind arrangements for my customers.” Each customer, and each flower-worthy special occasion, is unique. Maria knows her regular customers well and keeps notes on the history of what they’ve ordered. “Listening to people and providing great customer service are the keys to success,” she says.
“It was hard to keep going the first year,” she says, before she had an established customer base. But Maria feels about ladybugs as Laurie felt about butterflies, and the tiny, brightly colored beetles have often appeared in arrangements and unlikely places over the years to encourage Maria in moments when she’s questioned herself and her decision—including the day she first opened the door to her new business in December 2017. “Ladybugs don’t like the cold,” she says, laughing. “But this one reassured me in that moment of doubt.”
Like many women who have had the courage to change careers, Maria can see how her various experiences have equipped her for what she’s doing now. “My work networking and fundraising at Penn State Extension opened doors,” she says, “and my work as a branch manager, which included lots of lending to small businesses, helped me learn the ins and outs of small businesses.” Even the Masters degree in educational literacy and reading she managed to earn while doing other things is an important part of her journey.
Maria is also grateful for all of the amazing women who have been part of her story, starting with her mother. “My mother is a huge supporter. She loves gardening and has always had beautiful gardens, and now she provides me with cut flowers—from tulips to peonies and calla lilies and even winter greens.” In addition to Laurie, and Nancy from Longwood Gardens, many others have also taught and encouraged Maria along the way. And now, as she trains her own staff in the art she loves, she’s able to model that kind of mentorship for another generation.
As it has been for all small business owners, the past year was difficult. “Most of our income is from events,” Maria says. “So as weddings were postponed, and proms, quinceañeras, and other events were cancelled, it was very scary.” She’s grateful for the amazing support of the community and her loyal customers who continued to order flowers for birthdays, anniversaries, and other occasions throughout the shutdown.
In the midst of the COVID shutdowns in 2020, Dianne from Way’s Florist decided to retire and her location became available. Although she loved the location, Maria hesitated and contemplated the wisdom of expanding to a second shop in the middle of a global pandemic. But because she knew that she might lose her parking, and possibly her building, as a result of the construction work planned at the intersection of Newark Road and West Baltimore Pike for 2023, she decided to go ahead. It was a scary and courageous decision to make, but she knew she had to think long-term and she’s delighted that she did. With seven staff members including two other floral designers and three designers-in-training, and more staff members at holidays in each location to help with the phones, she finds they need the two locations now.
She’s glad not only that she opened the second location, but also that it’s in Kennett, her hometown. She loves being part of this lively and welcoming community. She remembers the quiet streets before Historic Kennett Square was formed. “Visually, Kennett Square looks great now,” she says, “with the lights at Christmas, and flowers—it’s an attractive place now for people to come visit from other places and that connection between Longwood Gardens and the downtown is important.” Maria also loves giving back to the community by supporting many different nonprofits. She’s happy that she was able to help with flowers for the Kennett High School prom this year, for example, and also give a percentage of prom flower sales to the school to go towards next year’s prom—just one more way of sowing seeds for the future.
Maria loves every aspect of being an entrepreneur, from business planning to the artistry of design and building relationships with her customers and suppliers. She also enjoys that every day is different. “The work and seasons are always changing, and I’m always learning new things,” she says. “I love flowers and the creativity of arranging them, but the heart of what we do is help people celebrate the special events in their lives through the beauty of flowers.” Dreams, she says, do come true. “My dream of a flower shop started as a tiny seed. Laurie once told me, ‘We grow the seeds of hope and sow the garden for a place of belonging.’ As I see the expansion of my work, and all of the people whose lives we’ve touched, I see the beauty of the harvest and I appreciate the truth and beauty of Laurie’s words in a new way.”
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