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Nashville Native Rachel Penn has an impressive resume under her belt. After all, not everyone can boast that they’ve spent the last decade living in Singapore and Hong Kong, managing large global clients for the likes of Google and LinkedIn. But a move back to Nashville just before the COVID lockdown, combined with the devastating loss of her daughter, Lillian, led Rachel to turn a longtime passion for floral design into a full-time career. Now, with a brand new 2,000-square-foot design studio in Berry Hill, Rachel continues to carry on Lillian’s legacy through the art of flowers, sustainability, and community outreach to help those who’ve experienced a similar loss. Please welcome this week’s FACE of Nashville, owner and lead floral designer of Lillian’s Floral Studio, Rachel Penn.

Floral Designer Rachel Penn creating an arrangement.

Please welcome Rachel Penn, owner and lead floral designer for Lillian’s Floral Studio. Image: Natalie Watson Photography

What led you from the corporate tech world to floral design?

My job was globally based, so most of my team members were in New York and London. Given the timezone and how the business worked, I found myself on my phone and email 24/7. My manager and I decided to carve out two nights a week when no one could bother me, and I wasn’t reachable. Having always had a love for flowers, I decided to take up local design classes in Singapore. I learned to love the art and design of florals even more during that time, and I started moonlighting on the weekends and evenings. I finished the 140-hour professional course and freelanced for florists and planners before moving into it full-time. I left Google to do that, which people are always shocked to hear! Then, we moved back here to Nashville in February 2020, just before everything shut down. We thought it would be a temporary landing spot after living overseas, but life and plans change. We’ve been here ever since.

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What made you decide to open your own studio?

On June 6, 2020, my daughter was born premature and unexpectedly died a few hours after her birth. I was lost. We were so cut off and isolated from everyone. My parents couldn’t come to the hospital; we had a funeral without friends and family. There was so much [of] what I call “pent-up parenting energy.” All of this love for the future life that I was envisioning had energy with nowhere to go. I knew I needed an outlet and a routine, so I started making flowers for Lillian every week — an arrangement that I could bring to her grave. I felt like I was connecting with her and grieving and processing. That’s what brought me back to flowers again. During that grieving period, I could pick something that I loved for her, put it together, bring it to her, and tell her what I made for her. It was healing and gave me an outlet for all the anxiety, sadness, and loss that needed somewhere to go. One day, my husband said, “You need to open your own thing. You know how; you’ve done it for other people, and it’s time for you to have your own space. Do it for Lillian and continue to carry on her legacy that way.”

The "Lillian" arrangement by Rachel Penn, sitting on a pedestal table by a green velvet chair

Named after her daughter, The Lillian is an arrangement made with flowers of the designer’s choice. Image: Sarah Nichole Photography

Tell us about your emphasis on sustainability.

We source as much as we can from local flower farmers across Middle Tennessee. There’s no packaging or plastic when it shows up at our door. It’s cut fresh, put into a reusable bucket, and sent over to us. We also love our wholesalers. Everyone wants roses, but we don’t grow roses in Tennessee year-round. So, when we have to buy from wholesalers, we look at the travel required for those flowers to get to us, then we contribute a portion of the sale to buy carbon credits to offset that travel.

A lot of the floral industry uses flower foam, which is really easy to use — you can pop a piece of foam into your base and design very quickly. But it’s also non-biodegradable and toxic for the environment and humans. It’s bad to inhale the dust. So, we are floral foam-free.

Of course, we also recycle everything we possibly can. All of our packaging is either compostable or biodegradable — even the plastic and tissue paper we use. We have a vase recycling program, too. If you receive a vase from us and don’t have a use for it, you can bring it back, and we’ll add credit to your next order. Finally, we compost through Compost Nashville.

Rachel Penn at the desk in her floral design studio, Lillian's

“I’m always trying to find better ways to do things,” says Rachel of her sustainability efforts. “I think that’s the responsibility of a small business owner.” Image: Sarah Nichole Photography

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In light of October being Infant Loss Awareness Month, what do you hope sharing your story will do for other women experiencing loss?

Thank you for asking. Anyone willing to listen to someone’s story of loss supports that person more than they’ll ever know because loss is something we don’t talk about — especially infant miscarriage or loss. It’s an incredibly isolating thing to go through, which is ironic because one in four pregnancies ends in miscarriage, and one in 160 births are stillborn. If it’s so common, I don’t know why we don’t talk about it more or know how to better support women and families who are experiencing it.

In October, I’m working on a campaign called “Support Better and Support Strong.” “Support Better” is around ensuring that dollars are funneled to organizations that support families and mothers who’ve experienced loss, be it financial, emotional, or mental support such as counseling. “Support Strong,” is to recognize and lift up women who’ve suffered a loss, whether it’s a miscarriage, infant loss, or neonatal loss. We want the community to nominate women deserving of receiving flowers so we can celebrate their strength and honor what they’ve gone through.

Every year, we contribute to two organizations; one is Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep. I joined the board in July, and they offer professional portraitures of newborn babies who’ve passed away or will die shortly after birth. They match professional photographers and dispatch them immediately to hospitals anytime a nurse, doula, or the families call. They take beautiful black-and-white newborn photos that are given to the families free of charge. I can tell you from personal experience that it’s the most valuable thing I have of my daughter. It’s all I have of her, and I can think of no better organization to continue supporting.

Rachel Penn in front of the Lillian's Floral Studio sign

“When people think about sustainability, it’s often purely, ‘I recycle, so I’m sustainable,’ Rachel tells us. “To me, that’s the bare minimum. It’s the most basic thing we can do as stewards of our environment, but that’s simply not enough.” Image: Sarah Nichole Photography

What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

It’s a Brené Brown quote; she’s one of my favorite people to watch on TED Talks. “One day, you will tell your story of how you overcame what you went through, and it will be someone else’s survival guide.” It’s not quite advice, but it has been the most resounding quote driving me to do what we’re doing and to share and build on Lillian’s legacy.

Faith, family, and friends notwithstanding, what are three things you can’t live without?

Flowers. Growing up in the South, I can’t imagine hosting someone without flowers or showing up and not having flowers for the host. I also feel deeply and strongly that no matter the occasion — good, sad, or bad — flowers can express what we want them to express. Also, Fitzgerald, my French Bulldog. He gave me someone to mother when I needed it. I never understood the emotional support animal piece. I grew up with dogs and enjoyed them but never really understood how much an animal can offer when you need them the most.  The other thing for me is the ocean — not seeing it from far away or sitting on the beach, but actually being in it. My husband and I are huge scuba divers, and we spend a lot of time scuba diving and doing ocean conservation work. It has given us a second large bucket list of places to go — it opens up another 70% of the earth that many people aren’t willing to go into or don’t have any desire to explore!

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