Connected by Beauty with Kelsea Olivia of East OliviaBy Rachel Schwartzmann · Publication: Supermaker · 2019
Our hyperconnected business world has created an environment that allows us to experience the real-time highs and lows of those around us. In a professional context, we've been conditioned to believe that "innovation" mostly occurs in these extreme moments. However, there's been a massive shift spearheaded by a group of entrepreneurs who are challenging what it means to build something that will endure. These individuals have recognized the power—and beauty—that comes when we honor the little moments that are often overlooked. Kelsea Olivia of East Olivia stands firmly in this camp.
While the self-made founder and floral designer has endured extremities in her own life, she has valiantly channeled these hardships into something meaningful, in turn, building a business that champions a quiet yet long-lasting connection. When I hop on a call to chat with Kelsea for this story, I'm eager to learn about the small moments that have inspired her to build a company with a big heart. She starts from the very beginning.
Originally from Southern California, Kelsea contends that while her scenic home state had less to do with her love of flowers, it instead gave her something else: a beautiful respite from a challenging childhood. Family tumult imbued much of Kelsea's adolescence. Despite navigating strained personal relationships, Kelsea attributes her creative spirit to her (late) mother—a hairstylist and businesswoman who groomed her early understanding (and appreciation) for entrepreneurship. "I was pretty much born an adult because of my family circumstances, so I think that sense of ownership and ability to have ownership over my time—and make something of my time—was something that I was just aware of at a very young age," Kelsea tells me. "And because there was a lack of structure and safe spaces in my life growing up, I think starting my own projects is a way that I found something more secure."
These experiences ultimately shaped Kelsea's ability to handle the transient nature of modern business—and life. While Kelsea practiced independence at a young age, it never deterred her from being around other artists. As a young adult, she enjoyed an enriching career in the music industry; however, after a decade-long run, Kelsea found herself at an inflection point both personally and professionally. In 2012, Kelsea began a game-changing next chapter (which over a year-long period included planning her wedding, relocating to New York City, dealing with a sudden job loss, and subsequently, a career transition). It was only when her friend and wedding collaborator Ruthi Auda encouraged her to reconnect with her creative interests that Kelsea began to feel the ground beneath her feet again. "She's like, 'You know, if you enjoyed the wedding, put together a styled shoot. Just try things,'" Kelsea reflects. "'You'll probably make stuff that in a couple of years you're going to look back and hate it and think it's terrible, but that's how you learn. That's how you figure out what you like to do,' and so I did just that."
Kelsea continued on this path and cultivated an expansive career at Anthropologie and BHLDN. There, she cut her teeth in several (self-initiated) visual and creative roles that inevitably catalyzed her to launch her business. She stayed with the company from 2013 to early 2019 (save for a few-month break within that period) before going full-time with East Olivia in February 2019. "I basically had created my own little job description, and I was very busy all the time," Kelsea tells me while speaking about the eventual overlap of working at both BHLDN and East Olivia. "When I would take a vacation, I would do [projects] like Create & Cultivate."
Today, Create & Cultivate is one of the many clients on East Olivia's roster of internationally acclaimed brands. While Kelsea admits that there wasn't necessarily a plan in the beginning ("I wanted to do creative work, and I didn't want it to be my name, because I always had a vision of including more people than myself"), she reconnected with elements of her past to begin building a roadmap that would fuse her love of flowers, creativity, and community-building in a wholly integrated way. East Olivia, which combines elements of Kelsea's name and residences (she's lived in East Los Angeles and now on the east coast), now boasts a team of five full-time staff members who (along with 30+ freelancers and contractors) work together to bring inspiration and beauty to each of their projects.
In 2019 alone, East Olivia grew by 250%, but for Kelsea, the beauty that comes with raising a small business is rooted in building connections—with both her clients and team. She goes on to tell me about Bridget Murphy, an old college friend (and East Olivia's first full-time hire) whose contributions have shaped the foundation of the company. "She was working at Anthropologie and then at Paper Source. She's incredible and came alongside me in East Olivia in the very beginning," Kelsea says. "I hired her before I hired myself," she later adds with a small laugh. "She's the opposite of me in so many ways, and that is what really, I think, supported our business in the beginning."
Even with East Olivia's connection-driven mission, Kelsea and her team understand the fleeting nature of their work. Over the years, this has strengthened their resolve to continually "develop an atmosphere of ease and beauty." From the foliage-laden displays that have come to define Create & Cultivate's event aesthetic to custom build-outs for special occasions, I've personally had the opportunity to experience East Olivia's exquisite floral styling and installations in a variety of settings. With visual storytelling as a pillar of East Olivia's ethos, I ask Kelsea what she's learned about beauty's role in eliciting authentic connections in today's culture. On a practical level, Kelsea explains the importance of using beauty as a vehicle to connect with more sustainable practices, which for East Olivia includes working primarily with dried and preserved materials. "I say this a lot, but ephemeral beauty is a privilege," she adds. "With any privilege comes a responsibility... I believe that it's our responsibility to see it through to the end."
In business, endings have become accessories to glamorized stories of scandal or redemption. But as I speak with Kelsea—who, despite all of the challenges she's faced in her life, continues to radiate enthusiasm—I soon understand that her work is encouraging us to find beauty in the moment and the endings that ultimately follow. To honor those moments and then to let them go, so we can continue on our path of building the businesses (and the lives) we genuinely want to lead. "There are just so many things you can't control, and so I think that's the other really beautiful part of this work," Kelsea says before we end our call. "Yes, things go up and down quickly, but what does it feel like to work on something and then have to be okay with letting it go? How does that layer into other parts of our lives, and what can we learn from that?"
These may be questions with no resolute answers, but as Kelsea's story shows us, they are beautiful ones worth asking.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.