This Black Founder Was Denied a Business Loan and Set Out to Prove the 'Gatekeepers' Wrong. He's Made More Than $500,000 So Far — But It's Just the Beginning.

“I’ve always been an artist,” Rob Gooljar, founder of IRIS blossom, says. “I’ve always been a creative person. I’ve done a lot of mixed media, painting, drawing, music, photography, but my medium shifted to floral.”

In 2020, Gooljar was struggling with depression while working toward his Ph.D. in urban, social and economic geography, and he credits his then-roommate Becca Whittier as “the catalyst” for his new creative outlet. Whittier would bring flowers home from Trader Joe’s, and Gooljar would arrange them.

Image Credit: Courtesy of IRIS blossom

Arranging flowers became a passion, and Gooljar decided to start an Instagram to bring others along on his artistic journey, especially those who might feel excluded from an industry known for lacking diversity. The average florist in the U.S. is 47 years old, and most of them are women (77.2%) and white (77.3%), according to data from Zippia.

With his social media platform, Gooljar put out the kind of representation he wanted to see: “Hey, I’m a queer Black florist — kind of, not really. I’m just playing with flowers, but watch me, and let’s see what happens.”

What happened was IRIS blossom, named for Gooljar’s rescue pitbull Iris, turned into a successful business.

Related: For Years, This Black Founder Learned an Uncommon But Essential Craft on the Side. Now His Creations Are Beloved By Celebrity Chefs — and Can Sell for More Than $1,000.

People saw Gooljar’s posts on the Instagram account, which grew from zero to more than 40,000 followers, and began asking to buy arrangements. In the past three-and-a-half years, the self-funded company has fulfilled thousands of orders and made more than $500,000 — but it’s just the beginning.

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Image Credit: Courtesy of IRIS blossom

Gooljar is expanding IRIS blossom to South Florida, where he moved last year, while Whittier and two employees continue to helm the company’s operations in Greater Charlotte. Meanwhile, he’s working with another business partner, Jihann Hanchell, to get IRIS blossom’s sister business, island IRIS, off the ground in Turks and Caicos. The idea there is to offer “full-scale design” for luxury events.

“He was really kind, but looked at me and was like, ‘Well, you’re not going to get a business loan.'”

Gooljar isn’t entering into these floral ventures “blindly,” he notes. He also has a holding company and a consulting firm. Still, despite Gooljar’s entrepreneurial savvy and IRIS’s track record of success and growth, its journey hasn’t been without some serious challenges. Two of the biggest barriers, according to Gooljar? Funding and space. And in the floral industry, those tend to go hand in hand.

It’s very hard for small businesses to exist in Charlotte without being pre-existing,” Gooljar says. Pre-existing meaning that A, you come from money or B, you have somebody to help you. So we worked out of our two-bedroom apartment [when] we were doing events that were $15,000-$16,000, and we were doing it on our kitchen island that was six-and-a-half feet long. We had buckets all over the house.”

IRIS blossom has been “100% self-funded” from the start and able to accomplish all it has thanks to its supportive clients, Gooljar says. The revenue earned goes back into the company’s growth, a strategy that’s helped it achieve its milestone of $500,000 in revenue in just a few years. But in the early days, Gooljar did try to secure a business loan — and was turned away.

Related: This Black Founder Stayed True to His Triple ‘Win’ Strategy to Build a $1 Billion Business

“I had a white banker in Charlotte, and he was really kind, but looked at me and was like, ‘Well, you’re not going to get a business loan because you have to be in business for a few years,'” Gooljar recalls. “And then I would ask, ‘Well, how are people who are just starting a business getting a loan?’ ‘Oh, they probably have an online presence, or they probably just go into it with money, and then they can put up their own money.’ That kind of quasi, not-really-plausible explanation about funding and gatekeeping funding.”

Affording space in Charlotte remained a significant obstacle. Eventually, Gooljar and Whittier moved into a three-bedroom apartment. But there still wasn’t enough room for the rapidly growing business, and Gooljar didn’t want to spend all the money they made on rent. At one point in their search for a reliable place to store their expensive, perishable materials, someone offered to rent them an Airstream travel trailer for thousands of dollars a month sans air conditioning or running water.

Now, Gooljar lives and works out of a house in Florida.

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Image Credit: Courtesy of IRIS blossom

“It’s cool when people look at me, and they’re wondering if my business is working out: All I can do is smile and say, ‘You know, it is.'”

Throughout his time building IRIS blossom, Gooljar says he’s “stepped on a few toes” within the gatekept industry and has had to field some pointed questions: “Well, who are you?” “Is your business going to last?” “How’s your little business going?” “How’s your flower thing going?

But none of that has deterred Gooljar, who comes from a “very long line of people working hard.”

“My grandma cut sugar cane for 40 years in Trinidad,” Gooljar says. “My parents came here with nothing and worked and tried their best. And I’m trying to change that tide. So yeah, it’s cool when people look at me, and they’re wondering if my business is working out: All I can do is smile and say, ‘You know, it is, and I’m putting in the work for it.'”

Related: She Maxed Out Her Credit Cards and Sold Her Engagement Ring to Start a Business. Now She Has $25 Million in Funding — and Smart Advice for Fellow Black Women Founders.

Gooljar admits that “there’s still a long way to go” in transforming the industry into a more inclusive space, but he’s happy to report that other diverse floral businesses popped up in Charlotte after his own — because “there’s room for everybody.”

“I see some of the landscape changing, especially when I go into the floral cooler, and I see somebody else that’s Black, or I go into the floral cooler, and I see somebody that’s young, or I go in there, and I see somebody with pink hair or something,” Gooljar says.

“You have to face those obstacles and keep pushing because there’s always going to be people who are preying on your downfall.”

Next, Gooljar plans to implement a national subscription program for IRIS, a sort of “color-by-numbers” approach. He’ll ship the flowers nationwide, and customers can follow along with his arrangements via video. “I want people who don’t feel creative in their current jobs or current lives to get that creative outlet just the same way that I needed that outlet,” he says.

In the long-term, Gooljar’s goal is to collaborate with a tech company to make it possible for people to order IRIS flowers on an app “like they do an Uber.” But even though Gooljar envisions IRIS as a wide-scale service allowing employees to run “little mini IRIS blossoms out of their own homes,” quality remains a top priority.

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Image Credit: Courtesy of IRIS blossom

Related: ‘No One Believed’ This Black Founder Was the Owner of a Liquor Brand in 2012. He Launched to Great Acclaim — Then Lost It All. Here’s How He Made a Multi-Million-Dollar Comeback.

Gooljar is committed to training his team members to maintain the brand’s high standards as he continues its expansion to other U.S. cities. It’s not always easy, and Gooljar admits there have been “plenty of times” he wanted to give up, but he’s always kept going — never wavering in his belief that great things are on the other side.

“You can ask anyone that I know, and they will tell you that they don’t know anybody that grinds the way that I do,” Gooljar says. “And I’m not saying that you just have to throw yourself into everything all the time. But I think a big part of this is that you have to face those obstacles and keep pushing because there’s always going to be people who are preying on your downfall. There are always going to be roadblocks. There are always going to be obstacles. There are always going to be things to climb, but you have to just keep going.”

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