Stems & Stones owner Rhonda Reese finds healing in horticulture

Erica Thompson

At the onset of the coronavirus pandemic last year, Rhonda Reese tried to stay grounded and focused by writing, walking and creating art.

“I realized it wasn’t working for me,” said Reese, a 37-year-old mother of six who lives near Bexley. “So, I turned to plants.”

Reese did her research and eventually had 40 plants in her room. She was sleeping better, breathing easier and feeling more energetic.

“It was a great, positive habit, to be able to wake up every morning, have some tea, open the blinds, walk around the room and talk to my plants, touch them,” she said. “[I said], ‘I want to be able to share this with people.’”

That desire blossomed into a plant subscription service, which Reese launched in May to great success. By November, she had a brick-and-mortar store, Stems & Stone, on the lower level of Polaris Fashion Place in November. Specializing in indoor plants and crystals, the shop’s primary focus is on wellness and self-care.

Reese picked the right industry at the right time — multiple plant retailers have reported an increase in sales amid the pandemic. And globally, the flower and ornamental plants market is expected to grow by approximately $29 billion the next few years, according to a 2020 report by the market research firm Technavio.

“I think, intuitively, we are gravitating toward plants because of what they do,” Reese said. “Plants heal, plants help us breathe. We're dealing with a disease that is attacking our respiratory system. We’re just gravitating toward the things that are going to help us survive.”

Walking into Stems & Stone is like entering an oasis, seemingly worlds away from the rest of the mall. The senses are immediately engaged by pleasant scents and sounds; orange blossom water and relaxing, instrumental music were featured on a recent visit.

Then, there is a sea of green, including cacti, succulents, snake plants, pothos, “crispy wave” ferns and monstera. A glowing greenhouse, which sits in the center of the space, is not for sale — much to the dismay of impressed customers.

Splashes of color are provided by a bright pink wall and a collection of crystals, which people carry because of their healing properties, said Reese, who is often shaking stones out of her pockets and backpack at the end of the day.

“It gives me a good chuckle, but it makes me feel good, too,” she said.

Reese is open about her own struggles with depression and anxiety as she navigated several challenges in life. 

"I've had a lot, and then I've had nothing," she explained. "I'm a domestic violence survivor. I've been homeless more than one time. I was pregnant my senior year of high school."

Some of Reese's initial career ambitions took a back seat to motherhood; she pursued architecture at Columbus State Community College and business at Franklin University, but had to leave to support her growing family. She worked hard to build experience in customer service, but felt stifled. 

"I've been in positions at companies where I've been the top performer and an excellent employee, but was never given the opportunity to be promoted," she said. 

She did have other outlets. In addition to being a visual artist and poet, Reese designs clothes and jewelry. But she always aspired to open her own business. 

The pandemic kick-started her dream. She was an assistant general manager for a local restaurant that ultimately had to close its doors. Instead of fretting, Reese pivoted to doing brand ambassador work for a marketing agency, and launched her plant subscription service. 

Her childhood best friend, Latrice Thompson, praised Reese’s tenacity.

“She is truly an inspiration to women and, in particular, women of color, that you can overcome any obstacles in life and reach your true potential,” said Thompson, 35, of the East Side.

Reese didn't find the space in the Polaris mall; it found her. She said she received an email from a leasing specialist inviting her to interpret her subscription service as a retail store.

"They had been looking to find more small businesses and local flavor to put inside of the mall," Reese said. "I froze in my tracks when I walked inside (the space) because it looked exactly like my Pinterest board. I chalk it up to divinity."

According to general manager Tamra Bower, Polaris Fashion Place is currently home to 20 locally owned businesses, and the mall is always looking to diversify its retail offerings. 

"Stems & Stones was a perfect opportunity to bring a new and unique use to our town center," Bower said. "We are proud to welcome [the store] to our diverse mix of women-owned, minority-owned, locally owned businesses. We are thrilled to have [Reese]."

With the exception of a small crowdfunding campaign, Reese financed the store herself. 

"I took everything I had and everything that I was supposed to use for other things," she said. "It was a lot of being creative, hoping, wishing and praying that it worked out. And it did. The model is working." 

Reese’s friend and fellow entrepreneur, Angel Smoot, said she nearly cried when she saw the store for the first time.

“[Reese] is a go-getter,” said Smoot, 49, of the Northeast Side, who founded Just as IAM, a nonprofit that helps kids develop their business ideas. “When she puts her mind to something she achieves it, and she is just so creative."

Smoot said she likes spending time in Stems & Stone because of the atmosphere. Additionally, her daughters' business, Puppy Love Dog Treats and Gifts, is a featured vendor in the store. 

“We get a lot of plant mamas and grandmamas who come in and know their stuff,” Smoot said. “They just talk in this plant language and Rhonda knows exactly what they're talking about. Some people just sell stuff to make a buck, but she really has a passion for it.”

Reese has maintained her monthly plant subscriptions for her customers, or the #plantgang, as she calls them. Stems & Stone also hosts in-store workshops on everything from candle-making to macrame.

While acknowledging the systemic inequalities Black women business owners face, Reese said she is noticing a shift following the Black Lives Matter protests last summer.

“I think that a lot of things have been happening, as far as people understanding that we have voices, we have skills, we have talents and we have businesses that matter,” she said.  

Reese also said she is intentional about partnering with other local women- and Black-owned vendors like Puppy Love Dog Treats and Gifts. Other products in the store include candles, haircare products and clothing. 

In the future, Reese plans to start a nonprofit to help others with affordable housing and workforce development. She also hopes to hire staff, and see more Black-owned businesses in a position to provide jobs. Currently, 95% of Black-owned businesses are sole proprietorships, according to a 2020 report by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

“I hope to be able to employ as many people as I can,” she said, “and then build other businesses where I continue to employ and empower.”

Stems & Stones owner Rhonda Reese