I gave up my career as a TD executive to become a florist
Laura Sousa spent eight years as vice-president of enterprise project management at TD. When she started working remotely, she lost her passion for her work. So, last June, she resigned to become a florist. Here’s how her Covid career pivot came about.
–As told to Andrea Yu
“I spent much of my career in executive roles, and in 2013, I joined TD as an associate VP, and five years later, I was promoted to VP of the enterprise project management office. I’d usually be up at 6 a.m., at which point I’d log in to work from my home near Little Italy. Then I’d head into the office at 8:30 a.m. and stay until 6:30 or 7. It was a stressful job, but I loved it. I had a team of around 60 people under me and was responsible for a portfolio worth $1.7 billion. I enjoyed solving problems and bringing order to mayhem.
“My husband, John, works for a software company, and during the first year of the pandemic, we were both working remotely. I set up my workspace at the dining room table and he set up his office in the basement. I was pulling even longer hours, sometimes up to 14 hours a day. Even during my off-hours, I was often pondering ideas and working through problems. My team was under a lot of pressure too, and some of them took leaves of absence.
“After a few months, I realized I no longer felt the kind of passion for my job that I once did. I missed seeing my team in person, socializing with them, supporting them and getting support in return. Without those office dynamics, I didn’t derive the same satisfaction. I had trouble investing as much energy as I had before the pandemic. I found it harder to stay positive and to keep my team motivated.
“One day in the summer of 2020, I went into my local flower shop, Hill’s Florist, at Bloor and Dovercourt. They’ve got tons of greenery, plants and two fridges full of flowers. It’s such a joy to walk in there. I said to the owner, Lisa, ‘I wish I could work here.’ She turned to me and said, ‘Well, why can’t you?’ At the time, I thought, I can’t work here. I’m a vice president at a bank. But she had dropped a germ of an idea. And for the next year, I could think of nothing else. I’d wake up in the middle of the night thinking about some big presentation. Then I’d think, I wonder what I’d be doing if I worked in a flower shop. I started following floral designers on YouTube and Instagram and discovered a whole community of flower-lovers on Facebook.
“The more I sat with it, the more I thought, I can do this. My husband supported the idea, and after some brainstorming, we realized we’d be fine on his salary. My kids, aged 23 and 25, were super-excited for me, In the following months, I started bouncing the idea off of some friends. Their reactions were mixed. Some said, ‘There’s no way that’ll satisfy you.’ Others said, ‘If you put your mind to it, you can totally do it.’ Regardless, everyone’s first reaction was, ‘Wow, that would be so cool.’
“I decided to wait until June of 2021 to tender my resignation. I looked up courses at the Canadian Institute of Floral Design. They offer a three-week, in-person, intensive floral design program. Because of Covid, their class sizes were reduced by half, so they were backed up with enrolment. The next class I could register for was in July 2021.
“In meantime, I told Lisa I wanted to take her up on her offer and work with her. In May, we sat down together for two hours to hammer out a plan. After I completed the floral design course, I’d do an unpaid apprenticeship with her for two months, then I’d join her part-time in the shop. She needed the help: some of her staff had resigned during Covid, and Lisa is 62, so she wanted a change of pace and to take more time for herself.
“Right before I planned to resign, I took a week of vacation from work, and I didn’t think about it at all. I’m usually checking emails while I’m away from the office, but I had no desire to do that. That really helped affirm that this was the right decision.
“The Monday morning after my vacation, I had a mid-year review booked with my bosses. We hopped on Zoom and they asked how my vacation was. I said, “It was really good. In fact, it was so good that I’ve decided to take a permanent vacation. I’m tendering my resignation.’ There was dead silence. But within moments, they offered their support. They even let me give two weeks’ notice instead of a month, which is customary at my level. I got dozens of phone calls and emails from people wishing me well and telling me how much they valued the support I’d given them at TD. It was touching and lovely.
“At first, it felt weird not to have a computer to pull open at 6 a.m. I took my dogs to High Park every other day, went for walks with friends and spent more time cooking for my family. I felt a little aimless at first. I was like, Okay, I was a pivotal part of this huge TD network, and now I’ve severed all ties. But I was excited for what lay ahead of me. I was also feeling so much more relaxed. In my old life, I’d only sleep about four or five hours a night. I’d go to bed at 11 p.m., wake up at 3 a.m. and not be able to get back to sleep because my mind was racing. Suddenly, my body was like, ‘Yay, we’re free!’
“I started the floral design course in July. There were 12 students in my class. It was a mix of people who were doing it as a hobby, some who wanted to pursue it as a career and others who wanted to supplement their current work. There was a teacher who was off work for the summer and wanted to learn floral design for fun. One woman wanted to help her niece, who owned a floral design business. Another owned a chain of laundromats but was looking for a career change. On our first day, we made an arrangement using carnations, daisies and snapdragons. It was supposed to be a symmetrical bouquet in floral foam. But mine was so ugly. It was horrific. I was worried. I thought, Oh no. Do I have it? You either have an eye for creative floral design, or you don’t.
“Things started to improve in the second week. By the end of the course, I could make boutonnieres and corsages, hand-tied bouquets and arrangements. I became an expert in the different flowers and learned which colours go best together. And I developed an aesthetic: I like an asymmetrical, whimsical, bohemian style using seasonal, local flowers.
“After the course was done, I started my apprenticeship at Hill’s Florist. Lisa’s grandmother opened the shop in 1933, then her dad took over before passing on the business to her in 1999. She’s been working in the shop since high school. She’s a real master, and I’ve watched her handle every angle of the business. She brought me to wholesalers and to the Ontario Food Terminal to pick fresh flowers. I learned how to rehydrated bulk flowers that were shipped to the store in a box. Lisa is a great teacher. She’s been so patient with me.
“My first day on the job, my old co-worker at TD phoned in an order for a big bouquet of roses and lilies for his wife’s birthday. He was so excited to place the order with me. He said, ‘I want you to make it.” Over the next two months at the flower shop, I found I was happy, relaxed and fulfilled in my work. I love dealing directly with the customers. They’re often there for personal life events—mostly happy ones, like birthdays and anniversaries, but also sad occasions, like sending condolences for losing a family member or pet. I also enjoy putting work behind me at the end of day. My work is done once I leave the shop.
“By the end of my apprenticeship, I could handle any of the orders that come in for bouquets or arrangements. I just started on payroll at Hill’s in mid-October. I work about 30 hours a week—every weekday morning and some afternoons and Saturdays. The mornings are usually the busiest, so we’re both in the shop processing orders, creating arrangements and sending them out with a delivery service. The afternoons are quieter, so our plan is to alternate days off. I’m earning $17 an hour as a junior designer. For me, this was about finding something that jazzes me. I know how lucky and privileged I am—most people can’t leave careers they stop loving. I’m fortunate to have the chance to pursue something creative and satisfying.
“I’m not sure what the future holds for me. If I continue doing exactly what I’m doing right now at Hill’s, I’m cool with that. If I get to buy a shop and put my own angle on things, that would be exciting too. I’ll probably do this for the next 10 years until I retire. Working as a florist has taught me to stay in the moment. These arrangements are beautiful, but they’re fleeting. They don’t last longer than a week. So you just have to pause and enjoy them. I love that about flowers.”