$50 million AVE
in media coverage
16x sales growth
in three years
30% increase
in website traffic
“If we have any issue, my first thought is to go to Upwork and find talent who can help us think it through … Upwork opened the door, and made it possible.”
Quilen Blackwell

When driving through the tree-lined streets of Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood, you’ll see local businesses, abandoned buildings, vacant lots, and neatly maintained homes. In the middle of this mix, though, you’ll see something else that might be surprising: solar-powered flower farms.

These farms are the brainchild of Quilen Blackwell, an environmental policy and sustainability expert and former Peace Corps volunteer, and his wife Hannah. Through their nonprofit, Chicago Eco House, the Blackwells use off-grid urban farming to help at-risk youth break the cycle of poverty, learn professional skills and create a career path for themselves.

This work is supported by dedicated on-site employees, and also by a global team of independent professionals working through Upwork.

Engelwood Farm

A community organizer is called to plant the seeds of change in Chicago

Blackwell started Chicago Eco House in 2014 with $150 and an idea to use sustainability to alleviate poverty. He and his wife purchased two vacant lots and began to develop the first of what would become many urban farms.

“When we were building out our organization, we were very aware that we were competing with gangs,” Blackwell said. “That’s really our competition. When you look at a lot of Chicago gangs, they operate like small businesses. So we thought, ‘Hey, how can we create a way for people to look at what we’re doing—positive things—and see that it’s more profitable than selling dope on the corner?’”

After experimenting with a few different crops, Blackwell settled on flowers.

“Florals are a $35 billion industry, and 80% of the flowers in our country actually come from overseas. But we thought, ‘How different would our cities look if those dollars stayed here?’” Blackwell said. “Once we got that strong flower farming base, it made sense that we needed a flower shop.”

That flower shop, Southside Blooms, now has customers throughout the city. In addition to adorning Chicagoans’ homes, offices, and events with beautiful arrangements, the shop provides employment and skills training to young Chicago residents.

“A lot of the kids that work with us will sometimes think flowers are a little silly,” Blackwell said. “But then they get into it and see how lucrative it could be. Plus, there are so many things that our team members can end up doing with the skills they learn here. They could do media, sales, or customer service.”

Southside Blooms

Blackwell knew that the Southside Blooms model could work well in other cities, too, but he’d have to broaden his customer base to make an expansion possible. He realized he’d need help launching a public relations effort to build awareness about the nonprofit—and in 2019, he posted a job on Talent Marketplace™. Laurie Farmer, a freelance publicist, replied.

A former journalist’s desire for work-life balance leads her to Upwork

Farmer lives in the Pocono Mountains region of Pennsylvania, 700 miles away from Southside Blooms’ Chicago headquarters. After a successful 15-year career in journalism—and two Emmy awards—Farmer realized she wanted a better work-life balance.

“I loved my journalism career. The only thing missing was the most important thing to me; a work-life balance that allowed me to be the mom and wife I wanted to be,” Farmer said. “I’d be tucking my son into bed at night and I’d get a call about a news story to cover and I’d have to leave my family and go. It wasn’t sustainable.”

Farmer decided to leave traditional journalism behind and parlay her storytelling skills into a freelance publicity career.

“I originally started freelancing in my local community, and that was good, but I thought I could do more if I expanded the pool of potential clients,” Farmer said. “That’s when I decided to try Upwork. It’s allowed me to do the number one thing I wanted to do in my post-news career, which is to have a level of impact on important issues.”

Southside Blooms’ mission appealed to Farmer, and she knew she could help.

One Upwork connection results in $50 million of media coverage

From the moment when Farmer first sent a proposal to Blackwell through Upwork, she was confident that awareness of the Southside Blooms mission could spread rapidly through major national media outlets.

“Laurie was totally right,” said Blackwell. “I didn’t even know people like Laurie existed until I found her on Upwork. She got us a really nice feature in the Chicago Tribune. We got a ton of donations coming in, and it led to a lot of other opportunities. It actually happened and it happened the way she said it was going to happen. I mean, it was surreal.”

Thanks to Farmer’s work, Southside Blooms has secured media coverage with a $50 million dollar advertising value equivalency (AVE). This means that without Farmer’s skill in arranging media coverage for Southside Blooms, Blackwell and his team would have had to spend $50 million on paid advertising to reach the same number of people.

The team has also seen 16 times more sales and more than twice as many philanthropic donations to their organization since working with Farmer.

“Laurie helped us go from this unknown mom and pop grassroots with a starting budget of $150 to a top-of-the-line organization with an emerging footprint over the course of only three years, and during a pandemic,” Blackwell said. “She is a miracle.”

Southside Blooms keeps growing with the help of Upwork talent


Blackwell continues to turn to Upwork for the support he needs in helping Southside Blooms grow.

“Right now, we’re investing a lot in our team of three developers who are helping us build out our delivery software, customer service software, and custom enterprise programs that allow us to grow and scale,” Blackwell said.

The solutions provided by Blackwell’s development team has allowed Southside Blooms to reach a 99.6% success rate with floral deliveries. Blackwell is also getting more time back in his day to focus on supporting the youth that work for his nonprofits.

“There were a lot of resources that we were dedicating to just customer service related complaints that we don’t have to worry about now. We can spend more of our time hiring and training youth,” Blackwell said. “It’s also allowed us to become more proactive. We’re now at the point where we can incorporate machine learning techniques and applications into our software to make it smarter. It’s really given us a significant competitive advantage.”

Access to talent on Upwork opens the door for future growth

Buckets of Tulips

Today, Farmer continues to work through Upwork, helping her clients earn millions of combined media impressions. She maintains a close working relationship with Blackwell and the Southside Blooms team, getting a front-row seat to their expansion through Chicago and into Detroit.

For Blackwell, Southside Blooms’ growth is only just beginning. He plans to keep using Upwork talent to launch his nonprofit on a national level.

“Upwork’s been like this silent partner that has enabled a lot of our growth with access to talent,” Blackwell said. “There’s so many different types of people who can help us on things that it’s really my number one go-to from a business solution standpoint. If we have any issue, my first thought is to go to Upwork and find talent who can help us think it through. I never would have met Laurie without Upwork. Upwork opened the door, and made it possible.”

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