MARQUETTE - When Tori Sager sent out an email to a group of friends in 2011 about a running event, she had no idea what she was starting.
That email has led to a business - actually, to a movement - that is touching the lives of women around the world.
With her friend Maryellen "Mel" Charbonneau, Sager has created Fellow Flowers, a business devoted to women's running through merchandise, but really, through so much more than material goods.
Fellow Flowers — women wearing colorful blooms in their hair — take part in a half-marathon in Green Bay, Wis., in 2012. (Fellow Flowers photo)
Tori Sager, left, and Maryellen “Mel” Charbonneau are the founders of Fellow Flowers, a company that sells women’s running gear but is about much more than merchandise. (Fellow Flowers photo)
Sager, who grew up in Baraga, and Charbonneau, who hails from Negaunee, became friends through their husbands, Ben and Jason, respectively. The men were Ishpeming natives and lifelong buddies.
"The way our friendship started had nothing to do with running," Sager, 36, said. "Jason and Mel got together around the time Ben and I got married in 2002 and she and I got to know each other."
"Tori stood in my wedding," Charbonneau, 32, said. "And I am her daughter Addi's godmother. Our friendship was built first. The business came much later."
Sager said it was in 2006 that running became part of their friendship.
"We crossed the finish line of my first half-marathon together unintentionally in 2006," Sager said. "It was the Green Bay Cellcom race."
Charbonneau said, "It was crazy we crossed together. I was living in Madison (Wis.) and she was in Marquette."
"Mel was only going to run 10 miles and stop, but she felt good and kept going," Sager said. "We wound up doing the last part of the race together. I think there were higher powers involved that we ended up crossing together."
Charbonneau added: "We were supposed to be doing that, I believe."
Fast forward to 2011. In January of that year, Sager was getting herself motivated to again run the Cellcom Half-Marathon which was taking place close to her birthday in May and decided to send an email invitation to her friends, asking them to run with her.
"Thirteen of them said yes," Sager said. "I was born on Friday the 13th, 13 said yes and the race was 13 miles. It was ironic how that all worked out."
A few others, maybe six or seven, declined the invitation.
"It wasn't that they weren't runners, but they had things like school or pregnancy or other commitments that made it not a good time for them to do (the race)," Sager said.
"But the women who were part of it," Charbonneau said. "The make up of that group of women, that was the way it was supposed to be. Some didn't know each other, so it was a necessity for her to introduce who she was, a 'this is why I am doing this' kind of thing."
Soon, Sager and the 13 friends, including Charbonneau, who were going to join in were exchanging group emails, telling about their lives, their dreams and their fears.
"Someone followed the first email with her own 'here's what's driving me' message," Sager said. "And it kept going. Even when the race was done, we kept sharing. Not everyone shared their stories, but they were able to read others. It bonded us in a way I can't describe."
Charbonneau said, "The women who didn't write then have since said what an impact it had on them, how powerful what the others said was to them."
Just a week before the race, a friend of Sager's presented her with orange Gerber daisies she had made as hair ornaments for the 14 women. She told Sager that the women needed to make sure everyone knew they were together in the race.
That was the start of Fellow Flowers.
"It just unfolded," Charbonneau said. "I have crazy dreams. I spent a lot of my professional career working to advance the visions of others. I was feeling sort of burned out by that. So this all was rather a perfect storm.
"My younger daughter was sick with meningitis when she was 6 weeks old and we almost lost her," she said. "I was feeling a lack of passion, for many reasons, and the race gave me new-found purpose."
Charbonneau was preparing to run another half-marathon in October 2011, for her own birthday.
"I put that flower in my hair before that race and I told Jason that there was something there, bigger than me, bigger than all of us," she said. "I dedicated the race to that flower. I told Jason 'I am going to figure out that this means.' All through the race, I thought about it, and after two hours, I had thought of a business plan. I texted Tori right after the race and told her I had an idea incorporating the flowers and women running and me and you, 'are you in?'.
"Tori answered me in about 20 seconds," Charbonneau said. "She said yes."
Sager said she knew they were on to something.
"After the initial May race, women kept putting the flower in their hair when they ran," she said. "No one said a word. They just kept doing it. We became known as 'the flower girls.' Women started identifying with it and other women started responding.
"The symbol was the flower," Sager said. "But this is much bigger that than."
Charbonneau said, "This has made a profound difference in our lives. It has changed us. It has changed our friendships. It has boosted our self-confidence. Nowhere else was this kind of community being built for women."
The two had to figure out how to make a business plan, meeting with some people who didn't understand what they were trying to establish was based around an experience, not a product. Sager said they weren't able to come up with "an elevator pitch," the notion that their business could be summed up in two sentences.
"We finally just had to say 'We believe it. Women will get it. Women need this'," Sager said.
Charbonneau added, "We held to our instincts, our values. People want to shift this and we have to guard the core of what we were doing."
Last weekend, the duo was in Chicago for a race. The race director asked them "Is this a movement or is this a company?"
"We said women have to believe in it first," Charbonneau said. "It's secondary, what they might purchase. They come to our (web)site because they want to know more. They get it right away, or they don't."
The response to Fellow Flowers and the merchandise it sells has been phenomenal.
"It's crazy," Charbonneau said. "We send flowers and shirts to every corner of the country."
Sager said, "I can't think of a state we haven't shipped to and we've sent things to Australia and Europe."
For example, an order from one shirt and one flower came in from San Diego. Not long after, another San Diego order was followed by another and another...
"We found out the first woman saw fellowflowers.com on a race T. She was a teacher for a new moms fitness group," Sager said. "She shared information about the site with the class and they checked it out. As a gift to the teacher on the last day of class, the women showed up in the shirts they had ordered and gave the teacher a 'Bloom' T-shirt from our site as a thank-you.
"We don't know all the stories," she said. "But the ones we've heard have been amazing."
Renee Prusi can be contacted at 906-228-2500, ext. 253. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org