Our team sat down with Chief Experience Officer and Founder of Amani Affairs, Jihan Francois recently to hear more about her journey of how she became a wedding planner and what it’s like to work with industry icon, David Tutera.

– My name’s JiJi!

– JiJi, okay. Oh, it’s so pretty! I wish I had that background!

– Yeah, we have the pink wall and-

– Yeah!

– Alright, so let’s get started. Gigi is gonna’ ask questions.

– Okay.

– Yeah, so Can you give us a little background of your journey and how you became a wedding planner and what drew you into wanting to become a wedding planner.

– So, I started college in 1998 in Virginia Hampton, Virginia. And, around that time, is when like Pharell, and Timberland and Missy Elliot were really really popular. And they were always on campus, because they were from that area. So, I started doing parties with friends and that was just to capitalize, make some money while we were in school. And, through that, we started working with record labels and doing like album release parties and that sort of thing. So, that’s when I first started to do events and really be like, “I like this!” So then, after college, one of my roommates started her own media, marketing, and management company, and, again, I started working with her. We were both in Atlanta doing corporate events like Porsche and Converse and Coke and different activations. And another one of our friends was getting married and asked us to help. And so, I helped my friend do the wedding, and I thought it was really fun. It was very similar to doing events, but I still just kept on the corporate party event theme. So, then, in 2008, my best friend in the whole world- we’re only two weeks apart, we’ve known each other since our mom’s were pregnant with us, she was getting married in the Cayman Islands. And she said, “Can you plan my wedding? You do events all the time.” At this time, I lived in Atlanta, and she lived in New York. And then, the wedding was in Cayman. So, I was kind of very scared and overwhelmed by this feat, but she had complete confidence in me. So, I did that wedding where I was also the maid of honor, and a lot of the venders there were stopping me and my parents saying like, “If this isn’t what you do, this is what you need to do.” So, after that, my corporate day job- I was a director of marketing and communications for a ton of non-profits, and I worked at different agencies, and I also worked for the Falcons. So every job I had, I had to plan some sort of event. And, so, after the wedding in ’08, I was helping here and there every couple years with a family or friends’ wedding. Being that I was in a non-profit world and in marketing, I unfortunately was laid off 4 different times

– “Oh God.”

 

– So, between 2011 and 2015. And so, my first lay-off in 2011, I decided I’m gonna be a wedding and event planner and I got to a LLC, but then I found a job. So I let it go, and still just help friends and family. Well after my 4th lay-off, I decided I gotta figure something out. And I moved to North Carolina with my parents until my tenants moved out of my house in Atlanta, and was trying to figure out what I was gonna do next. And that’s when I decided I’m gonna make this a full time business and in order to do that, even though I have a bachelor’s in entrepreneurship, and an MBA in marketing, I felt that it was important to get certified as a wedding and event planner. And that’s when I signed up to take Longevity’s class. And so I officially launched my business actually 2 years ago today, March 21st 2017, and, through Longevity I’ve gotten some awesome opportunities, I was given the Dream Maker award, and through that award I was able to have a scholarship to go to David Tutera Symposium last year in Santa Monica to get my award. And I was told he would pick 2 attendees to work with him on at least one event over the next year. I had, I didn’t think it’d be me, I was like, I’m kinda new to this, it was about 30 people, there were people who’ve been wedding planners forever, and I was one of the 2 he picked.

– So please welcome to the stage, and someone that will be part of our journey as we do with our real event, when I say real event, a challenging event, of a client of mine somewhere here in the United States, Jhan Francia.

 

– [Johan] So I had the opportunity to do a wedding with him in Brooklyn, and then this year, he also asked me to help with episodes of his new TV show. And so, that’s really helped me with growing my business and building it here in Wilmington, where I’ve only lived for like 2 and a half years, so I was kind of starting from scratch. But I worked from like, 1 local client last year, to, I already have 7 for 2019. And then I still do weddings in other states, from where I’ve lived, for family and friends and I realized that I was always meant to do my own business? Which I realized I knew since my undergraduate degree was actually in entrepreneurship? So kinda was like running from my calling? But now that I have my business Symone Affairs, and just the support from my family, friends, and the community, and especially David and Longevity’s Chau has been awesome. It’s just really helped me thrive as a wedding planner, as a business woman, and as a person.

– Yah it sounds that, through everything that you’ve been through in your past that, it’s just been your calling and this has always just been pulling you towards the events industry and that’s beautiful. So why don’t you tell us a little bit about your experience working with David?

– So, when I went to the symposium I was nervous. Because I have watched David on TV for years, and just was like, he’s just the ultimate of what I want to be. And the first thing I’ll say about him is he’s completely down-to-earth and normal. When I checked in to register for the symposium, he’s the person that checked me in. So I literally just walked in to the table, and he’s like, “Hi, what’s your name?” and I was like, like I was just so overwhelmed. And over the course of the next few days, he was with us at every session, he ate every meal with us, and working with him was just like watching a master. It’s like, amazing to see how his mind works, and how he solves problems or anticipates problems, and for me, I’m very organized, and the planning part is simple, but when it comes to design, I’m still building my confidence in that and my skill, and so working with him it’s like, it stretches you in every way, but especially in design, because everything he does is big and grand and beautiful. And the more you see how his mind thinks, it helps you, and one thing I love about David and his whole team, is that, he is free with compliments. Like if he likes what you did, he tell you right then, or he sends you an email the next day, so you never have to wonder. And its not like, when I did seven love thing, which is words of affirmation weren’t very high for me? But I realized, especially after working with him, how much it does build my confidence, and how much it means to me as a wedding planner, so I call David my planner Godfather, and it’s just been awesome to learn from one of the best.

– Yah, it’s really good to have someone there to mentor you and especially, to let you know you’re doing a good job, so there’s a lot to learn from him. Also, I understand that you are also an interior designer?

– No.

– Oh sorry, wrong question!

– Events and design.

– Okay, events designer. Can you tell us more about how you incorporate the 2 together in you business?

 

– So as I mentioned, I do design, and I’m every day growing stronger and feeling my confidence in that. I’ve always been clear about what I like and don’t like once I see something. Now that I have become a full-time wedding planner, I have become more confident in explaining what I want to see. So I used to be more of an editor, like you show, and I say, no, add this, but now I can be like, I can talk to my clients and they say “I’m going for this kind of vibe” and I can feel confident in going to Pinterest or just, dreaming, really, stuff comes to me at night, thinking about how to make that come to a reality. And one of the things that really helped me with that is I did my first style shoot last year and I got it featured in a local magazine. So I was really like, oh my god, this is my first style shoot. And usually when you get hired as a wedding planner, the bride like, is like, this is kinda what I want, and you have a baseline for what you’re creating. But for the style shoot, the venue asked me to do just whatever I wanted. So I basically planned like an imaginary wedding for myself, that’s when I really was like, I have a good eye for this. And got a lot more confidence in it, and I again, I didn’t realize the words of affirmation from other people. And I was like, this is what I can do. So, I always try, even when I’m just a month of coordinator, I always ask my brides, or grooms, to tell me, to show me what they’re doing along the way. Show me their ideas, even though they’re planning it, I always want to be able to like, insert some things that I think could punch it up, or make it better, so that’s kind of how I’ve always incorporated my eye and my love of design into every event that I threw.

– Yah, great. So congratulations. I understand how hard it is to go through the struggles and actually succeed in a business and commit, and make your dreams a reality, and it’s beautiful, and there’s so many women out there who are going through the same thing as you, and I just wanted to ask, what advice do you have for others who are pursuing their dreams in this.

 

– Well, I’ll start out by saying, this has been probably one of my biggest obstacles. One thing is, I’m 38 years old, but I look very young. And so, I’ve always had to struggle with like, people taking me seriously. I was the 3rd youngest in my business school program, and then my first job I was the director of marketing in one of the largest art centers in the SouthEast. And I was the age of all the other marketing director’s kids. So, I always had to kind of like, that’s always a hurdle I had to deal with, of just being young and looking young. And then as an African American woman, I always struggled with not wanting to be the angry black woman, or be seen as a woman that’s too emotional, or too sassy. So one thing I encourage all women to do, is to own your voice, never, be afraid to speak up for yourself, to ask the hard questions, or to say what no one else is saying. Even if people want to put a stereotype on you when you do these things, as you prove yourself, and they really listen to what you have to say, they’ll come to understand that you’re an expert, and you’re there for a reason.

So, I always have to give myself mantras, about like, I am enough, I am smart enough, I belong here. Because it’s been so many instances where I’ve been made to feel as if I don’t belong. Before my MBA I worked in finance, I issued bonds, I wasn’t your typical bond person. So it’s always- and then I worked in sports, again, it’s like, why are you here? But I encourage all women to listen to your gut, it doesn’t steer you wrong. And I feel like as women, we sometimes or a lot of times second guess what we think because of outside forces. But over these years, I’ve learned, especially through 4 lay-offs, in 5 years, that my voice never leads me wrong, what leads me wrong is going against it. So have faith in yourself, have the courage to believe in yourself, and for me, faith is a big thing. I’m not super religious, but my Christian faith means a lot to me, so I would encourage anyone, whatever your faith is, whatever you believe in, to lean strong in that and that will guide you through.

As I look back, I understand why every lay-off happened, why every bad situation happened, and how it led me here, and so now I encourage myself and others to realize that whatever you think is bad is actually for your good, and even if you don’t understand it now, soon you will. – That was beautiful. Oh my gosh. Couldn’t have said it better.

– Thank you! – So who are your biggest role models, and why?

– So, the first two that come to mind, and this may be cliche, but, one is my grandmother, she passed away in 2013 from Alzheimer’s, and kidney issues, but she was a single mom to 3 girls. By the time she was 24, my grandfather and her had broken up, all she had was high school. She ended up putting herself in Boston Business School, with 3 girls at home living in the projects in Boston, to graduate 2nd in her class. And then went on to work at State Street bank in Boston, for over 3 decades, and buy a 3 story home in Boston, which was home to her and many of my family members over the years. And then she continued, after her kids were grown, to take care of her whole family. She took in her sister when she had cancer, after her sister died she took in her sister’s grandkids cause their mom couldn’t take care of them.

And so, she’s always been a role model. I wear her ring every day and I look at her picture every day because I just want to make her proud. And the next would be, my mom, she was one of those 3 who grew up in the projects, and she was able to get into one of the top schools in Boston, Girl’s Latin, and then get a scholarship to Tufts University, and be the first black woman in their engineering program. It’s like, I’m surrounded, when I went to watch ‘Hidden Figures’, I was like, my mom is a hidden figure, she was a mechanical engineer in the 70s, at Tufts, one of the best schools in the country, and then when she started working at a nuclear plant, she went in with an afro this big.

And then lastly, I would say my dad. My dad was born in Haiti, and he was orphaned by the age of 8. My grandmother died in childbirth, and my grandfather died 2 years later of anaphylactic shock. He had skipped grades in his village in school, but when it came to high school in Puerto Prince, he couldn’t get in, his family didn’t have the money. So he worked as a buss boy at a local hotel with his aunt. A priest was visiting from the United States at this restaurant staying, and saw that my dad was smart. And worked with his aunt, my great-aunt, to bring him to the United States. So at 16, my dad came here as an orphan, to a country where he knew no one, and didn’t know the language, and lived in the room of the rectory of a church, in Harlem. He spent his first year learning English, and went to one of the best prep schools in the nation- Lincoln Prep. Then went on to get a full scholarship to Tufts, where he met my mom, and got his PhD from Uconn. And then spend the next 30 years as an at-risk student advisor at a college in the Polkmann’s. So, and then, him and my mom get together at Tufts with these stories, and I went to college, I had my MBA, my little went to WashU for undergrad and has his PhD from UVA, and so, those in my family are my role models. Cause I don’t think I could’ve done what the 3 of them did. And so every day, when things are hard, because being an entrepreneur is going to test you in ways you have no idea. I realized my story is easy, compared to those of my family. If they can do it, I know that I can.

– You’re surrounded by so many dedicated people, and they’re also strong, and you’re an inspiration to so many others that you don’t even know that, you know, will watch you in the future and be like, wow, she made it this far, she did this, and I think that’s beautiful. Thank you for being such an inspiration. So my next question is, do you have anything planned for the future, and are there any goals that you can share with us?

– So I mean I always have big grand plans, even though I’m a planner by nature when it comes to planning my life, I don’t do it as much. But I do, at least for my goals, at least for my business, is to get to the point where I have a team of planners that work for me, and I can have multiple events on the weekend. To have, 50 plus events a year, and to work with budgets of like, 100 thousand and above. So that’s like my ultimate, ultimate goal. Short term, one thing that I’m working on is, I’m planning to get my real estate license? Because I live in a beach town that’s very popular, weddings and buying homes go hand in hand, it’ll help with networking and getting my name out there, and the skills I used to sell myself as a wedding planner are the same skills I would need to sell a home. So that’s something I’m excited to work on in the summer, I always joke with Cho, because I live with my parents again while I’m building my business. So I own a house in Atlanta and I have a tenant, but when I moved to North Carolina, I was only supposed to be here for 3 months and move back to my house in Atlanta, and so one thing we joke about is, short term getting my business to the point where I can live on my own again? I always make jokes like, “I want to be a grown-up again.” my parents are like, you’re a landlord, you’re more of a grown-up than us. But that’s like a short-term goal and I love living with my parents because its just good to spend time with them but, I lived by myself for a really long time, so, I eventually, hopefully, want to be married myself and be a mother, so that’s another goal I have. I joke now “those who can marry those who can’t plan” to friends, but to be honest, some people might not see that as a goal, but family, as I’ve talked about so much here, is so important to me that, having my own is probably like my ultimate goal.

– Yah, that’s lovely. – Well, you are beautiful inside and out and you are an inspiration to many. – Thank you. – Thank you so much for sharing your story with us and I know that you will make a lot of people, you will be a motivation to a lot of people.

– Thank you so much! – Definitely. And then Mary, do you have any more questions for? – No, it was just great meeting with you. – Oh, thanks! – And I’m so proud of you! – Thank you, thank you. I was trying to hit stuff, I hope I wasn’t too long-winded. I am a talker. – No. – Okay. – You were amazing, so. – Okay. – Yah, you were inspirational, watching your journey.

– Thank you so much, and I mean Lovegevity, Cho, Mary, everybody’s been so awesome I’m like so happy cause I’ve researched all these schools and stuff I’m just so happy that I chose Longevity because the opportunities that have been afforded to me through the school have been amazing. I know I wouldn’t know David without it, you know, and Cho’s always looking for ways to help me grow my business and I don’t think many other school leaders would take that much time to really like talk and get to know their students, so, you guys are awesome at Lovegevity, and I’m a very very happy student, and I can’t wait to take another class, I want to do that event design next.

– Oh, that would be great, yah.

– Yah, yah, so I’m trying to like, this year I have more clients so I should be able to afford to take the class, but trying to get my business in a good place so I can take another class.

– Perfect, well let us know if we can do anything for you.

– Will do, thank you so much! – It was so nice meeting you.

– Nice meeting you too! And I truly am jealous of your surroundings.

– Hahaha, come join us. – Is that like, Lovegevity offices?

– Yes, it’s our studio.

– Oh yah, I need to work there. – Hahaha. – I need to visit. When I come to the West Coast, that needs to be my office. That is gorgeous, even though I feel like I would get something dirty. – I love it here, such a nice conference. – Yah, I’m like, so much white. I feel like a little kid sometimes around that kind of stuff. But it’s so pretty.

Well, thanks guys. – Thank you. Have a good day. – You too! Bye.

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