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Jeannie Uyanik On Modern Wedding Planning And Catering To Ambitious Brides

People

Weddings require enough organizing to daunt even the most competent of planners, and many modern day women just don’t have the time to put their everything into wedding prep. With full-time jobs, classes, and other commitments to manage, they’ve got more than a venue, dream dress, and floral arrangement to worry about. This is where professional planners come in, Founder of C&G Weddings, Jeannie Uyanik, being the best of the best.


An elaborate reception at Cipriani 42nd Street by Jeannie Uyanik

Before founding her firm, Uyanik founded true love with her own sweetheart, Alpert Uyanik. She recalls meeting him in Turkey, though a bit of memory mix-up is involved as he thinks they met in Turkey three months earlier than she does. Regardless of when the couple actually first met, their blossoming romance led them to an engagement and the need to plan one of the biggest days of their lives. “I was supposed to be planning my wedding while getting my MBA [in finance], and I didn’t want to do anything,” she admits. “I hadn’t dreamt about my dress or my wedding. I wanted something fun and beautiful and breathtaking, but I didn’t care about anything else.” Uyanik decided to get in touch with three major wedding planners at that time and was left sorely disappointed. Rather than speaking directly to Uyanik about the financial side of wedding planning, they skirted around that topic, saving it for her mother. “What I wanted to say to this women in 1999 when I was sitting in her office was ‘I am here, I have a right to be here, and I have a right to be spoken to’—this isn’t the ‘let the parents plan your wedding’ generation anymore.”

Uyanik’s firm’s name originally was Cap and Gown Weddings, to “reflect women getting graduate degrees,” since Uyanik herself was in the thick of that arduous process when she tied the knot. It has since been shortened to C&G Weddings, but carries the same meaning.

I would say the key to our success is referral. We don’t advertise, we don’t do marketing—it’s all word of mouth, both from vendors and venues to clients.”

The wedding guru, Jeannie Uyanik

Although referral is now C&G’s recipe for success, when they first got off the ground, they had no one to refer them, leaving them with planning pro bono as their sole option. “Starting a wedding business doesn’t require capital,” she explains. “It started out in my apartment, we were all willing to not get paid—I was in finance doing well for a pretty young kid and I had a great job. The opportunity cost was fun for a month or two.” The fun wore off and difficulties emerged, Uyanik turning to Google Adwords to obtain clients for a while. When the client pool was shallow, she did not sit around and wait for opportunities to come knocking on her door, she put in the work. “I went everywhere, I met everyone, I saw every venue there was,” she says. “I spent a year—when bridal magazines like New York Wedding were critical—going through every page, pulling the ads, reading the backs...it was gorilla bridal warfare 101.” Now her company can do 35-85 weddings in a mere year—an extraordinary leap, made possible because of Uyanik’s unyielding determination.

When it comes to acquiring clientele, Uyanik does not take the modern approach of promoting via the social media platforms that have saturated our society. “I don’t have any social media presence,” she reveals. “This morning before 9am I talked to seven clients. I don’t have time to take pictures, but poll any of my forty clients and they’ll tell you I’m always five minutes away.” Uyanik believes a larger firm could effectively utilize social media because they’d have the ability to hire people for that purpose alone, but much of the wedding content posted online seems “superfluous” and “vapid,” which Uyanik does not wish to contribute to.

“A lot of my company and the trajectories we’ve made as a firm are based on how I wanted to be a mom. I don’t know how I did it, I think part of it is that, I can only speak as an entrepreneur in a sense, and when I started out I never really thought of myself as one, the one commonality is that you will not accept failure. You will not accept giving up and there’s always a way to make something work. And also, get over it. People have done harder things.”

As far as the evolution of the wedding industry itself, Uyanik recognizes a few notable changes that occurred over her 20 years in the business, one being financial. In this day and age, weddings are often extravaganzas marked by dollar signs and fancy destinations. “I'm fascinated by the fact that if you look back in the 1950s, 95% of people did not hire a florist,” she says. “The idea of hiring a florist was ridiculous. Most people were putting together weddings that were small and intimate. So this whole wedding industry really didn't get its game on until the 80s and I mean, we're not talking about $100,000 anymore we're talking about hundreds of hundreds of thousands of dollars.” Uyanik has also noticed a shift back to moms being engaged in the process of wedding planning. “When I was getting married, women were starting to really be busy, and a lot of them had moms who worked,” she says. “20 years later, what I'm seeing is a little bit different. A lot of moms aren't working and their daughters are insanely busy in a very different way. So you're seeing a return to parents being super super involved and I think that's generational. Doing everything and wanting the kids to be happy.”

So how does Uyanik feel about working with not only brides, but with their mothers? She loves it, describing it as a “joy” and a “pleasure.” If they are reasonable and genuinely want her advice, she is happy as a clam to help out.

What gives her an edge is her honesty when it comes to planning the wedding that will be uniquely perfect for a particular bride. She speaks to her clients as she’d want to be spoken to, raising red flags when she sees them instead of turning a blind eye and hoping they don’t regret their decisions the day of. “Sometimes I say things that throw people off,” she admits. “‘I'm not sure this makes sense for you, but…’” With honesty comes trust, Uyanik of the belief that chemistry with her clients is paramount—nearly 20 years of experience has taught her that.

“I had a conversation with the mother of the bride this morning. Who, when she first hired me she said, ‘I've thrown all three of my kids Bar Mitzvahs, I throw parties all the time. I really don't need this, but I have a busy year coming up.’ I love this woman because she trusts me. So even though she has all her own ideas, when I say stop you need to listen to me for a second, she not only listens, she thinks about it. I love her because she's someone who is willing to release control.”

A typical week for Uyanik doesn’t exist, her schedule ever-changing due to her inability to control how many new clients will show interest in her firm. When a sea of prospective clients rushes in to inundate Uyanik, her day(s) get a little more hectic. “[Prospective clients] want to move fast,” she explains. “They want information fast—either they have been just engaged and they're really excited, or they're terrified that they've been engaged for a month and it's too late now.” Uyanik has to move swiftly, as her firm’s policy promises a proposal sent out to prospective clients within 24 business hours of the request. “I started [the policy] when I had zero children and no clients, and that seemed like a great idea...people loved it,” she says. “Now I wish I could take that back, but I'm not going to. It's great because usually if someone's going hire us, they hire us pretty quickly.”

Not everything can be picture perfect. Uyanik remembers when things went sideways because of a catering company hiring a new chef, but luckily crisis was averted thanks to Uyanik. “Frankly, I think that that is a testament to my involvement because I'm playing a very big role in making sure that the expectations are managed,” she notes. “I know exactly what I’m dealing with within 20 minutes of talking to someone. If someone tells me they want it to be really elegant and simple, that tells me 5,000 things.”

Bringing brides the memorable weddings they deserve is not all Uyanik does, she supports her husband in his spontaneous food ventures as well. “My husband was on a walkabout—he’s literally obsessed with the neighborhood—I have never walked about in my life, I don’t have time. I'm hosting Labor Day Monday and he comes in and says, ‘Hey guys, there's a wood-burning oven that's beautiful in a store for rent on 116th.’” Upon first opening the businesses in Harlem, about four years ago, Uyanik and her husband had found themselves in a neighborhood devoid of great pizza—a NY staple. The oven that caught Uyanik’s husband’s eye was like golden treasure, spurring him into suggesting they open up their own pizza place with the help of an experienced executive chef who previously worked at esteemed restaurants such as Nobu. And that’s how Harlem Pizza Co. was born, to be followed by a burger joint called Harlem Burger Co, both satiating customers’ comfort-food cravings.

From planning weddings and running restaurants to raising kids and doling out wedding-planning wisdom with her radio show “The Event Jeannie,” Uyanik has proven herself to be an inimitable woman with a work ethic that should be emulated. If you have a wedding to plan, who you gonna call? C&G Weddings!

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Dear VCs: Making Pledges Won't Close The Funding Gap

Amid the mainstream conversation about inclusion and justice in the workplace, otherwise known as #MeToo, a Silicon Valley venture capital fund considered how they can be more inclusive of the women, minority, and LGBTQ entrepreneurial communities.

Their solution? Ask the CEOs they currently fund to promise to hire senior-level employees from diverse backgrounds.


Lightspeed Venture Partners, a venture capital fund that has investments with blockbuster startups such as The Honest Company, Affirm, and HQ Trivia, has asked its portfolio company CEOs to sign a “side letter" affirming their commitment to consider women and other underrepresented groups for senior jobs and new spots on their board of directors.

Can making pledges— or even hiring a C-Suite level employee to manage diversity efforts— really make an impact on the funding gap for multicultural women-led companies?

Many experts say it's going to take systemic change, not letters of intent.

It is well reported that the amount of investment going to multicultural women-led companies is incongruous to the entrepreneurial landscape and the performance of their businesses. Between 2007 and 2016, there was an increase of 2.8 million companies owned by women of color. Nearly eight out of every 10 new women-owned firms launched since 2007 has been started by a woman of color yet, these businesses receive an abysmal 0.2 percent of all funding. Amanda Johnson and KJ Miller, founders of Mented cosmetics, were just the 15th and 16th Black women in history to raise $1M in the fall of 2017.

The multicultural women who do defeat the odds to get funded receive significantly less than male founders. The average startup founded by a Black woman raises only $36,000 in venture funding, while the average failed startup founded by a White man raises $1.3M before going out of business.

The implicit and explicit bias not only impacts individual multicultural female founders, it could be stifling innovation. For example, companies with above-average diversity on their management teams reported innovation revenue as 45 percent of total revenue compared to just 26 percent of total revenue at companies with below-average management diversity. That means nearly half the revenue of companies with more diverse leadership comes from products and services launched in the past three years.

In our economy today, venture capital is responsible for funding the work of our most innovative companies. Venture capital-backed U.S. companies include some of the most innovative companies in the world. In 2013, VC-backed companies account for a 42 percent of the R&D spending by U.S. public companies.

With a wealth of multicultural women entrepreneurs and evidence to support the performance of diverse companies, why does this funding gap persist?

According to Kristin Hull, founder of Oakland-based Nia Impact Capital and Nia Community, many traditional investors consider women or minority-led businesses as a category in their portfolio, like gaming tech or consumer packaged good. Hull, who focuses on building portfolios where financial returns and social impact work hand-in-hand, argues gender and ethnicity are not a business category and investors who dedicate a specific percent of their portfolio to diverse companies are the ones missing out.

“We are doing this backwards," says Hull. “Adding diverse, women-run companies actually de-risks an investment portfolio."

Hull points to research that has found women are more likely to seek outside help when a company is headed for trouble and operate businesses with less debt on average. What's more, a study conducted by First Round Capital concluded that founding teams including a woman outperform their all-male peers by 63 percent.

Ximena Hardstock, a 43-year-old immigrant from Chile experienced this bias first hand before she raised $5.1M for her tech startup. “How do you get an investor to notice you and take you seriously?" says Hardstock. “White men from Harvard have a track record and investors are all looking for entrepreneurs that fit the Zuckerberg mold. But a woman from Chile with an accent who started a technology company? There is no track record for that and this is a problem so many women of color face."

Hardstock came to the U.S. from the suburbs of Santiago when she was just 20-years-old. Alone with no family or connections in the U.S., Hardstock worked as a cleaning lady, a bartender, and a nanny before she began teaching and working in education. “I had a lot of ideas and Chile is still a very conservative country," she says. “Most women become housewives but I wanted to do something different. So, I moved to the U.S."

Hardstock went on to earn a Ph.D. in policy studies, served as vice president of Advocacy for National StudentsFirst and worked as a member of Washington DC mayor Adrian Fenty's cabinet. Her experience working in both education and government exposed her to a need to simplify the process of connecting lawmakers with their constituents. As a result, Hardstock founded Phone2Action, a digital advocacy company that enables organizations and individual citizens to connect with policymakers via email, Twitter, Alexa and Facebook using their mobile phones.

Because venture capital and private equity are not necessarily meritocracies, Hardstock initially struggled to get in an audience with the right investors despite her company's growth potential, her experience, and her education. In fact, it wasn't until she won a competition at SXSW in 2015 that she could get an audience with a serious venture capitalist.

While it may seem like symptoms of a bygone era, both Hardstock and Hull say the path to investor relationships is forged in places where many women of diverse backgrounds are not – ivy league organizations, golf courses and late night post-board meeting cocktails attended mostly by White men of means.

The history of venture capital has never been very balanced, according to Aubrey Blanche, global head of diversity at Atlassian software development company and co-founder of Sycamore, an organization aiming to fix the VC funding gap for underrepresented founders. “White and Asian men have built the venture system and for generations have been seeking out people like themselves to invest in."

Personal and professional networks are critical for founders to connect with investors, but many multicultural women don't have access to the networks their White peers have. According to a study conducted by PRRI, the average White person has one friend who is Black, Latino, Asian, mixed race, and other races. This common situation makes getting that all important warm introduction to established VCs very challenging for multicultural women founders.

“Is the ecosystem of your network equivalent to your net worth? Absolutely," says Hardstock. “For us, we have to build our own ecosystem and recreate what happens on the golf courses and at the Harvard reunions."

To Hardstock's point, most multicultural women with entrepreneurial aspirations lack that Ivy League network. According to reporting published in The New York Times, Black students make up just nine percent of the freshmen at Ivy League schools but 15 percent of college-age Americans. This gap has been largely unchanged since 1980.

While notable female investors such as Arlan Hamilton, Joanne Wilson, and Kathryn Finney are actively working to close the funding gap for women of color, only seven percent of current senior investing partners at the top 100 venture firms are women. Less than three percent of VC funds have Black and Latinx investment partners. Without an influential network, Hardstock and entrepreneurs like her are left screaming for a seat at the table.

When Black, Latina, and Asian women founders do get in the room with the right investors, they have to work harder to get the investors to relate to their products and services. “Entrepreneurs solve problems they understand," says Blanche. “When multicultural women entrepreneurs present their businesses to a homogenous group of male investors who may not be equipped to understand the idea, they may pass on an amazing business."

Take, for example, the founders of Haute Hijab or LOLA. Founders of both successful startups would have to explain the market for their services to a table occupied mostly by men who may never have considered that Muslim women want more convenient access to fashion and have never considered women might prefer to purchase organic tampons.

This lack of familiarity typically means reduced funding for women and a host of other consequences.

As one recent study pointed out, even the way investors frame questions to women can impact funding. According to the Harvard Business Review, female founders are often asked “prevention-oriented" questions focused on safety, responsibility, security, and vigilance. Male founders, on the other hand, are often asked questions focused on hopes, achievement, advancement, and ideals.

When all of these factors are considered, a side letter may not be enough to begin to close the funding gap.

Both Blanche and Hull say real change can be made by democratizing information and education on impact investing. Both women say educating investors and MBA candidates about impact investing is the best way to overcome current bias.

Blanche's organization, Sycamore, produces a newsletter for new angel investors who want to help close the funding gap while making money in the process. Hull's firm has an internship program for multicultural girls from Oakland to expose them to the worlds of investing, entrepreneurship, business leadership, and financial literacy.

“I'm excited about the changes I see," says Blanche. “I see more firm employing the Rooney Law on an institutional level, an increase in smaller firms looking at underserved communities, and the democratization of institutional funding."

Hull adds that as long as multi-cultural women-led firms continue to show returns and outperform or perform on par with companies founded by White men, the investor community will rethink their portfolio strategies.


This piece was originally published in 2018.