Richandra Nickerson-Ukpong of Fervent Designs: “When you work for someone else, your paycheck is your motivation”

When you work for someone else, your paycheck is your motivation. As the owner of a business, your motivations and your reasons why change over time. Some seasons, you do it for your family and sometimes you do it for your clients. Sometimes it’s pure freedom or the ability to do what you are passionate […]

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When you work for someone else, your paycheck is your motivation. As the owner of a business, your motivations and your reasons why change over time. Some seasons, you do it for your family and sometimes you do it for your clients. Sometimes it’s pure freedom or the ability to do what you are passionate about. Whatever the reason at that point in time, you know that you’re in control. You are able to set your own goals, playbook, and boundaries. You are not confined by the glass ceilings, requirements, and rules that you face when you work for someone else.

As a part of our series about entrepreneurs who transformed something they did for fun into a career, I had the pleasure of interviewing Richandra Nickerson-Ukpong.

Richandra Nickerson-Ukpong has been planning family parties since she was only eight years old. By the time she reached college, her lifelong passion quickly turned into a career and she became a professional event planner. After graduating, Richandra worked for a company that planned corporate events like government trainings, but she quickly realized that she wanted to shift her corporate focus to more creative projects. After a few years, she got engaged to a Nigerian man and found that she suddenly had to plan two weddings — an American and Nigerian wedding — all by herself. Now, she prioritizes education in her role as a wedding planner to fully inform her clients as to why things cost what they do. In doing so, her clients call her the “real deal” and she’s become one of the most sought after wedding planners in Houston, planning events everywhere from California to the Caribbean. Since the onset of the pandemic, Richandra went from planning anywhere from 20–30 events a year to only five in 2020. Cash flow has been a big issue for the business, but since taking to Facebook and Instagram to promote her business and being awarded funds through the Facebook Small Business Grant program, Richandra was able to pay her staff for event prep that they had already done and even contributed part of it to a scholarship through one of her favorite charities.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?

Since I was about 10 years old, I was my family’s dedicated party planner. I planned and designed the baby showers, birthday parties and even funerals. I could design on a dime. There was a running joke that I could plan events in my sleep. However, my first love was teaching, so I always wanted to be an educator. In college, I studied English and Psychology and my plan was to become a high school English teacher and then a counselor. In my junior year, I took an internship in the government sector of a global engineering company, that exposed me to a new side of teaching — adult education and training. This changed my life forever! I soon learned that my salary as an intern was higher than that of an experienced school teacher, so the choice was clear.

What was the catalyst from transforming your hobby or something you love into a business? Can you share the story of your “ah ha” moment with us?

Like most girls, I had been planning my dream wedding in my head for years. Reality quickly set in when my Mr. Right proposed. Since my sweetheart is Nigerian, I had to plan two weddings, the traditional Nigerian ceremony and the usual American wedding. Unfortunately, like many people, I couldn’t get my vision to match my budget, especially since we were having two weddings. Therefore, Plan B was quickly implemented: DIY (Do It Yourself). I designed nearly every element of both of my multicultural weddings. Shortly after my own wedding, once my friends and family found out that I had planned both of my weddings, people started booking me to plan their events. Eventually, I was handling corporate events during the week and flying back home on Fridays to host weddings and social events every weekend. My business truly built itself. I had no business plan, website, social media, nothing!

What advice would you give someone who has a hobby or pastime that they absolutely love but is reluctant to do it for a living?

Before going into business, learn everything there is to know about your ideal client and tailor your marketing to that client. That way, the customers who are not a good fit will weed themselves out. This will save you so much time and heartache. In my opinion, the ideal client is someone who is attracted to you because of YOU. They want to work with you, especially in a service-based business. The ideal client will HIRE you because they like you. So, be yourself! Knowing your ideal client is key to successfully building your business clientele.

It’s said that the quickest way to take the fun out of doing something is to do it for a living. How do you keep from changing something you love into something you dread? How do you keep it fresh and enjoyable?

As an entrepreneur, I’m very intentional about how I spend my time. If I’m not intentional, I’ll burn out which is why I’m a huge proponent of maintaining a healthy work-life balance. Today, I still travel a lot with Fervent Design, but now it’s on my own terms. As a wedding planner, I get to visit beautiful places all over the world and the beach is my happy place, so when I’m hired to plan a beach wedding, it is a win-win for all. For instance, when I’m on business trips and at destination weddings, I always carve out a few hours or a day of fun and relaxation for my team. This can include activities, such as, massages, dinner, pool time, sleep and even excursions with our couples and their families. This gives us time to relax, unwind and enjoy the trip. Also at every wedding, I try to make it a point to share at least one dance with my bride, groom or both. We work hard so that we can play harder, and at my company, we purposely mix business and pleasure.

What is it that you enjoy most about running your own business? What are the downsides of running your own business? Can you share what you did to overcome these drawbacks?

The best thing about being an entrepreneur is being able to choose my clients and make my own schedule. The weddings and events that I create are full of love and joy, so I feel that my work today means even more. Most importantly, as a social event planner and boss, I get to choose the events I work at, as well as, the clients. I’m able to schedule my week around my personal calendar. I’m grateful to be able to homeschool my youngest daughter with ease.

The hardest thing about being an entrepreneur is that you do not have a steady paycheck coming in. If you don’t work, you don’t eat! The work is constant and fast-paced. Luckily, I’m a busy-body at heart, so I wouldn’t change it for the world. When the going gets tough, I always remember that I get to use my talents and expertise to create memories that last a lifetime for families week after week.

Can you share what was the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?

I honestly thought that I wouldn’t be a good wedding planner because I felt that my blunt, matter-of-fact tone would clash with my clients. However, 95% of my couples love this about me. I refuse to coddle my clients or my team. Instead, I always tell them the truth. I educate them and I hold them accountable for their decisions. I strive to make things personal and personalized. As a result, my couples and teammates have all coined new nicknames and catchphrases for me. Since we get 50% of our clientele from referrals, we must be doing something right. My brand was built around me, my personality, and my core values.

Additionally, I never imagined the amount of marketing the business requires. I literally thought that I was getting away from the cameras when I left corporate only to run into the social media-crazed world that we are living in today. Luckily, I’ve been taking advantage of the free tools out there to help me bolster my business’ social media presence. We use Facebook and Instagram for so much of my business because it brings exposure for my brand and it brings in more bookings than with traditional marketing. We’ve also used the platform to help us during the pandemic. When I started my business, I definitely did not plan for the realities of 2020! I was able to receive the Facebook for Small Business Grant to help me with the overhead costs of running a business during COVID.

Has there ever been a moment when you thought to yourself “I can’t take it anymore, I’m going to get a “real” job? If so, how did you overcome it?

I realize all the newfound freedom that I would be giving up and I quickly snap out of it!

When you work for someone else, your paycheck is your motivation. As the owner of a business, your motivations and your reasons why change over time. Some seasons, you do it for your family and sometimes you do it for your clients. Sometimes it’s pure freedom or the ability to do what you are passionate about. Whatever the reason at that point in time, you know that you’re in control. You are able to set your own goals, playbook, and boundaries. You are not confined by the glass ceilings, requirements, and rules that you face when you work for someone else.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

One of my passion projects is the Fervent Designs internship program, where we partner with local colleges and universities to provide hands-on learning experiences centered around hospitality, business, and marketing. When creating this program, I turned to my HR background and incorporated my favorite parts of the intern and leadership programs that I previously managed at billion-dollar companies. Then I put my own spin on it. This formal intern program provides on-the-job training, college credit, and business experience to college students. I train the interns myself and get to watch as they become self-sufficient and learn how to conduct business the Fervent Designs way. Some former interns have gone on to create their own businesses, while others have graduated and now work in their respective fields where they can apply what they learned at Fervent Designs.

What person wouldn’t want to work doing something they absolutely love. You are an incredible inspiration to a great many people. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

I feel like the whole world is a really big melting pot, and it pleases me to see so many bi-racial and multicultural families in our world today. We specialize in progressive, multicultural and fusion weddings, which promote inclusion and showcase the diversity of the cultures that make up our couples and their families. At Fervent Designs, we help create weddings that tell the couples’ unique stories while showcasing their families’ traditions and illustrating the inclusivity of the unions. A wedding is the fusion of two families, but sometimes, it’s hard for couples to work through these differences. If I could, I would plan a year full of multicultural weddings, record the footage and do a documentary on how to successfully combine the various cultures and traditions.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

One of my all-time favorite living legends is Tyler Perry, world-renowned creative entrepreneur. He’s an inspiration to so many people. Though he started with nearly nothing, Mr. Perry is now one of the highest-grossing people in the entertainment industry. He didn’t let his small beginnings deter him. I love how he continuously pours into others and works to prove that the color of one’s skin does not dictate their abilities. When he saw a shortcoming in the world, he was not afraid to do something about it. Tyler Perry has created his own platform to uplift those in the black community and other underserved groups who are not often afforded equal opportunities. I’ll never forget watching him speak at the Essence Festival. As he left the stage, I tried to hold my composure when he walked just steps away. I’ve always dreamt of collaborating with Tyler Perry on an event or designing for one of his movies.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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