Whether it was starting her own car wash as a youth or starting her own multi-million dollar company fifteen years ago, Jennifer Collins has entrepreneurial spirit in spades. As President and Chief Executive Officer for The Event Planning Group, LLC, Jennifer has led the company to create its own niche in the event planning industry. The Event Planning Group will not only handle the myriad logistics involved in small and large meetings and conferences, but they will focus on the intricate needs of each client.
Jennifer explains, “It’s more than just helping them with logistics. It’s really helping them to use their meeting or conference as a vehicle to speak to and reach their target audience. We find a way for these conferences and meetings to really help drive our client’s particular message.”
Jennifer started the company in 1997, working it part-time while still working full-time at public relations firms. Primarily planning social events, Jennifer quickly realized that she preferred arranging business meetings and events.
“I started out planning weddings and anniversaries, and I just decided that they really were not where I wanted to spend my time. So this helped me to get out and do the business on a part-time basis so that, when I went full-time, I knew I wanted to shift and do more business-oriented meetings and conferences.”
Jennifer grew up in Boston, Massachusetts, the youngest of three girls, with a family that taught her the value of saving and planning for the things she wanted to have.
“That was a different time, in the sense that, we saved for things then. Whether it was a Barbie doll or some other toy or something else, I was taught I had to save for it. I think it’s funny now when you see commercials that say, ‘layaway is back’. I always think, ‘I grew up on layaway’. We paid as we went and then we didn’t have any outstanding debt.”
Jennifer also learned the importance of free enterprise and finding ways to bring in money on her own, which was the impetus for starting her own car wash business.
“I had to start the car wash; I just had it in me. I wanted to make a little money and I figured we were always washing cars in the summer so why not try to get some money that I could have in my pocket. I figured this could really help my allowance; that was really the concept at the time.”
Jennifer’s dedication to her clients and targeted approach was reflected even at such a young age. Offering several specialty services, such as vacuuming and tire cleaning, at an additional cost, it is easy to see the Jennifer was on a path to success from the beginning.
As she got older, Jennifer became very active in student government and leadership, serving as the class president for all four years of high school.
“I was very active during that time and didn’t really have a lot of time to do other things. I was a leader from the very beginning and student government really positioned me for that. It helped me become familiar and comfortable with being in positions of leadership as well as with public speaking. Even in high school we had to run campaigns, put up signs, and deliver speeches. We had ballots and voting. We had to do all of it.”
Jennifer’s many years as class president, being an integral part of the governing body of the school, instilled a deep-seated passion for politics and communications. When she graduated, Jennifer attended The American University in Washington, DC, with the intent to major in Political Science, but things changed once she began taking classes.
“I thought I wanted to become an attorney and when I went to American University my major was going to be political science. But they also have a major at American called CLEG, which is communications, law, economics, and government, and I decided to shift to that because I like economics and I liked law. But as I spent more time in Washington, that’s what helped to steer me away from wanting to become an attorney because I developed a bad taste for the governing process and what was happening on the Hill. So I decided that really wasn’t for me.”
Though the legal processes of government weren’t Jennifer’s cup of tea, she focused on the communications aspect of influencing policy and government, in which she had always excelled.
“I still wanted to shape, form, or impact the public in some way, so I moved into communications because I figured that there was still influence on public communication and programming, and public relations; being able to have a message and shape the message so that people can receive it.”
During college, Jennifer interned at a public relations firm working on fire safety issues and after graduation, due to her reputation for being able to handle the heavy workload and do extremely well with it, she was hired full-time. After a year, Jennifer took what she learned at this firm and transitioned to another firm focused on infant mortality and then to a non-profit focused on preventing childhood injuries.
“I wanted to work with the media, because working with the media meant you had influence and would be able to shape your message and have them tell your story. Many of the programs I worked on were focused on public education and they were good topics that I felt would really make a difference. I felt like I was still working on the issues.”
It was during this time that Jennifer began thinking about starting her own business but she wanted to broaden her skill-base before stepping out on her own.
“I had the thought that I wanted to do my own business, I just didn’t know what it was going to be. And so I specifically went to my last full-time position to get some project management and budgeting skills. After a few years, I launched on my own.”
When deciding which direction to focus her business, Jennifer recalled her time planning her family’s reunions while in college. This is where the seeds were planted for The Event Planning Group.
“I planned my family reunions when I was in college and that’s what really helped me to work with logistics and understand what it meant to create an event. We hosted a reunion in Philadelphia, two in Washington, and one in Boston as well.”
Unfortunately, disaster struck. Within two months after stepping out to work her business full-time, the 9/11 attacks occurred and the one client that Jennifer had, dropped out.
“I was trying to decide what to do because I didn’t have any more business and I had left my job and wasn’t going to return. I had family in Atlanta and I figured that if I was going to start over, that I should do it somewhere different. So, I figured I would go there and get another public relations job.”
But upon arriving in “the wildness”, as Jennifer refers to her time in Atlanta, she realized that her journey was about much more than just her business.
“What was happening to me in Atlanta was about God building in me a stronger faith foundation. It was a foundation of me being shaped to become a Born-Again Christian and to really look to my faith to give me guidance and direction. Being in Atlanta separated me from the noise, people, and family and it was just me alone with God. And so that helped me to build up my faith and to trust that it was okay for me to do the business. That’s when I returned to Washington DC because when I surrendered and said, ‘Okay, whatever it is God, that you want me to do with my life I will do it.” After that things just started to open up for me and opportunities started to come. But all the opportunities were back in this area. So, it was a period of six months that I was in Atlanta and I came back very focused, and that’s when opportunities and doors started to open and business started to come. That was really a defining moment in my life.”
Today, The Event Planning Group remains purposefully small, with just under ten full-time employees and bringing in annual revenue just under $5 million. Focused on growth for the next few years, Jennifer is taking a cautious, methodical approach.
“We are under ten employees, so we’re small still, but it’s by design. I’m now in a mindset to grow, but it was so hard coming back from the loss of 9/11 that I’ve been very cautious about how to grow and not spend more than we have and to still be able to manage.”
Jennifer has had several mentors along the way, guiding her through, from her parents and friends to colleagues and other business executives, but she attributes the most influence to her family.
“My parents and one of my sisters have really impacted my life and my dad was very much on board when I was leaving my job. He was just like, ‘Go for it!’ but my mother was like, ‘Are you sure you want to do that?’ She was the one that was nervous for me. And then what happened over time is my mother totally shifted, and she really got on board as things started to progress and take shape. My parents have always been in my court and my sister as well. She would always be there to listen and provide some insight. She has worked for big companies the whole time and so she has that big corporate perspective and I pick her brain about processes and procedures. It has been so very helpful in the sense of giving me an idea of how they do things in bigger companies, which is funny because sometimes it’s really not that much different than how we do it in small companies, they just have more people.”
Jennifer has not only been mentored but she has begun mentoring others as well. Sharing her business and life lessons through guest lecturing at American University and speaking to women business owners, Jennifer is ensuring that her message is passed on for others to share as well.
In addition to speaking at American University, Jennifer also donates to the school, recently committing to a five year gift for their School of Communications where the new Office of Public Communications will bear her name.
“I think about when I’m gone and what people are going to say. I would like people to say that whatever I was given, I did my best at it and took care of it. That I did the best that I could.”
Despite moving away from politics in her business, Jennifer still has a desire to influence policy which has spawned her newly voiced aspiration to run for local office.
“A long time ago I started paying attention to the political races or what the candidates were saying and doing. That’s why it’s interesting to me now when you hear people complaining about Congress. I say to myself, ‘Well, the candidates that were voted in were voted in by the people. So we really shouldn’t be surprised about what’s happening because they’re just doing what they said they were going to do.’ I think people need to pay more attention to their votes and that’s what I tend to do and try to look at who I’m voting for. I try to see if I could make a difference. Now, I’m thinking about certain baby steps that I can do to make a difference. I’m going to start going to city council meetings so that I can see how they’re run and who’s on them; to see if it’s something that I might be able to help with in some way. Starting there and maybe moving up to a mayoral race. It’s something that I might consider. It comes across my mind every now and then.”
With satisfied customers and having built great relationships, it is no surprise that Jennifer Collins and The Event Planning Group have reached their current level of success, with a positive forecast for expansion and growth. Planting her entrepreneurial seeds so early in life, watering them with a contentious and methodical plan, and allowing the light from God to shine down upon them have yielded a path to success that we all can aspire to. There can be no doubt that Jennifer Collins is on a leadership track that will ensure that she will come across the minds of thousands of constituents – her own.