Photos: Cynthia Daniels
It’s nearly 6 on a Monday evening and one by one, they’re arriving, gliding down the escalator of the Hilton into the
maze of ballrooms. There are hugs and handshakes, but for the most part, everyone is ready to get to the business. This is the team that’s a few weeks out from executing the second annual Top 40 Under 40 Urban Elite Professionals Awards Gala and After Party on November 18th.
The black-tie event conceptualized by Cynthia Daniels was held at Opera Memphis last year. The response was overwhelmingly positive, necessitating a move to a larger venue and some tweaks to the formula.
In their production meeting, they go over lessons learned from last year’s gala, stage size, the lighting plan, A/V specs, the greenroom for this year’s honorees, the logistics of dinner for 700 people, how they’ll bring basic ballrooms to life and deliver the “wow” factor from the moment that guests walk in. It’s efficient and, throughout, there’s a calm and confidence that you only find where there’s deep trust. Cynthia has been known to say that everyone needs a team. This is what it looks like to be in the sweet spot with people who share your vision.
It’s been about nine months since Cynthia left her full-time job to start her own business consulting and event planning. The founder of Memphis Black Restaurant Week had already proven herself many times over, perceiving gaps in the city’s social scene, delivering on those needs with style, and building a loyal audience.
In our Q&A below, Cynthia shares how she balances her many signature events along with boosting the profile of her clients’ events, the value of relationships for entrepreneurs, and what she has learned while building Cynthia Daniels & Co.
Can you tell us about the team that you’re working with for Top 40?
It’s important that I include fellow entrepreneurs as much as I can with my events. Jonathan Ealy of JEaly Designs is an amazing lighting designer and he added the perfect elements during my inaugural gala at Opera Memphis. He treated my event as if it were his own and from there on it was important for me to hire him for future projects. Antwone Stigall has an extensive background in event management & production so he acts as my Executive Producer to handle everything behind the scenes.
What are your days are like now that you work for yourself?
I usually wake up around 6:00am to enjoy an hour of silence and it allows me time to think through my day. Immediately afterwards, I check my emails and voicemails to ensure that I follow up with clients within 24 hours. I typically take client meetings before 1:00pm, as I feel it’s when I’m most productive. Plus it allows me to move around Memphis without hectic traffic.
After 1:00pm, I switch gears to work on my signature events. Right now, since I’m working on Top 40 Under 40 Urban Elite Professionals awards gala, I’m reviewing seating assignments for 700 attendees, swag bag details, table décor and finalizing the production schedule. My days tend to wrap up at 4:00pm. This gives me enough time to make it to the gym before it’s crowded and home for dinner by 6:00pm. To prevent burnout, I take time to relax Friday-Sunday. I learned to create that schedule the hard way during my first month of owning my business. I was walking around frazzled, drinking crazy amounts of coffee and crashed daily.
Now that I’m 9 months into entrepreneurship, I’ve learned how to balance it all and enjoy a better quality of life.
To build the following that you have, that takes some major relationship building and maintenance. How do you manage to keep track of and support so many people and make so many people feel known?
Relationship building is so important to entrepreneurs and in Memphis, you have to let people know how much you appreciate their support! I make it a point at all of my events to speak to people and let them know personally that they are invaluable to my success. Social media is the biggest reason I’m able to stay connected to additional followers and I get to interact with them almost on a daily basis. From time to time, I’ll inbox a few people just to say thank you for supporting my brand. It’s the little things that keep you connected.
When you moved here from Atlanta, were there gaps in service to black young professionals that you noticed? What void were you inspired to fill with the events that you founded?
Coming from Atlanta, I felt that Memphis was lacking a cool social scene for black young professionals. There was more to life than clubbing and hanging out late nights when you’re in your late 20’s to early 30’s. In 2014, I had a vision to create a platform that inspired young leaders and aspiring entrepreneurs, never even thinking that one day I would work for myself. It all started with my relationship with J.W. Gibson, CEO of Gibson Companies. We met through a community service project and from time to time, he would advise me on opportunities in the city for young leaders. One day it hit me that other young professionals would benefit from hearing his honest dialogue and I launched “Dinner with a CEO Series” in Fall 2014. It was a big hit and every month I hosted an intimate group of young professionals and put them in front of CEO’s that were very transparent and gave them amazing life advice. During that time, I also ventured into creating social mixers, branding workshops and by 2015, I saw the need to promote more black business to young professionals which led into the ideation of Memphis Black Restaurant Week.
You proudly identify yourself as a Memphian by choice. When did you realize this had become home?
I fell in love with Memphis in 2012 after living here for almost 3 years. It was the year I discovered The Memphis Flyer and it became my roadmap to the city. Every week, [through the Flyer] I challenged myself to get out of my comfort zone to meet new people and attend 3 events around the city. It was then that I realized Memphis had so many hidden jewels and cool festivals.