Young fem-leaders Thelma Barnett & Jennifer Coles: On creating artfully elevated experiences

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In a city bustling with dignitaries and grand events, Jennifer Coles and Thelma Barnett are event planners who are making a vivid impression on the Washington DC event and wedding planning scene. Their company ‘Infatuating Affairs’ is making a name for itself by merging fine art and luxe style weddings, a combination that is both striking and enchanting.

Thelma Barnett (L) & Jennifer Coles (R), Owners of Infatuating Affairs- (Photo/Infatuating Affairs)

Coles and Barnett come from two different professional realms, but their distinct love for creating captivating events and wedding experiences brought them together, which they believe has given them an edge in the wedding planning industry. In addition to wedding planning, Coles works as a trademark and intellectual property paralegal and Barnett writes grants and handles sponsorship and fundraising as a corporate relations specialist at the American Society of Hematology.

Originally from Sierra Leone, West Africa, Thelma has been obsessed with weddings since the age of 8 stating,

“I knew at some point I would want to dabble in wedding planning. I love the experience, the intimacy, to see that love at the moment with that couple, the expression on their face, the words that they say to each other, and then having families around them and supporting them. In the moment, you feel so overwhelmingly loved. To experience that at almost every possible time in your life, is the best feeling.”

Thelma Barnett (L) & Jennifer Coles (R)- (Photo/Infatuating Affairs)

Born and raised in Columbia, Maryland, Jennifer is a self-described “social butterfly, creative and planner of all sorts of random things.” She discovered her passion for weddings much later and mostly ignited by her wedding planning, as she recounts, “Truthfully I was planning my wedding probably three years before I even got proposed to but that was an opportunity to make something from the ground up and create it and make it pretty. I was so into little details, and obsessive. I realized how much I loved designing and coupled with the whole experience, it was amazing. I knew that it would be a catalyst to event planning. I knew that this would be people’s first frame of reference for anything that I do after that. It was the first piece to my portfolio.”

“I always knew I wanted to be my own boss. I have family members that were entrepreneurs.”

Jennifer’s knack for artistry and creativity made it much easier to explore her budding passion for event planning, as she notes “I didn’t know that I wanted to do weddings but I always was an artist at heart. When I was younger, I loved to draw. I really enjoyed painting and bringing something alive visually. I like gathering people for a good time, sharing love and conversation. I’m obsessed with making things pretty, secretly. I’ve always loved interior designing.

Jennifer Coles (L) & Thelma Barnett (R) create artfully elevated experiences- (Photo/Infatuating Affairs)

Coles and Barnett had a candid conversation with me about balancing business and family, and making couples’ vision come to life on their special day.

What motivated you to start your own business?

Thelma: I had the opportunity to work for a company, H.J. Planners for almost two years. Through them, I developed many relationships with vendors in the area and knew that it was time to get my business started. Then I met Jennifer and we developed a relationship because she wanted me to be her “day of planner” {for her wedding} and in that experience, I got to see her strengths. Her strengths were my weaknesses. I’m good with logistics, research and organization, and she is the creative queen. She comes up with the color scheme, flowers and innovative ideas. I asked her if we could partner up. It was organic.

“We had the same ideas and the same taste, we were on the same page on how to handle things, what we think are good ideas. We meet in the middle, it’s a good partnership. It’s a lot of compromising and listening to each other’s ideas. There is no way I could have been able to do this by myself, so having a partner is amazing. It’s the two of us and it makes life easier.”- Thelma

Jennifer: I was really honored that she asked. There’s strength in a genuine partnership and it gave me comfort, especially because Thelma already had experience. Infatuating Affairs was founded on January 9th, 2015.

“The creative industry is very different from the legal industry, where I come from. Here, everyone is friendly, HAPPY, and a lot of what we do has true emotion behind it. It’s definitely a softer, friendlier, happier industry to work in.”-Jennifer

Thelma Barnett & Jennifer Coles- (Photo/Infatuating Affairs)

How do you balance your day job and your business?

Thelma: It’s hard. It’s not how you do it, you just have to do it. The day job is what’s bringing this dream into fruition. There are some weekends where I don’t have free time, so during the week we meet with clients and vendors after our day jobs, or take a long lunch break. It’s dedication, commitment and sacrifice.

Jennifer: They go hand in hand, you can’t drop the ball on either one. Moving to a big firm was a great move for my career, but for the business, I’m struggling hard to find the balance. I frequently find myself overwhelmed by the responsibilities of being a wife, business owner, and a paralegal. I’m so lucky that I have a husband who’s super supportive and not too needy. Every second of free time is useful.

Do you think that women can have it all?

Jennifer: I do. I really do. I just think it’s hard.

Thelma: It’s hard. I’m at this position in my life where I’m doing okay with my career, but I don’t have a man yet and where am I going to find the time when I do?

What have you achieved in the last year?

Jennifer: We’ve had two feature publications on major fine art wedding blogs. My wedding was featured on “Style Me Pretty”, which was a lifetime goal. {I cried}. Then we did the “Velvet Rose” styled shoot last November which was a complete brain baby that I was super proud of because I thought of everything and we executed it. That got published right away on Christmas Eve. We planned the christening ceremony for Chimamanda Adichie’s daughter. Then we did a destination wedding. We closed 2015 really strong. We made a name for ourselves; people were impressed with what we could do. We were getting so many accolades. This year, we had the top wedding photographer, {who shoots the cover of the Washingtonian} Abby Jiu and many other major people who are established in the DC market {in a saturated and competitive market} come to us to form a relationship. Building these relationships with major players is an accomplishment and an honor.

Thelma Barnett & Jennifer Coles- (Photo/Infatuating Affairs)

What have been your highlights so far?

Jennifer: My “Style Me Pretty” feature and “Velvet Rose” styled shoot. Everything came to life better than I pictured it. I was so proud. It was so beautiful.

Thelma: The “Velvet Rose” styled shoot and Chimamanda Adichie’s baby’s christening.

What are your hopes for Infatuating Affairs?

Jennifer & Thelma: We plan to go full time, hopefully in the next three years. We want to be the go-to planners for events, weddings, not only in the DC area but all over the world. We want to have offices in other cities such as New York, Atlanta, California etc. To open an office in DC is one of our first dreams. To be a style house where we want it to be a one stop shop, grow to be able to work in New York would be amazing, {which is already in the works}. We want to be able to give back and inspire other women and girls to become entrepreneurs and we want to be able to serve the underprivileged and underserved here and in Africa. You can’t be this blessed and not pay it forward. I will feel ultimately fulfilled when Infatuating Affairs is a nonprofit that serves women, entrepreneurship, and women of color.

Thelma Barnett (L) & Jennifer Coles (R), hope to have a global impact by giving back to women around the world- (Photo/Infatuating Affairs)

What advice would you give to aspiring fempreneurs?

Thelma: Don’t wait till a year or month from now. Network. Don’t doubt or think less of yourself. Be authentic. Have faith but know that no one is going to do it for you, but you.

Jennifer: Just get started. Go for it sooner rather than later. Don’t try to be something you’re not. Know yourself and have a clear vision for your brand. Be ready to sacrifice your free time and relationships. Whomever you’re with has to be down with the cause. You need a support system. Surround yourself with the right people, be strong with what you know you want, go for it and don’t second guess. Don’t copy because there are a lot of people who are successful in their own right and it’s easy to say I want to do what they do, but you have to create what will make you successful.

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Siata Swaray was born in Freetown, Sierra Leone, and now lives in Maryland where she works as a Freelance writer. She is also in a graduate program studying Negotiations and Conflict Management at the University of Baltimore. In her free time, she enjoys volunteering, fashion styling, and meeting new people.

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