Cindy Lo, BHP ’98, was the McCombs BBA commencement speaker this past weekend. Cindy was also honored with the McCombs Rising Star Award this year, which is given to only two McCombs alumni annually who have been successful professionally, and have helped strengthen the McCombs Alumni Network. Cindy is the owner of Red Velvet Events, a full-service event management company based in Austin. She is also extremely involved in UT and her community. We were happy to chat with her recently about her career path and lessons learned along the way.
Tell me about your career path leading up to what you are doing now and what prompted you to change from consulting to event planning.
When I was at UT, I started as a BHP and accounting major, but I did my first internship with one of the big accounting firms and realized it wasn’t for me. That prompted me to switch to BHP and MIS as I always had fond memories of my computer science class back in high school. I graduated in 1998 and worked for a startup software company called Trilogy Software. When I started in my career, I thought I was going to go down the traditional business path, which is work your way up, then go to graduate school and continue down the executive track, but then it all changed. Working in a startup environment, I learned so much and I no longer had the desire to go on to get my MBA. I was at Trilogy for five years. When 9/11 happened, the company saw a shift in client’s pausing their existing contracts, so an opportunity came up for me to take a leave of absence without immediately affecting my employment status. I took advantage of this leave of absence option, and during that time reflected on what I wanted and realized I wanted to get into events and meeting management. I had difficulty getting hired to do what I do today because I didn’t have any formal background in this industry. I thought about starting my own event planning business, but was very hesitant because I knew how much work that would take. I had just come off of working 80-100 hour weeks and I wasn’t sure I wanted to do that again. Out of necessity, I did end up starting my own company because no one would hire me. I put together my business plan with the intent of going to work for someone else after I had some experience. That never happened because surprisingly the business took off. I would never have guessed that this is where I would be.
Describe the services offered by Red Velvet Events.
We offer full service event management. We will pair you up with the best caterer, florist, hotel, etc. We are the event architects. We help design your event program and manage all the details. We make sure everything happens the way you had envisioned. We do it all.
You started your company as a one-woman show and now have a staff of 13. Tell me about the growth of your company and what plans you have for the future of Red Velvet Events.
We have seen the most amount of growth in the last six years. We are bringing on three more in January 2014. In 2007, we started really aggressively growing our company (yes despite the downtown turn in the economy in 2008). Destination management and graphic design became a core part of our company during that time. I have another idea I am trying to launch in the next two to three years, but I am not ready to talk about it yet. I will stay true to events though.
In your industry I would imagine that innovation and creativity are very important. How do you encourage innovation and creativity amongst your staff and yourself?
Yes, they are important. I always ask my team to look around them and be a tourist in their own city. Look at things that are influential. When TV shows are a big hit, clients start wanting to incorporate them into their events. Knowing how to spot the trends and hits early is the key. Always be hungry and looking for ideas. I try to read as much as I can so I can stay on top of what is going on. Travelling internationally has also been great to get new ideas.
Are there any events you have planned that really stand out to you or that you are most proud of?
I have some favorite corporate, social and other events that stand out because they were just really challenging and in the end, we were excited we pulled it off. A client came to us once with a very simple idea and we made it a huge production. They wanted Santa Claus to come to their house to take some photos, but I turned it into something more elaborate and we basically turned their house into the North Pole. We did it all with only one week’s notice. I like to push the envelope to see where they want to take it, but we don’t push beyond what they want to do. I always want to bring the wow factor.
What would you say are the top 3 lessons you have learned as an entrepreneur.
1) If you think you have communicated enough, you haven’t. Never think you have over communicated.
2) Always be learning. You may think you know what to expect, but new problems come up every day. I am always pushing to see what I could have done to be better. If you think you are done learning, you need to move on to another career.
3) Always be thankful. Tell people you appreciate them, no matter how busy life gets.
What do you love most about what you do and what do you find the most challenging?
It is so rewarding to see my team grow both professionally and personally. It is a great feeling. I also enjoy seeing the event come to life; being able to put it all together and pull it off. I love seeing the end result and love the challenges that come with it. It is problem-solving and creativity rolled into one.
Your company was selected by the Austin Business Journal as one of the best places to work this year. What sets your company culture apart from others and what did that honor mean to you?
I have to thank my team for nominating the company. I felt very touched that my team took it upon themselves to do that. As far as the culture, we are very open office. If there is something bothering them, they can come to me and tell me. I am trying to take care of our team so that they take care of the clients. For example, we pay full medical benefits for everyone. They shouldn’t have to worry about that. I want them focused on our clients’ needs, and not worried about things like paying for medical coverage.
How do you think BHP prepared you for what you are doing now?
The teamwork we practiced in the classroom was really beneficial. It was useful to learn to work with different personality types. We were required to take all of the different business courses, which helped me a lot because I had to do it all when I started the business. The networking skills helped me find people who could help me along the way. I couldn’t have asked for a better network. It also taught me to be goal oriented and break down big goals into small chunks.
You just received the McCombs Rising Star Award, honoring your professional accomplishments, as well as your commitment to the McCombs Alumni Network. Tell me more about your involvement in UT and McCombs and why you think it is important to stay connected.
I started giving back because I was one of the lucky few who got a full-ride to UT. I wanted to pay it forward. The more involved I got, the more I realized it was good for not only my business but also help me with my soft skills. I served on the MIS Advisory Board, then the university’s 1883 Council, which then led to getting involved with the Forty Acres Scholarship Board. I love meeting the new students and seeing how driven they are. Giving back is very important to me. I value education and want to help in that realm. I know who made it possible in my life to receive the education I did and am so grateful.
What advice would you offer current BHP students?
Take the time to enjoy school. Get involved with the things that you love doing. Do something non-academic; try to be more than one-dimension. Make genuine friends and find friends outside of the business school. I was involved a lot in the business school, but love the friends I made outside of the school. I think it is very important. Keep in touch with your friends beyond just sending Facebook notes for their birthdays.