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Entrepreneurship in a Woman-Dominated Industry with Jessica Tan

On The DMV Wedding Pros Podcast this week, I got to chat with Jessica Tan from J.Tan Artistry.

Jessica Tan is based in Northern Virginia and specializes in bridal makeup services. On this episode, we talk about how the wedding industry is largely woman-dominated, entrepreneurship as a woman, what support looks like as an entrepreneur, and how COVID has affected the event industry and Jessica's work.

Hey Jessica! Thank you so much for joining us. Can you introduce yourself?

Sure! My name is Jessica, and my business name is J.Tan Artistry. I'm located in the DMV area and I specialize in bridal makeup services. I strictly do makeup, but I love working in the wedding industry and I'm really happy to be on this podcast.

I'm so excited to have you! I know that every hair and makeup artist is different, so you only do makeup. Do you have a team of hairstylists that you refer, or do you just work with whoever else is hired?

So when it comes to hair, since I don't do hair, I actually work with Sarah from DC Bridal Hair, who is an assistant for A Stylist Abroad. We do a referral discount that goes both ways. If a client comes to me who wants to book and needs someone to do hair, I refer them to Sarah and they get a 10-15% discount from her hair services. It's been a really beneficial and mutual relationship and so far we've worked two events together. It's been going so well, and I'm so glad I could find a hair stylist who's passionate about only doing hair. We're both on the smaller side of our industry in terms of our following and presence on Instagram, so it's really nice to empower and inspire each other.

I love that partnership, that's so smart. I've been thinking about doing the same thing with a photographer in the area, but it's tricky to figure out how that will work, so I'm glad that you found something that works for you!

We are going to talk about women in the wedding industry today, which I'm really excited about. You brought this topic to the podcast, and I'm excited to dive into it. Where do you want to start with hair and makeup?

So far working with hair and makeup, I've encountered only women. I've found it a very positive and uplifting experience. To preface this, I used to be a computer information systems major in college and it's predominantly men. I did it for awhile for the main reasons people do things - career, stability, financial stability. It was just the thing to do, and I felt pressured to do that. Being in a classroom with a lot of men wasn't the environment I wanted to be in. I felt like I had to work ten times harder to get myself shown, or to be credited the same amount as my male counterparts, so I switched into marketing, which was more balanced. I thought it would be more women, but it was actually pretty equal. I've been in workplaces where it's more men and where it's mixed, and so far the wedding industry has been mostly women. I just wanted to show my perspective and observations coming from being in those different environments.

I didn't know that's where you started, but that fits in so perfectly. I think that there's a stereotype of course that women are catty, or they tear each other down more than they build each other up. I imagine the place for that in the wedding world might be hair and makeup honestly. I'm sure you all have your own techniques, but what has your experience been there?

So far it's been really positive. On the styled shoot we worked together, I had never met the hairstylist before and I didn't know what to expect because she does hair and makeup. With another styled shoot I did awhile back, she was only a hairstylist. There was no competition, or I didn't feel the need to be competitive. But when it came to the shoot where she offered both, I was pleasantly surprised. She's older than me, she's been in the industry for longer, and she started out in makeup and now does hair. She was just really nice and very uplifting. She said she learned a couple things from me and I definitely learned from her. It was more like a mentorship than a sense of competition. I'm so glad it did turn out that way. She's a beauty educator, and she ended up writing about me and how it's more about the sense of community not competition.

In terms of working with other makeup and hair stylists, I always try to get to know the hair stylist, even if they do do makeup. Sometimes I get booked and I still have clients who email me asking for other makeup artists. They really value my word and my referral, so I'll send them to other makeup artists I trust and have built a relationship with. I think it's important to still establish community.

For sure. I'm so glad that turned more into a mentorship. I'm glad that you brought up the community over competition thing though because I think that it's an incredible movement, which started with Natalie Franke and The Rising Tide Society. There's still so many people in our area that are still die-hard #CommunityOverCompetition, and I completely subscribe to that way of thinking, BUT I do think some people use that phrase and preach that message without walking the walk. But I so subscribe to the idea of lifting each other up. There's truly room for all of us at the top.

Throughout the wedding industry, I do think it's predominantly women who are entrepreneurs. Probably just because it's a very stereotypically emotional female thing, right? Like we're supposed to be dreaming of this day since we were little girls, but guys are literally told, "Just listen to what she wants," if it's a groom and a bride. I think that's more misogyny than we really care to dismantle right now, but what are your thoughts on this being a women-led industry?

I think more power to it. I'm all about empowering women, and like you said a lot of these women are entrepreneurs. Women entrepreneurs in general have to work ten times harder to be shown, but in the wedding industry it feels like everyone is women and that's not the case anymore. It feels safe and secure being in this industry, and there's mutual respect among all of us. I really love that. Everyone is independent, they started from somewhere.

You don't really go to college thinking like, "I'm going to become a makeup artist!" At least I didn't. There's a lot of careers like that - florists, photographers - that started out more as a hobby, and then people realize, "Wow, I'm actually passionate about this. I love making people happy with my work." I think everyone has that commonality of... finding that passion, and then being able to make it work into their own business, and then conquering that business.

I love that you brought that up because it's true. I feel like with the wedding industry in particular people sort of stumble into it. At least most of the stories I've heard, people don't plan on doing it on full time, or they don't plan on doing it at all. They just do it, and then turn it into a business. I think that's so interesting. I honestly don't meet a lot of people who are like, "I always knew I wanted to be a wedding planner." It's just sort of like, "Well, I was good at planning things for my family and then someone said I should do their wedding, and I did!"

Maybe that also speaks to the fact that men get told they can do whatever they want when they grow up, and it's a little more ambiguous for women. And so, when we find a hobby that we love, turning it into a business is probably not our initial reaction.

Yeah, I mean I think at least in makeup in particular, it's very risky. Especially growing up in an Asian household and being first gen, it wasn't an industry that was very highly respected, to put it lightly. It was really risky when I told my parents, "Hey, I think I can actually become a makeup artist and make something for myself." I don't think they respected that choice until they started seeing me make additional income from it, and seeing people post about it, and me getting clients that found me strictly through Instagram. Now it's become part of my identity, and like you said I just kind of stumbled across it.

I almost feel like I came a little bit late because a lot of makeup and hair stylists go to cosmetology school. Going to a four-year college I just thought, "I'm going to get a job right away, forget about makeup." It wasn't until my senior year of college that I realized, "People are taking pictures for grad photos and they want their makeup done. What if I just charged them like $15 to do some eyeshadow?" I found there was a demand for it, eventually I got better, and then I got proper training working at Sephora. It was all so coincidental, and it was very scary at first, but I'm so glad that I decided to stick with that passion.

With your background you were probably very much aware of the difference between being in a male-dominated field and now a female-dominated field. I've been doing video for about six years, but I feel like my "rebirth" was in the summer of 2019, so I've been full time since then. For a long time I did treat it as a hobby, but at the same time I was not aware of the fact that videography in particular is a very male-dominated field. It just never really crossed my mind. I don't know if that would have changed anything, but I think everyone comes into their role a little bit differently, and there are some roles in the wedding world that are dominated and some that are balanced. One that comes to mind is DJs. I've worked almost exclusively with male DJs. But I don't think I've ever worked with a male wedding planner. So it's just really interesting how the roles can divide. I also want to acknowledge that we're speaking very much in binary terms, and from my own personal experience.

Most of the videographers I do know and refer to are men, but I always prefer working alongside a female photographer because they're usually a little bit more flexible, and a little bit less aggressive. But I've also worked with great male photographers. We could probably talk about this forever, but it's a little different for everybody.

Yeah. I definitely think not all men are these A, B, C stereotypes, but the same goes for women. I think a lot of people have stereotypes about a woman-dominated industry. Some of those stereotypes - like that we're super supportive and compliment each other and talk about our emotions - I think are true, but it's not a negative.

Yeah! I definitely think it's a positive thing. There are a couple well-known male videographers in the industry that often talk about how there's probably an edge that female photo and video people have, in relating to a bride getting ready, and sticking around for moments that men may have to step out of the room for. But on another side of things, they believe that women, when shooting and editing, look at the wedding day from a more emotional standpoint, which usually ends up benefitting the end result because that's what you want to bring out of a couple when they see their photos and videos, you want them to feel all those emotions again. I think it's an interesting take. It doesn't - I don't know if "bother" is the right word - it doesn't bother me, but I do think it's kind of silly to say that females are better at the job because they're emotional. And I know that's not exactly what they're saying, but there are plenty of sensitive men out there doing the same work who can look at it from that angle instead of a clear, cut, precise, logical kind of deal.

I think that's so interesting. You know, I haven't heard that side because I'm not in videography or photography.

I don't want to get too personal if you don't want to get too personal, but how have other people in your life reacted to more of an entrepreneur type of job? I know that you still work full-time elsewhere, but especially coming from a home where it's not the typical thing people do, how were other people's reactions?

I got both positive and negative. A lot of people thought at first that I wouldn't be able to make something for myself. I had a lot of doubt. Like, "what are you going to do for a stable income?" That's where a part time job comes through, but there came a point where I had to make the decision, do I want to keep working at Sephora or do I want to start my own freelance position? I couldn't do both because Sephora wanted me to work on the weekends, and that was when all the freelancing was.

So eventually I made that switch, and I did receive criticism when I started just because... I think people just doubted me because I didn't go to cosmetology school. However, my mom was a hairstylist actually, so I did receive some training for hair. Whether I wanted to continue down that route, I made that decision quickly because I just didn't feel as happy. I felt like my happiness was in makeup.

I also think that my family thought happiness isn't everything. Money. You need money to survive. You need a house to survive, you need food to survive. You can be happy and poor, but that's not going to work is basically what they were trying to tell me. It was a little depressing at first, but I worked hard and kept working at it and was able to make something of myself. I never thought that people would look me up, Google me, and now I take all that into consideration. Having my degree in marketing also really helped me advance in this industry just because I know how to do social media, I know search engine optimization and how to build a website. That was all very helpful, and I'm so thankful I did go that route and stumble into the makeup industry a little bit later.

I can't imagine how much a marketing background helps you. I feel like people get into this business and they don't realize it's like 90% business and 10% skill/creativity. You have to have the business skills to back you up. That's definitely something I did not know at first. I started very young and never really gave it my full attention until finally I was like, if I do give it my full attention maybe I won't need a full time job.

I do think that so many people, across the entrepreneurship board, meet a lot of this friction because if they don't have a role model in their lives to say, "Hey, I've done this and it can work if you work hard at it," then people will discredit it because they don't know it can be done. No matter who you are, you probably meet somebody who's like, "Are you sure you can really do this? This is really what you want to do? You don't want a paycheck every two weeks?" I've definitely met people that have pushed back against that, but it's so cool to be in an industry where we can band together and bring each other up. That's a huge reason I like doing styled shoots. I get to meet a lot of people and build my network, bring them back and lift them up and show them off to the world.

I think at the beginning of my career I was very ambitious. I actually reached out to celebrity makeup artists via Instagram DMs. I actually created a relationship with Gina Rodriguez’s makeup artist, Carissa Ferreri. I ended up talking on the phone with her for hours about where I even start, I'm scared, do you think I can actually make something for myself? She actually pushed me to say, "I've done it before."

After that moment I was like, "Wow. I can do this." I related to her so much, and I see the position she's in now and I can see that for myself. I just need to work hard, and not listen to the criticism people have about being my own entrepreneur.

Just like you said, that hairstylist turning into a mentor for you, I think it's so important to seek out mentors in this industry. To be honest, that's something I really pushed back on at first. Everyone was like, "It's important to have a mentor!" And again, it's true across the board - any job, career, hobby. But I was like, no, I'm going to do it myself.

But when I finally started to look around for mentors, and people stepped up to be mentors, that's when real growth happens because it's somebody who's already done it, who's cheering alongside you, who knows that you can do it because they did too. It's just about working hard and knowing the business.

I love that you reached out! That's so brave of you. I know that's hard for some people, but how cool.

It was amazing. Also, in California, I was coincidentally just walking with my boyfriend on the street in Pasadena, and I ran into another celebrity makeup artist. He does Vanessa Hudgens. I was shocked. He's also Asian American, and so I felt like I bonded over that, being an Asian American makeup artist. You know, you have a similar culture, having parents not initially approving your choice of career.

I definitely enjoy looking up to those people, and at the point of where I am now versus two years ago, I've made so many more mentors and it's been really uplifting and supportive.

That kind of representation is invaluable. That's so awesome.

I was just reading a post on Facebook that said something like, have you ever reached out to mentors or someone who you think is above you, and you don't get a response or they leave you on read? It takes so little for you to respond to someone and truly make their day. All of us are at all different levels. There's always going to be people above us and below us. If you're open to helping and learning always, it's the best for everyone. It will continue to raise the bar.

As a vendor who is very much in somebody's face on their wedding day, what has this pandemic looked like for you?

At first, it was very very difficult, I'm not going to lie. There was many postponements, many cancellations, many refunds, many forfeited deposits. There was a lot of concern for me, I think everyone can feel that. For the first couple months of Covid, obviously I was closed, or I had postponed things and they kept getting postponed because of all the new guidelines. It was very scary at first because I didn't know when I'd be going back. Also just having that length of time of not doing any makeup appointments, you can go into your first appointment whenever it happens again being a little bit rocky and a little bit scared of your talent. If you don't practice, it does go away.

It was definitely a transition. Eventually, after doing research about what works and what doesn't work, I was able to find the materials I needed - face shields, more face masks, hand soap sheets, things like that. I continued the same hygiene on my brushes and makeup in general. Hygiene is super important in the makeup industry. I can't tell you how many times I've seen "professional" makeup artists use the actual mascara wand on clients. That's a big no-no in our industry. You have to use disposables. You really don't want to risk getting anyone an infection. So, maintaining that level of hygiene and sanitation has always been important to me, but it was more of just putting on my mask and face shield, washing my hands.

Also, I felt like I was forking out so much money on buying all this equipment and new things to make my kit prepared for Covid that I was scared it wouldn't turn into profit. However, October especially, was my busiest month yet out of all the years I've been working. It seems like me putting my Covid procedures and policies on my website and making it very visible on Instagram as well has had a positive effect on my business, so I'm glad I did put in the money and time to adjust.

For sure. I think everyone has really had to find a way to pivot their business as a whole this year. It's a little bit... scary in the event industry these days, but I'm so glad that you have found a way to make sure that you and your clients are safe, and you can keep working.

There's a difference in my bookings last year from this year, which is bridal party size and elopements. I had to transition and pivot that way as well. No more huge parties. The most I've had to do is probably four, which I actually do enjoy doing because I'm only one person and if I'm taking on 6-7 people it's going to take me six hours, and that is a long time. I've actually kind of enjoyed this transition into smaller bridal parties. I've also just been doing just the bride only, hiring me for their elopement ceremony or just a very small ceremony in general. That's been another big transition from last year.

I'm on board with the micro-wedding train. I was very hesitant at first because I love big weddings, but every photographer I talk to and every micro-wedding that I've shot we're always like, "We could get used to this! It's so easy!" Without a large bridal party, it makes it so much easier to get from Point A to Point B, and there's no one to complain or get distracted.

For example, if I have a party of ten people and we're in the getting ready suite, they're running around getting mimosas, getting the bride a drink. It's almost always a bridesmaid who isn't in my chair on time. It's a lot of running around to figure out who needs to be in my chair next. It's a different environment, a little bit quieter, and I do talk a lot more since there's no background noise. It's a lot more intimate, and I've enjoyed building that relationship with whoever's in my chair.

It's definitely a more intimate experience. Honestly, I think it benefits the wedding day.

At the end of every episode, I like to ask my guest why they're so passionate about one of the topics we've covered, so if you want to share that with us...

Sure! I was passionate about being in this industry, primarily because I've seen both sides of working with men and women in different industries. I just wanted to share my observations, as well as address the stereotypes. I truly enjoy working in this industry and having so many women support each other and creating that sense of community. There's a lot of commonality between women in general.

As for adapting to Covid, I think a lot of people will relate to what I said. Covid is very much still a real thing. People have kind of become complacent with it and are just trying to live with it instead of trying to stop the spread or eradicate it. I'm passionate about speaking out about this because I do want my clients to be safe, and I want the vendors around me to be safe. I still think it's very necessary to take all the precautions to prevent Covid.


Find Jessica at J.Tan Artistry.

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