Liz: Hi Björn!
Björn: Hey Liz
Liz: Thank you for agreeing to be interviewed!
Björn: Oh, you are welcome.
Liz: Can you tell us a little bit about your background and what growing up was like for you?
For anyone of color who is finding it hard to find their place in the industry, keep doing what you are doing, don't feel that you need to compete with anyone or anything. Don't be afraid to be unique, be confident and never stop believing. I know that sounds easy to do, but believe it. The more you create and believe, the quicker the clients will come. This is a big pool we are all swimming in, but there is a client for every planner.
Björn: My full name is Björn Van Wyngaardt, but I go by Björn VW. It's easier to spell. (laughs) I grew up in Cape Town, South Africa. I moved to the USA at the age of 22. I lived and worked in country clubs between New York and Florida. Then I moved to California for a while, but it wasn’t really for me, so I moved to New York back in 2007. I was very fortunate growing up. My mother raised us the best that she could, and we were free to do whatever we wanted after age 18. Her words for us were that as long as you finish high school, you can do whatever you want to, but while you are in this house, you will go to school. She originally wanted me to be a journalist, I wanted to be an interior designer, and now I am an event planner (laughs), which turned out great for me.
Liz: Awesome. What brought you to the US? Did your whole family move?
Björn: Besides the fact that some of my family already lived here, I always wanted more for myself. Don't get me wrong, Cape Town is great, but I didn’t see a life there for myself. I always knew in the back of my mind that I was destined to do more, and I wasn’t going to achieve that living in South Africa.
Liz: Was there something concrete you felt destined for? Or just a general sense of wanting more?
Björn: It was a general sense of wanting more. I didn’t know what that was at the time, but I just knew I wanted more for my life and my career.
Liz: Did you attend college in the US?
Björn: I didn’t attend college. An event planning job fell into my lap back in 2011. I took an online course in event and wedding planning and two internships to further my knowledge as a planner before I started my company.
Liz: Did event planning click for you? Did it satisfy the longing you felt in your life?
Björn: It clicked immediately for me. There was a high I felt that took me a week to get rid of (laughs), and I feel that same high to this day every time I do an event. Yes, it does satisfy that longing, because the opportunities for me in this industry are endless.
Liz: At what point did you find the inspiration for Forks, Corks & Cocktails, your foodie event for the LGBTQ community in New York?
Björn: It was right at the beginning of my business. A friend of mine was celebrating her birthday — I won't give her age; she would kill me (laughs) — and I was still waiting tables in Westchester while getting my business off the ground. There was a table of 13 LGBTQ women, and I looked at the way they were conversing, having fun, drinking, and eating, and suddenly it hit me that there were not that many events in Westchester that are happening in the county for the community, and being in the business, I have seen so many gay men and women moving up to Westchester from Brooklyn and Manhattan with their families, and there is nothing really to do. So I thought to myself, I want to make that table of 13 larger — so much larger — and what connects people? Food, wine, and cocktails. And with my background in restaurants and my love for good food, I called up all my chef friends that were some of the top chefs in Westchester and pitched Forks, Corks & Cocktails to them, and they have supported me and the event ever since.
Liz: That's amazing. How many years have you been holding the event now?
Björn: This year will be my fourth year. Every year planning this event gets my heart and soul pumping because it's so personal to me.
Liz: Do you find that there are particular intersections between foodie culture and the LGBTQ community that you are tapping into?
Björn: Absolutely. There are so many social events out there that are food and wine related, but I wanted to create and event that is food trend-forward. Funny enough, the LGBTQ like everyone else, loves food, and it has to be good. So every year when I select my chefs, I give them the challenge of creating something new just for the event. What I discovered last year, which had a remarkable effect on me, is that a few people came up to me and said this event wasn’t just about food and wine, but that I am bringing a community together to help people make new friends.
Liz: Awesome. So back to event planning in general — how do you feel about your place in the broader wedding vendor community and the wedding industry?
Björn: I feel like I've earned my place in the industry. I know I still have a long way to go in order to get where I want to be. Some days I do have that feeling in the back of my mind that has that little bit of doubt, but then I look back at the portfolio that I have built, and I say to myself, "you've done well, you should be proud of it." That's why it's important for me as a wedding planner to stick to my brand now and go outside those lines. I often come across planners who are so all-over-the-place that I want to ask them, "what do you specialize in?" What is your brand aesthetic? It's so easy to be a wedding planner these days, but it's what you represent that’s going to give you longevity.
Liz: Do you feel that coming from South Africa and traveling to different states has given you a unique perspective in your work?
Björn: It definitely has. Not so much the work, but more the name, the accent, and work ethic. I hear from brides all the time that I went beyond what I said the job duties were. A little side note: sometime last year my bride got her “monthly” when we went to pick out her dress, so she told me, and I asked her, "well what type of ‘stuff’ do you use? I will go get them at CVS.” She was so stunned that I did this, she couldn’t get over it. At the end of the day, I will move mountains for my clients (laughs).
Liz: Ha! I love that story. So lastly, we use the language of "intersectional feminism," "social justice," and "being woke" to describe our work at Catalyst. Do you identify with any of these terms? If so, how do you apply the philosophy to your business and creative work?
Björn: I am still trying to identify with "being woke." I am still in the process of finding out what that means (laughs).
Liz: (laughs) Awesome. Well, our Woke Wednesdays are about featuring vendors who fall outside of the norms of the industry. We are featuring people of color, people on the LGBTQ spectrum, and others who may feel marginalized by the predominantly white, heterosexual industry. Being marginalized in some ways usually gives those professionals some critical insight on the industry.
Björn: Oh (laughs). Then yes, I do consider myself "woke" (laughs). There is one thing I do want to share with your readers. For anyone of color who is finding it hard to find their place in the industry, keep doing what you are doing, don't feel that you need to compete with anyone or anything. Don't be afraid to be unique, be confident and never stop believing. I know that sounds easy to do, but believe it. The more you create and believe, the quicker the clients will come. This is a big pool we are all swimming in, but there is a client for every planner.
Liz: That's awesome advice. Thank you, Björn.
Björn: My pleasure.