Janice Choudhury (B.S.’12/H&S) finds joy in hosting dinner parties and themed get-togethers at her house for friends, and she’s never short on decor. One day, she realized she had accumulated an overabundance of decorations and put two and two together. Why not take her passion for parties and penchant for crafting and start a business?
“I realized, ‘OK, I’ve got some skills here, and I need to start paying for this habit that I have and I need to share this with other people,” says Choudhury, who, by day, works as an obesity and prevention campaign manager on the Youth Engagement and Policy Team at Rescue Agency in Washington, D.C. “That is what led me to start Honey Cotton Willow. Initially, I wanted to open an Etsy store, but I kind of fell into event planning and event decor.”
More than a year later, she’s finding success in creating memorable moments for special milestones, from baby showers to birthdays.
What is the origin of the name Honey Cotton Willow?
When I was thinking about opening an Etsy store, I thought about what type of feeling I wanted people to have when they came to my shop. I wanted them to have an organic feeling, so I asked myself, “What is sweet sounding? What looks soft sounding?” That is where the honey and cotton part came in. I knew that somewhere, I also wanted to incorporate the name Willow. Whenever my husband and I have kids, if we have a daughter, her name will be Willow. I have been speaking her into existence for years now, and I knew I wanted to incorporate my future daughter into my business plans.
What kind of crafts got you into event planning?
I like to do paper crafts. I volunteer with the organization Extraordinary Birthdays based in Washington, D.C. They provide birthday parties for children living in homeless shelters and since COVID-19, we have not been able to physically go into the shelters. Instead, we’ve delivered parties, so I’ve been making a lot of party supplies by hand and delivering them to the shelters so the kids can celebrate. I make the birthday boy or girl a personalized name banner and T-shirt. It’s a really big deal to be able to see your name in glitter or accompanied by your favorite cartoon character.
How did VCU prepare you for this journey?
When I reflect on where I have been in life, there was more of a connection to event planning while I was at VCU than I realized. I was involved with numerous organizations as a student. I was a part of a sorority, the Black Student Union, NAACP and I started my own organization, IMPACT (Inspiring and Manifesting Positive Aspirations in Children and Teens). Whenever it came to planning our galas, gatherings or events, I was always on top of it and wanted to be the one to take charge. I remember with the Black Student Union, we hosted a Harlem Nights-themed event, and I planned centerpieces with ostrich feathers because what was more Renaissance and art deco. Looking back, I realized, I’ve actually been planning events ever since college. While I was at VCU, I also had such a strong sense of community and fellowship with my peers. That’s what I want to bring to events, that’s what events are all about.
What advice would you give business owners just starting out?
Just jump. It took me quite a bit to start. I felt like I needed so much to fall into place before I put myself out there. I thought I needed the perfect website, the perfect photos and everything. A friend of mine really pushed me to just do it. It takes time, nothing’s going to happen overnight. YouTube is your best friend because there are so many tutorials and videos on how to make decorations. There’s so much free information out there, and I can really soak it up. There are so many different communities out there. I’m a part of so many different Facebook groups, party planning groups and crafting groups. I have really learned a lot from people. I’d also say when it comes to starting a business to learn the business side of things, such as how to make a profit, what does it take for you to be sustainable and how you’re going to market yourself. Everything has to be purposeful.
What is your favorite type of event to plan?
I love kids parties the most, because I feel like that’s where I can be the most creative. Kids love whatever you put in front of them, but I love personalizing little things for them. One of my favorite events to plan was a L.O.L. Surprise!-themed party for a 5-year-old. The dolls have these giant heads and really funky hair styles. It was a very new theme for me. I had to be creative and make a lot of props from scratch. In the end, seeing her face and her mom’s face, knowing that I really exceeded their expectations, made me happy.
What part of the event is your favorite?
My favorite part is when the setup is complete because there is so much prep work involved. You have to make sure that everything is packed, and you have to be able to bring a vision to life on-site. That is the most exciting part for me because a lot of times I’ll do a mock up on my coffee table and it’s never really 100% of what the picture is going to be. I end up throwing things in at the last minute or rearranging stuff.
As a whole, I enjoy going back and looking at my event photos and looking for ways to improve, because I’m always trying to be better. I spend time going back and looking at what I could have done better and how could something have been different. I look at my work from a year ago, and I have been able to grow so much. I’m really excited for the growth ahead. I know I’m going to be 10 times better than I am today. That’s very exciting for me. My mom always says, “If you’re going to compare yourself to anyone, compare yourself to yourself.”