Skip to main content

Project Your Voice: Talking About Inclusivity and Innovation with Shameka Jennings

By February 21, 2024Projection

This is the tenth post in our “Project Your Voice” series.

In this Q&A, we sat down with Shameka Jennings, an award-winning global meetings and events professional and Principal/CEO of EventsNoire, a full-service event support partner focused on providing an exceptional guest experience every time. Shameka was drawn to events for their power to build connection and bridge divides, and has built her career around creating spaces where everyone can feel included.

Q: How did you get started in the meetings industry?

A: I did my undergrad at Sewanee, The University of the South, about an hour and half east of Nashville. I started out studying physics due to my love of science and engineering. My experience wasn’t all positive; there were some racist tendencies at my school at the time, and I didn’t always feel like I belonged. However, those feelings of exclusion didn’t follow me everywhere. I was engaged in our student activities board, in charge of rushing and activities, and at the events I planned, I saw everyone come together, have a good time and enjoy one another. The tension we might normally feel outside of that space wasn’t there. I thought that was so amazing and started to see the power of events.

At some point, I realized that I was spending more time planning these activities than I was on my physics homework. My career services mentor pointed me in the direction of the hospitality space – up until that point, I had no idea that planning events was even a career path. That same mentor pointed out to me that my passion had been in engineering all along. She said, “You’re doing social engineering. Instead of putting parts together, you are putting people together.”

I switched my major to psychology, which turned out to be such a great foundation to this space, and started to make the transition to meetings and events. Then, when I planned my mom’s 50th birthday party, the venue owner told me about a master’s program in event and meeting management at George Washington University. DC is my home, so that was a natural transition for me. From that point on, everything started to focus and come together for me.

Q: When you moved over to the events industry, did you feel more included?

A: Eventually, yes. I have had people tell me I needed to change everything about myself. I had to stand out in a certain way, and be everyone but me. That was a weird space to be in. I’ve had people tell me I wasn’t good enough to apply to certain programs. I definitely still experience those issues, but I am more mature now; I have better strategies to navigate that. For others, I try to be a leader and create spaces so they don’t feel that way. For myself, I have a community that reminds me that I am strong, good enough and doing great work.

Those things still exist, but I think a majority of people come with the best intentions, so I try not to fault them for that. I have to make sure it doesn’t impact me, so I turn those into moments where I can try to create space for learning. As long as everyone keeps trying, that’s the piece that matters.

Q: What gets you the most excited in the industry?

A: So many things. I love planning the events, because I feel like they are powerful, transformative. The diversity in the people that come together is amazing, particularly within associations, which is where I do most of my work. I love being able to create spaces where people can learn from each other. Events make an impact in two major ways – one, an economic impact on the community where they are held and two, a social impact that spreads as attendees take the information they learn home with them. I love the idea that I am creating a ripple effect of knowledge and goodness that is making a difference in the world.

Q: Was there a person who helped guide you making the transition to this industry or who served as a mentor?

A: I am a person that likes to connect with other people and learn from them as much as I can, so I have a ton of mentors in the industry. Two in particular have really taken me under their wings and shown me how to progress on the entrepreneurial route: Cheryl Jamall of ACJ Meetings & Events and Rhonda Payne of Flock Theory.

I also have what I like to call a “personal board of directors” – people that I have brought together that are experts in various aspects of the industry, like association professionals, hoteliers, and other planners. They help steer me and make sure I am on the right track and doing good work. And, if I have pointed questions, they are always there to help me find the answers.

In this space, people are very thoughtful about the work we do because of the impact it has. It is difficult work. You spend a lot of time traveling and away from your family, so having a support system that gets it is helpful.

Q: Where should people look for mentorship and insights in this industry?

A: One of the first places I would recommend is LinkedIn. At the beginning of my career, I didn’t have a lot of success with it, but I feel like lately I have seen a lot more people using LinkedIn as a networking tool. I know I am open – if someone wants to take the time to reach out to me and ask questions, I will try to make time to connect with them.

I am also a big proponent of industry associations. I served on the National Coalition Of Black Meeting Planners (NCBMP) board of directors 2020-2023, and I’m active with Professional Convention Management Association (PCMA) nationally and the Capital Chapter. Whichever association speaks to you: PCMA, MPI, NCBMP, IAEE, try to make your way there. It’s important to be proactive: let people know you are coming and would love to meet up. Also: If you can’t make it on your own, these organizations have scholarships available.

When I was getting started, instead of trying to network to find a mentor, I looked for my peers. If we were all feeling awkward at big events, at least we could feel that way together. Starting there helped me expand my network, because they all knew other people, so then they could make appropriate introductions. The people I met as I grew into my career are my core people.

Before conferences, I try to put out the word that I’m going to be at this conference, and I am open to connecting. I love social media, so I’ll try to engage with that by looking for specific hashtags to follow, see who else is going to be there, who is excited, and who I might be able to grab coffee with.

Follow-through is key in networking. I have had people say they wanted to connect with me, and I have given them my number and invited them to reach out at the conference, but I never heard back. If someone reaches out to me wanting to meet, I promise I will make the time!

Q: What do you love about this industry, and what do you find most challenging?

A: I love the work that we do, but beyond that, I love the people. I have been fortunate to meet so many great people who have become friends and family at this point of my life. None of my friends outside of the industry have close connections and relationships like I see in the hospitality, meetings and events industry. Despite our different approaches, we are all working together towards a similar goal.

Event execution in general is fun. The planning process can be tedious, but seeing it all come to life is extraordinary. Watching a ballroom or a stage come together from nothing to something, and knowing that you had a hand in that is so gratifying.

The meetings industry is changing, and this, to me, is an exciting challenge. We are constantly innovating and trying things to see how we can bring in Gen Z while still allowing Boomers to feel relevant. We can’t do the same old things; we have to mix it up to make sure everyone feels welcome. We are integrating diversity, equity, inclusion, belonging, and justice and looking towards sustainability. There is more thought that needs to go into events. There are so many factors now, pushing us to be better. That’s a challenge that I am happy to accept.

Q: Where are you looking for resources to help you get to where it’s more inclusive and sustainable?

A: I am a board member of PCMA, and I find that the organization is doing a great job of leading the charge towards the future with education, their Event Leadership Institute, and adding a sustainability piece to the Certified Meeting Professional (CMP) program.

One avenue I want to focus on is attending other events that are doing things well. I want to see it in person, rather than just hear about it. I am trying to create spaces where I can go to events, see the work and innovation they are doing, and be able to bring those ideas to other meeting planners that want to see and share great work. I haven’t figured it all out yet, but that’s the next step.

In regards to DEI and inclusivity, some of that comes naturally to me, because I am a Black woman. I have been in places where I didn’t feel like I belonged, so I strive to make spaces so that exclusion does not happen. One of my clients is the NAACP, so I like to see what work they are doing to make sure everyone feels like they belong. It’s a timeless, never-ending project.

Q: What is your advice for others who are thinking of choosing a path in this industry?

A: Do it! Totally do it, it’s awesome. Be willing to try it out and see where it takes you. There are so many different pathways within this one industry, so take a lot of time to self-reflect about what you are good at and passionate about. The work that we do is a lot, and can be time-intensive, so you want to be sure you find something you enjoy and that plays to your strengths.

From the meeting planning side to event tech/AV, hotels and more, there are so many ways to use your talents. There is space in this industry for you. Get in it, and then find out which piece works best for you.

Q: Is there anything that you wish you would have done differently in your career so far?

A: No. I think everything happens for a reason. I love being an entrepreneur, and I have a lot of great clients, so I really wouldn’t change anything for myself and my path.

I went out on my own when my position was eliminated during COVID. I thought that was the time to do it, and it worked. I love technology, and had been doing virtual meetings even before the pandemic. I think that was one of my saving graces. I had a solid playbook and good partners on the event tech side that I could go to. The virtual conferences we did during that time were great. I also worked with groups that were implementing social distancing strategies to meet in person safely, and it was interesting to figure out how to do it in a way that was creative and fun, but safe as well.

Q: What is your hope for the future of the events industry? 

A: In a way, I hope that we continue to exist. I think that people will always meet and convene, but I worry for associations because people aren’t joining and coming to meetings as much these days. That said, I know events in some shape or form will continue to exist, because people are creating communities. We just have to figure out how to meet the needs of these communities as they evolve.

Another hope I have is that we find the language to communicate the value of the work we do. The economic and societal impacts that events make has always been a driving factor for me, and I think being able to communicate that more effectively is important for us to continue to grow and be supported. It will also help us to bring in young people. If we are properly communicating our value, the ones that resonate with that message will naturally be drawn to join in.

I also hope that we continue to lead the charge of innovation in bringing people together in new ways. We have to create a better sense of community and belonging so that people will want to be part of these meetings. If we don’t have that, why would anyone come back? So, there’s a lot of work and thought that needs to go into that. I hope – and feel confident that – we are willing to do that.

If you or anyone from your organization would like to be a contributor to the “Project Your Voice” series, please let us know at

More from “Project Your Voice”

[Part One] Talking About Inclusion, Diversity and Finding Your Niche with Josh Henry, SPIE
[Part Two] Talking About Connection and Responsibility with Cassie Mancera, AAOMS
[Part Three] Talking About Making a Collective Impact with Paula Eichenbrenner, AMCP Foundation
[Part Four] Talking About Growth Through Facing Down Your Fears with Yolanda Simmons Battle, AHIMA
[Part Five] Talking About Putting Mental Health First with Dana Johnston, IDSA
[Part Six] Talking About the Power of Meetings with Karen Cuviello, Projection
[Part Seven] Talking About Inspiration, Change and Inclusivity with Angie M. Gates, Events DC
[Part Eight] Talking About Planning for Accessibility with Rosemarie Rossetti, Rosetti Enterprises LLC
[Part Nine] Talking About Empowerment with Ashley T. Brundage, Empowering Differences