Before 30, this romance aficionado was ushering couples to the altar. "It's a privilege to be granted access to the most personal moments of a person's life," she says. "I grew up in a nurturing household with hugs, kisses, and affirmations from my parents for my brother, sister and me. This is the work of my heart!" In 2008 Jean initially founded Love Ink as a writing and coaching service for special occasions that also helps clients deliver heartfelt speeches. After many additional requests from patrons to script entire ceremonies, she realized she could also administer them. In 2013, when she was asked to preside over a friend's nuptials, Jean officially became an officiant—and added the practice to Love Ink's offerings. To date, she has joined more than 16 couples together in matrimony and penned more than 50 wedding vows. Jean, who holds degrees from Howard University and Columbia, also works as a writer and producer for The New York Times. "I am not your average officiant," she adds. "I specialize in capturing the essence of your love story, so your friends and family can [get a glimpse of] the moments that brought you to marriage." The florist for a wedding Jean had administered told her how enjoyable it was and said that "if she ever got married again," she would like Jean to officiate. "I told her not if but when she gets married again, it would be my honor," she adds. A year later the florist e-mailed her telling her that "she was in love with a great man and I had spoken it into existence." Jean gladly married the couple.
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The Digital-Dating Disruptors: Brian and Justin Gerrard, 29 and 31
After seeing a void for online dating services for the Black college and under-30 crowd, brothers Justin and Brian, along with friend Jordan Kunzika, came up with their own. In 2015, on the campus of Howard University, they launched BAE, an app for young Black singles, with just $140 for marketing. In its first month, the app received 17,000 downloads through engaging HBCUs. "People are waiting longer to get into relationships and get married, and women are more empowered socioeconomically," says Brian (above left). "When you mix technology into that, it creates a lot more optionality in terms of who you can date. All of a sudden, you're not limited to the guys within three miles of the house you grew up in." At the end of 2016, if(we), an established app outfit, acquired BAE, and its users were rolled into Tagged, one of the company's social and dating apps. With 300 million members, it has one of the largest communities of Black singles. Within six months of the brothers' joining if(we), which is now owned by The Meet Group, 1 million new users were on the app. Last year the two helped roll out Tagged's live-streaming option. "Our goal is to create a great space for Black people to date, meet new people, connect and now live-stream," Justin says. "The [live stream] represents the death of catfishing." The siblings also spearheaded a partnership with Black&Sexy TV for its series Broke & Sexy, which follows cash-strapped young professionals. Brian recently left the company to nurture his housing industry start-up. The Gerrards' mark on the dating scene, however, remains.
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The Black-Love Storytellers: Tommy and Codie Elaine Oliver, both 34
At the Toronto Film Festival in 2013, Tommy, a filmmaker, walked into an event, spotted Codie Elaine and they chatted briefly. Later that night she happened to see him again and bravely made her move by telling him when she was available to meet up. The Los Angeles–based duo then talked for hours and ended up spending time together throughout the rest of the festival. "I called five friends and said, "I'm marrying this woman," Tommy says. "And that's what I did. I proposed to her on her birthday—six months after we met."
Soon after saying "I do," the entertainment industry professionals began conducting on-camera interviews of other Black marrieds, who got real on their unions. The project, the Olivers indicate, was a lens through which to view themselves. Last summer their docuseries, Black Love, premiered on OWN, The Oprah Winfrey Network, and its second season begins in May. After talking to nearly 100 twosomes, they have come to realize that the biggest deciding factor in longevity is simply staying committed to the commitment. "At some point it's going to be incredibly hard for every couple," Tommy says. "For the ones we see lasting, they say, "I want to make this work," and do the work to back that statement up," adds Codie Elaine. Upcoming episodes will include She's Gotta Have It star DeWanda Wise and her husband, actor Alano Miller. Codie Elaine says she loves the way Wise summed up marriage: "She referred to it as self-love. 'If I make me a cup of coffee, I make you a cup.'" You can learn more about the series or share your own story with Tommy and Codie Elaine @blacklovedoc.
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The ESSENCE Love Squad: Charreah K. Jackson, 33, And Charli Penn, 35
Allow them to reintroduce themselves. Senior editors Jackson and Penn are your ESSENCE Love Squad. The two produce and oversee content on how we live, love, sex, date and create our own versions of happiness. "So much inaccurate information is put out about Black women and our love lives," says Jackson (above left). "We celebrate and showcase the beauty of how and who we love." Penn helped grow the ESSENCE.com Bridal Bliss franchise into one of the site's most popular features. She previously worked at The Knot and ran her own marriage blog. "Marriage is a lifestyle, not a destination," Penn adds. "I am invested in Black women having healthy, happy marriages." Jackson and Penn have been your matchmakers, reported live from celebrity weddings and walked the streets of New York City asking women about everything from first dates to orgasms. You can catch Penn championing relationships on ESSENCE's Yes, Girl! podcast, and Jackson's book, Boss Bride: The Powerful Woman's Playbook for Love and Success, is due out this June. They serve you wherever you are and are certain that every Black woman can have the love story she desires!
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The Self-Care Disciple: Tracy G., 32
"I help people add love to their lives by first and foremost adding love to my own," says SiriusXM radio cohost Tracy Garraud. "It's important to me that I don't view love as a one-dimensional experience between two intimate partners. Love has so much more width than that, whether it's love of self, our Creator, nature, friends, family or anything else." After her recorded personal affirmations to keep her spirits up were inadvertently played in the halls of SiriusXM in 2015, Tracy G. embraced her calling and began to dish out her self-care recipes through her platform, She's Beauty And The Beast. It includes a podcast and Web site of the same name. At shesbeautyandthebeast.com, visitors can listen to audio vision boards and find out about upcoming workshops. In 2016 she navigated a season of celibacy and knew it was worth sharing. "I was about nine months into a sex detox and realized I only had my best friend, Guerdley, to discuss my journey [with]," she says. "I believe celibacy can be customizable [but] was only seeing conversations within a conservative context." She changed that by adding a "No Sex Zone" feature to her podcast, which has 27,000 listeners. The favorable response inspired her to provide celibacy-related resources at her site. "Many of us have a chapter or three where we lean more toward lust, because it's the cheap and swift counterfeit version of what we really want: love," she says. "It can be a lot to detangle, but I've got experience that I'm willing to lend." And how did Tracy note the ending to her celibacy? With a "No Sex Zone Pt. 2" episode subtitled "Post-Celibacy Feels."
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