Friday, May 27, 2022

‘Valet of the Dolls’ CEO Gillian Harris: Former Radio Personality Assesses Partying During A Pandemic

Gillian Harris - Facebook
Gillian Harris – Facebook

*Many businesses, including Black businesses in countries across the world, including the United States, have suffered tremendous losses, due to coronavirus. Black businesses, including the valet industry, have taken a huge hit- with staff shortages crippling the ability to hire, creating challenges for managers and CEOs.

Valet of the Dolls,” the largest predominantly female private event valet parking service, owned by CEO Gillian Harris, who is African American, has experienced the cumulative effect of coronavirus, with her valet events going from an average of 600 parties per year down to just 9 over a 16-month period. However, according to Gillian Harris, clients “are becoming a thing again,” and “are paying thousands to have guests rapid-tested before they exit their cars.”

Before her entrepreneurial life, Harris was in radio for several years and was an air-personality for KACE-FM, a staple of the Black community in Los Angeles until it was sold in 1999.

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Gillian Harris on air at KACE-FM
Back in the day: Gillian Harris on-air at KACE-FM

“It was a big deal, and when it went off the air, it was a big deal, and I was afternoon drive, 3-7pm,” said Gillian, who also attended Long Beach State. “It was devastating. It really, completely filled me up in every way. I didn’t even mind that I didn’t make enough money. I loved the job that much.”

Born in England and raised in Riverside, California, although she loved radio and was “wined and dined” by several other radio stations, the luster of radio had slightly worn off after her experience at KACE-FM. While looking for another job, the Malibu Canyon resident discovered a local newspaper and saw an ad looking for female valet drivers.

“I just thought that was so freaking cool,” she laughed. “I love to drive, I can drive anything, I can drive a stick, I excel at it. I had a passion for it.” She applied for the job and got it. “As soon as I got in my first car, which my very, very, very first car to go valet park was a brand spanking new Aston Martin- I just happened to know how much approximately that cost, and I realized, oh my God, this is a cool company.” However, she soon realized the company was being mismanaged, and a potential opportunity presented itself. “She wanted to sell it(the company) and I said to her, ‘if you just let me run your company, teach me how to do it and if I like it and if I’m good at it, I will buy it from you,” said Gillian, who is also an accomplished archer.  “Now keep in mind I didn’t have any money back then.”

The savvy lady took the time to learn how to present a proposal to potential investors and was successful in rounding up a group of investors.

“I did that, but she dilly-dallied so much, I was losing my investors and gaining them back and getting new ones and finally she turned down all five of my offers, including one that was for everything she asked for, including cash.”

Valet of the Dolls (Meet the Dolls)
Valet of the Dolls – Meet the Dolls / via Valet of the Dolls website

Although she had a sense of relief that the deal didn’t go through, she still had her ambitions to own and run her own company. Fortunately, a couple of familiar faces came through for her.

“My parents were like, we see what you can do, you don’t need any money outside the family, we’re going to front you,” she said. “And so my dad and my grandmother loaned me enough money to start Valet of the Dolls and I opened the doors on 3-3-03.” After previous success in her prior company, where she worked for 19 months, tripling the staff and gaining more clients, Gillian Harris had a strong instinct that her business could be successful. She built her client base by canvassing neighborhoods of prior clients, being careful to not use her former employer’s clients.

“We sent teams of people to get the addresses to all the neighbors of those addresses,” said Gillian, who has been a certified defensive driving instructor for 18 years. “The next thing I did, I wrote an e-mail to everybody in my e-mail address book, which I normally wouldn’t do.” Her strategy paid off; before she knew it, the requests for her business went up exponentially. She ingeniously used her stardom working at KACE-FM to generate interest in her new venture. “I got a lot of readerships from that, and I was able to book my first 12 parties,” she reflected. As with most successful businesses, Gillian worked diligently hard. She took a part-time job and every day, when she left work, she’d work on her business. “So when it came time to execute,” said Gillian, “the work was already done. All I needed to do was pull a template, pull it together and ‘bam’ I was in it.” In 2008 and 2009 her business was great … she averaged 500 parties a year.

Valet of the Dolls (Valet Team Members
Valet of the Dolls (Valet Team Members) – via Valet of the Dolls website

Unfortunately, a problem that exists with many Black businesses are the stereotypes that plague them. As a result, there are no photos of her on her website.

“A lot of people, unfortunately to this day, are stereotyping us,” she explained. “ I had a bad experience in my first year.” After securing a huge client who was very excited about meeting the owner of Valet of the Dolls, who was planning on introducing her to her influential friends, she received quite a rude awakening on the first night of her new client’s event. “I go up the stairs to her front door because I wanted to shake her hand and meet her. So I ring the doorbell and the housekeeper, who is a Latina lady opens the door and gave me a look that I read,” she said. “I said ‘uh oh. She was not excited to see me. ” When the client came to “greet” her in the living room. “I don’t know if she had a camera and saw me, but when she came into the hallway into the living room, it’s not like it was a surprise on her face, she already knew, and she was not happy that I was in her house. I put my hand out to shake her hand and instead of shaking my hand up and down, she was dragging me to the door. I said ‘nice to meet you.’ I said that will never happen again.”

In 2020, the pandemic hit. Statistics and research illuminate the problems Black businesses, including Valet of the Dolls, located in Malibu, California, face in dealing with coronavirus and the pandemic, which has been raging for 2 years. According to smallbusiness.house.gov in a report prepared by The House Small Business Committee Majority Staff and Chairwoman Nydia M. Velázquez, “in 2020, Black business ownership rates dropped 41% between February and April 2020, the largest rate of any racial group.” Additionally, according to the report, the pandemic has “exacerbated long-standing inequalities that make it harder for black-owned businesses to endure the crisis and access recovery resources.” Gillian Harris was candid about how her business has suffered.

Valet of the Dolls (Pink Bentley)
Via Valet of the Dolls website

“I would liken this to what happened after 9/11,” said Gillian. “There were systemic cancellations to everything because people were like, ‘oh my God,’ something’s going to explode. So it just was a scary thing, but we had a few things. This time (in the pandemic)it went to nothing- we went from 600 parties a year down to nine.”  After years of grinding, sometimes working 18-hour days, the pandemic provided a break for Gillian, who is also a spiritual medium.  She decided to modify her business, converting it to a “boutique-style” type business, enabling her to be more selective in her clients. However, having fewer clients enables her to pay close attention to her clients, making sure her staff is vaccinated and following rigid health and safety standards.  How would Gillian Harris access the state of partying and valet right now? “December (2021) was amazing,” she said. “Considering that we did no parties last December at all, we did about 30 this time and I gave away about 30. But now it’s January and it’s really slow. I believe it’s because of the omicron (coronavirus variant.)”

Unfortunately, staff shortages have affected all businesses, including Valet of the Dolls. February 2022, promises to be a very busy month for Valet of the Dolls. If you are in the Los Angeles area, preferably female (although there are a few guys that work there) looking for an opportunity and love driving, with gratuity, you can make, according to Gillian, an average of up to $30 per hour, with a base pay of $18 hourly, $3 more than minimum wage.

“This January is only 30% of what it normally is, “said Gillian Harris. “January tends to be a mild month following December, but we’ve been getting HUGE quote requests including the AMEX/PGA Golf Tournament in Palm Desert. The work is up 1,000% from this time last year when we were completely closed with nothing going on.” They have an extensive training program, so Valet of the Dolls could be your next career opportunity.

Valet of the Dolls (logo) For more information visit Gillian Harris’ Valet of the Dolls website at www.valetofthedolls.com.

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