Most people don’t have everything they seem to have. Most things you see on social media are an illusion. Don’t compare your struggle to their highlight reel. Some days we get so caught up in social media and watching our peers seemingly always killing it even on days we feel like we are not moving and that can get depressing.
As a part of our series about powerful women, I had the pleasure of interviewing Kelsi Kitchener and Celeste Durve. Kelsi and Celeste are the co-founders and co-CEOs of VIPER, an all-female event operations company that provides premier guest experience and data compilation for private celebrity and corporate events, as well as upscale nightlife venues. They are based in Los Angeles, CA with plans to expand nationwide. At the intersection of pop culture, hospitality and analytics, VIPER can be seen at the doors of popular events like Travis Scott’s Astroworld, private parties for Drake and Kanye West, and corporate events including Homeland Security conferences and politicians’ classified events.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
We were interning for Bolthouse Productions, both pursuing full-time careers in event production and nightlife promotions. In late 2015, we found ourselves constantly being pushed to the front door at events to manage guest check-in as confused interns. We then created the concept of having a front door team, but creating an entire business based on this concept was almost an accident. We started thinking people could just call us to run their doors and we would bring our girlfriends. We quickly became sought after for this service because there was a huge need for this in the industry. No one else had created a service that was specific to gathering RSVPs, guest experience, check-in, registration, etc. From here, we built the VIPER brand, expanded services and fine-tuned our process.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
It’s hard to pinpoint the most interesting story, but an overall, a big one was that our company was actually co-creating happiness with people and increasing sales for the brands hiring us. When we created VIPER, it was initially about making a place for women in the industry and filling a void in the market. We discovered that the positive interaction between VIPER girls and guests was actually translating to higher on-site client engagement for the brands we were contracted by.
Point in case, this is definitely proof that your brand and its mission can expand or pivot at any given time and you never truly know what type of impact you can make.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
We have made so many! We launched our business three days before Coachella 2016 so our first events to test the waters were away from our home base, with two huge clients and an unprepared team (our fault not its). This turned out to be a nightmare. We found ourselves in so many scenarios which we now can laugh at like packing our car full of equipment not having anywhere to sit, renting a scary run-down house because we didn’t know where to stay and needed to save money. One of the lessons we learned this weekend (specifically at 6 a.m. after the second event we did) was when we were pretty sad and felt like we’d done a horrible job, Kelsi’s example was “when Disneyland first opened, the entire park was covered in trash, so much trash they didn’t think they could continue to operate like this. But it turned out they just needed more trash cans. So even though we had a terrible night, we just need more trash cans…” We still live by this today and it helps us continue to evolve instead of quitting.
OK, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. What is it about the position of CEO or executive that most attracted you to it?
We were most attracted to the freedom to make our own decisions and lead people in a direction that we believed in. We wanted to cultivate a company culture that reflected a space we wanted to work in; one where women could hold high power positions and could openly showcase all parts of themselves. We weren’t finding many companies that truly supported the paradigm of the multidimensional female.
Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
We set the energy for the company and co-create our employee’s experience. We also are the primary people responsible for the vision of the company as well as managing client expectations. The main difference in the role of the CEO, for us at least, is that you always have to be committed to the well-being and future of the company and the team. Other execs have very important responsibilities but we think that portion mainly falls on us.
What is the one thing that you enjoy most about being an executive?
We enjoy the freedom and the creativity it allows. Naturally we are dreamers, and being CEO allows you to visualize and dream freely because it’s necessary. We also love the experience, the chaos, as well as the ups and downs. We get to take risks and even though sometimes we fail, at least it’s never boring. We don’t always have stability but we wouldn’t trade it for anything. This role was the only one we ever wanted.
What are the downsides of being an executive?
Some of the downsides include having to balance the responsibility of on-the-spot problem solving while simultaneously keeping team moral up. The journey can be overwhelming and exhausting, and you pretty much always have the possibility of failure hovering above your head… and there is no one to hold your hand through the process, so if you fail all on you. Failure is a much harder outcome to accept when you have a team that relies on you.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
The biggest myth for us is that women can’t be multifaceted — We do not believe you have to be 100% corporate or 100% bossy (often also labeled as “bitchy” in women). We firmly believe that females can showcase all parts of themselves while still deserving respect in the work place and being in charge.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
We get a lot of unsolicited advice and our positions on things get challenged far more than our male counterparts. We have been in so many scenarios where we will say something and it will be dismissed and later a man in the room will say the same thing and receive praise. Women are faced with more scrutiny when we speak up. There’s also a high competition rate amongst women because we think there aren’t enough “seats at the table” for us so we compete against one another more often. Men don’t face this in the same way, so they have more opportunity to collaborate and achieve success collectively.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
We were interns before we launched our startup so we thought by becoming the founders we would do less intern-like tasks but we actually still do them! We have this saying, “sometimes the CEO, but mostly the intern” because we will still do anything it takes for the company. Sometimes at events, our team runs the show and you’ll find us picking up trash on the floor or charging tech for them to work. Nothing is above us!
Certainly, not everyone is cut out to be an executive. In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive?
We would say important traits are believing in yourself, remaining solution-based, always finding the silver lining, and being able to relate to people. We may not have college degrees, but we have high emotional intelligence and that has led us most of the way. The types of people who should avoid becoming an executive or entrepreneur are those who need constant structure and assignments given to them, or those who lack interpersonal skills.
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?
Don’t be afraid to be the boss and speak up for what you believe in. Also, be transparent and own your mistakes so you can fix them.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
We were both predominantly raised by single moms and we attribute so much of our success to them. We both come from humble beginnings and it was really hard to make ends meet growing up. We each had jobs by the time we were 15 to help support ourselves. We weren’t allowed to make excuses and we watched both of our moms figure everything out and give us what we needed even though it was a struggle. That’s a really important piece of who we both are.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
We created a platform for women to hold high power positions in LA nightlife, where those opportunities were previously scarce. We also pay them competitively and we make sure they’re taken care of. On another note, we’re able to bring positive energy to human interaction at events through our brand. So much of everyone’s lives are digital these days, therefore, it’s important that the VIPER team provides exceptional face-to-face interaction with the people who attend our events. We aim to be kind and spread positivity that makes people’s day.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- There will be ups and downs — and the downs will sometimes feel overwhelming. For instance, there were moments we couldn’t pay our bills and we were so stressed about how we were going to make it. I wish someone would have told us that this isn’t uncommon and we were not alone in this experience and that it didn’t mean we were failing.
- People will have bad things to say, but that doesn’t make them true. We used to take negative comments and criticism so personally. When you build a business it becomes your baby, but what people say often reflects only their own mindset and not your product or service. Don’t internalize negativity!
- Not all advice is good advice, in fact most isn’t. When we started out, and even until this day, we would sit with mentors or well respected peers and so many people gave us terrible advice. Seeking a mentors is recommended of course but we ignore a decent amount of the feedback we hear because it doesn’t always translate to your own brand.
- Saying “no” strengthens your brand. Don’t be afraid to turn down work where your time isn’t properly compensated or you are being treated disrespectfully. In the beginning we would take any job and had to learn the hard way not to jeopardize our brand in order to say “yes” to a client.
- Most people don’t have everything they seem to have. Most things you see on social media are an illusion. Don’t compare your struggle to their highlight reel. Some days we get so caught up in social media and watching our peers seemingly always killing it even on days we feel like we are not moving and that can get depressing.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
There are so many things we want to do to inspire people to be more kind, more loving and help others. We would love to influence people to read more and get off their phones, because that might help bring up mental health since we’ve seen a decline there lately. We truly believe that so many problems in the world arise from poor mental health. Maybe if people were less insecure, less anxious, less depressed that would lead to the world becoming a better place overall.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
One of our favorite life lesson quotes is, “You are what you believe to be.” Ultimately you decide how you want to feel, even when times are hard. You can be successful or not, but the choice is fundamentally yours. This philosophy makes us feel really empowered.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
We would love to sit down with Ariana Huffington, Glennon Doyle, Oprah or Dr. Edith Eger! There are tons of other people of course, but those four women really inspire us and we’ve learned so much from hearing them speak on choices, spirituality, kindness and leadership.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.
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