Debra Neill Baker is one of the owners of Neill Corporation, the Aveda distributor for the south, and the parent company of the Paris Parker Salons. She is also the co-founder of Serious Business, a prestigious national conference for salon professionals (think TedTalks for the beauty industry).
A small town girl from a farming community in Kansas, in her early years, Debra often felt like an outlier.
“Like a lot of girls back then, I had low self-esteem,” says Debra. But she was an avid reader, and started reading books on nutrition and yoga at 13 (well before they were household words). Deeply inspired by the women’s liberation movement, by her later teens, she was studying personal development. She didn’t know her path, but she knew she was hungry for something else.
The nearest salon was an hour and a half drive away, but when she went that first time, she knew she looked and felt better about herself.
“That’s when I woke up to the potential of the hairdresser,” she remembers.
She became an esthetician and was eventually working in sales at Neill Corporation, the southeast’s Aveda distributor. And 25 years ago, coinciding with the birth of her daughter, Paris Parker Neill, Paris Parker the salon was born.
Most people don’t know the reason the salon opened. The legendary Horst Rechelbacher, founder of the Aveda Corporation, encouraged the Neills to open a salon for years before it became a reality.
“Horst always gave us a hard time,” Debra says. “He’d say, ‘You guys are creating and designing all these systems, products and education for salon owners, managers and hairdressers, yet you don’t walk in their shoes. You don’t know what it’s like for them.”
They knew Horst was right, and when the Neills decided to jump in as salon owners, Debra was eight months pregnant with Paris. Serendipitously, a former employee was looking to sell her salon in downtown Hammond. Debra and Edwin (her late husband and salon industry visionary) realized they could purchase that salon.
They pushed Horst’s good intentions further, however, and decided to use the salon as a laboratory. Every system or education module they designed would be extensively tested in the space. They would learn about the challenges and rewards salon owners face by experiencing them firsthand—while testing solutions to improve them for other owners nationwide.
“When the opportunity came about, we were like, ‘OK, we’re going to do this,’” Debra says. “We questioned everything about the way salons were operating, and we experimented. We gave ourselves permission to fail.”
The first Paris Parker location became a laboratory where many beauty industry norms were tested. After much trial and error, and collaboration with other top salon owners, we arrived at new systems that are now considered best practices for salons across the country.
So how did we end up with so many locations? “We had amazing leaders in the salon who were stepping all over each other in that one location,” says Debra. “Opening other salons enabled us to help them grow.”
What Debra took away most from the experience of owning a salon, however, is a heightened appreciation for the hairdresser’s role in society, the same feeling awakened by her first visit to a salon in her youth.
“I never cease to be reminded of the potential that the hairdresser has,” she says. “It’s my personal mission to wake up the hairdresser to their power to have a positive impact on every person they touch. It creates this beautiful ripple effect and impacts society.”
“In some states, hairdressers receive mandatory training on how to identify victims of domestic abuse. Hairdressers are often in position to be the first to notice, “ Debra goes on to add “Some hairdressers at Paris Parker have pointed out unusual growths on clients’ scalps and urged guests to make doctor appointments. These growths turned out to be skin cancer. They’ve helped save lives. That should give you a clue on the kind of relationships and power a hairdresser has.”
Debra has learned that hairdressers are becoming an important part of people’s lives – sharing the happy celebrations like weddings, awards, graduations, as well as divorces, illness, and funerals.
This has never been so apparent as during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina when people would fly back to see their hairdresser— those were often tearful, emotional and healing reunions.
“This is a reflection of how important the time spent in a hairdresser’s chair can be,’” she says.
Fresh off the high of becoming a new grandmother, Debra’s outlook now is especially poignant.
“As I get older,” she says, “I realize our willingness and ability to help people through the hard times is as important as developing people to their potential,” she says. “When you support people through their hard times, that’s what creates the depth of the relationship and resiliency.”
Those relationships are what we’re proudest of at Paris Parker over the last 25 years. And though times may change for every person involved—from good to challenging and back again—our sense of gratitude never will.
“Some of the most moving experiences may have started out as sad stories,” Debra says. “But we all got through it together, and we are more grateful as a result.”
What motivation does Debra see fueling the next 25 years? She thinks about the old saying, “Life is all about your thinking and your actions, and it all starts between your ears.”
Because whoever we are, whatever we do, what we think matters.
To us, and every person we touch.