You could call Valerie Thomas Birmingham’s one-woman welcome wagon. Her company, The VAL Group, is a concierge service that provides community orientation and curated itineraries to visiting and relocating executives and corporate recruits. Her enthusiasm for Birmingham isn’t restricted to office hours, however. Valerie exudes a sense of inclusivity and a passion for supporting both cultural nonprofits and local creative enterprises that has shaped her own lifestyle as well as the experiences of those she’s introducing into our city.
Valerie, you’ve moved around a lot. Tell me about making the move to Birmingham.
My husband, Steve, is a surgeon and was recruited to be the director of the UAB Hospital Burn Center in 2010. Overall, we have moved twelve times. We’ve lived everywhere from Washington D.C. to Allentown, PA to Greenville, NC and most recently San Antonio, TX. I wasn’t sure about Birmingham at first; I wondered how I would be received as a black wife to a white doctor in a city with so much history of racial tension, but I felt warmly received by my neighbors and community. Early on, I met some incredible women through the Levite Jewish Community Center who welcomed me and helped me figure out where I fit and how I could contribute to my new city.
What are some ways you contribute to your city?
Steve and I purchased a home in Redmont Park and recently relocated downtown. It was important to me to make sure that our purchases and lifestyle benefitted the city of Birmingham. I immersed myself in Birmingham’s cultural offerings. I shop locally and don’t even really go to the grocery store anymore; I buy what’s available at the farmer’s market and that is what I eat when I’m not dining out at one of my favorite chef-owned restaurants. Birmingham has such a rich and unique food scene, and we are lucky to have at our fingertips! Attending community functions and supporting our thriving creative community is also important to me. I am always buying extra tickets to the Alys Stephens Center, Alabama Ballet, and other events and inviting interesting young friends to join me. I love surrounding myself with millennials, creatives, and progressive-minded individuals who inspire me.
You have an impressive resume and corporate background with over thirteen years at IBM and extensive experience in restructuring and running various nonprofits. What made you decide to start your own business?
My own experience. After so many moves during Steve’s medical career, I noticed that our first step in getting to know a city was typically facilitated by a real estate agent. I didn’t want to just buy a house; I wanted to invest myself in my community. I wanted to know which restaurants were locally owned, what cultural events were happening around me, and how I could support local businesses. There was a gap in the market for a service that would provide recruits and visiting dignitaries with the experience of a city and help them adjust to and learn their way around a new community. My company provides an integrative introduction to Birmingham and follow up support to new residents. I show them the best of our city and help them to get to know their local retailers and makers, where to eat, what to do, and how to get involved in our cultural scene. That’s what makes someone feel like they are part of a community.
So, when you are “selling” Birmingham to prospective new residents, what is it that you tell them you love about living here?
I live downtown, and I love my neighborhood! I believe in Birmingham and its future. The history of this city makes us hallowed ground. I still can’t believe that I can just walk over to the Alabama Theater. How cool is that? We have a walkable city, beautiful spaces, a vibrant creative community, and affordable housing. I hope that we keep Birmingham, particularly downtown, accessible and representative of who the city is and not increase our cost of living beyond the benefits we can offer. The people of Birmingham are its greatest asset. I have found that our citizens are warm, welcoming, and helpful. Now that Steve has retired from medicine, we have the opportunity to move elsewhere, but I can’t imagine leaving a city that I have grown to love! This is my community, and this is my time to be here!
Interview by Tonia Trotter
Photo courtesy of Valerie Thomas