Optimism on the frontlines of an essential black enterprise










By Énoa Gibson

Howard University News Service

CHARLOTTE – North Carolina was just beginning its shut down because of the coronavirus pandemic when Monica Moore ventured out and was reassured that the business she’s been in for 26 years will survive.

“I went to the beauty supply today, and it was packed like it was a ‘Get-in-Free’ night at the club,” Moore said. “I was, like, ‘Ok, y’all still buying hair. You’re still going home to bleach y’all’s own hair’—so it can fall out.”

“But Listen,” she said. “People got to feel good about themselves. They got to look good, and they got to feel good. So, moneywise with the beauty industry, it’s not going nowhere.”

Barbershops and hair salons, like Monica Moore Hair Studio in Greensboro, were hit hard and fast when cities, counties and states began powering down to stem the spread of the virus.

There are some 300 such businesses in the Charlotte area, and their owners and stylists are frontline proprietors and essential workers in a multimillion-dollar international industry with a special local importance. Black consumers, for example, accounted for $54 million of the $64 million spent in 2017 on ethnic hair and beauty products like those sold at the store Moore visited.

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper’s stay-at-home order was set to expire at the end of April, but was extended until May 8. Time limits in other states ended as scheduled, even as reports increasingly indicated that black communities were taking a disproportionate toll of infections and deaths from the pandemic, and businesses in their neighborhoods were encountering more than their fair share of woes.

Barbershops and hair salons were among the first businesses Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R) reopened, to the dismay of Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms (D).

“The political reality is that we are a blue city in a red state, trying to balance public-health concerns in a diverse  environment while getting our economy back on track as soon as possible,” Bottoms wrote in The Atlantic.

As a teenager, Bottoms said, she worked in a family-owned hair salon. “Small businesses like my mother’s shop are indeed ‘essential’ enterprises,” the mayor said. “But I also know from personal experience that social distancing is impossible while shampooing or cutting a customer’s hair.”

“The workers in these industries should not be forced to choose between going back to work at this crucial time and forfeiting their jobs and livelihoods.”

It still is not clear how much financial help local, state and federal programs relief programs will provide for small businesses, their employees and independently-operating gig workers.

“Our hearts really go out to our co-workers who work in our business, because we are not able to do anything for them, and they are contractors, so they have to work to get paid,” Tika Mercer, co-owner of Lucky You Hair Salon & Suites in Charlotte, said in a telephone interview, “They are not generating income right now, so how can we pay them? It’s a trickle-down effect.”

Some owners and stylists are using the downtime from the pause in business activity to fast-track different ways of doing things that already were being considered but have become more inevitable in the wake of the crisis.

Ebony Stroder, who owns Iconic Edge Beauty, had anticipated the kind of changes that social distancing and remote learning are now having on businesses built on close person-to-person contact.

“Clients once upon a time just walked into the salon and solely worried about sitting down and being pampered,” Stroder said. “And now they’re going to be wanting to make sure combs are clean, and that the stylists have separate capes for each client.”

Some already were coming in less frequently, and wanting to get out sooner. “People aren’t going to tolerate being in a salon with five or six people at a time and rotate them in and out, or them just sitting there,” Stroder said.

Stay-at-home orders arrived just as practitioners like Connie Hall, the other co-owner of the Lucky You salon, said she and others were developing more do-it-yourself kits, as well as virtual classes and online consultations.

“This situation gave us time and opportunity to be thrust into the project even deeper,” Hall said. “It was something that before was kind of lingering, like, you work on it when you can. But now we’ve been able to work diligently and daily.”

For decades, the hair supply business was dominated by Asian producers, wholesalers and local retailers. Black entrepreneurs lately have become more prominent in those operations and are trying to take advantage of the current preoccupation with medical and health care products to enlarge their foothold in that industry.

At one point, Koreans owned some 70 percent of the nation’s beauty supply stores, but younger Korean Americans have been opting out of the import and retail trade that was a staple of family business, according to Sam Hwang, vice president of the National Federation of Beauty Suppliers.

“Most of the hair manufacturing was done out of Korea back in the day,” Hwang told WOSU, the NPR  station in Columbus, Ohio. “It was real human hair so it was really expensive, but many of the Korean women actually cut off their hair to sell for the hair industry to grow.”

“The second generations kind of grow up and say, ‘I’m never gonna be like my parents.’ So I guess it’s natural to not wanna be in this business,” Hwang said. “They’d rather have a job or a different profession.”

As the pandemic spread and millions struggled to find personal protective equipment, the website of the Black Owned Beauty Supply Association began selling hard-to-find N95 masks made in China for $4 a piece.

“The medical supplies [from China] have now surpassed the hair. …I mean, they have everything,” Sam Ennon, CEO of the association, said in an interview. “I deal with 12 different manufacturers and the sales on the hair have slowed down, so they are pushing the medical supplies now, especially the masks.”

Salons and barber shops have been productive starter businesses for entrepreneurial-minded black folks, especially with the growth of the ethnic hair industry. The pandemic and its aftermath may prove to be a stumbling block for such efforts, and require new strategies for success, said Connie Hall of Lucky You Salon.

“Hopefully, it will make people more mindful about what type of business choices and investments to make, and then consider whether they are really ready to go into business,” Hall said. “You’ve got to have more than one avenue of income, and that’s not just for hair. That’s for anything, because you just never know.”

Monica Moore said she is using the respite to look back on her years behind the chair and looking ahead to having more time for herself, in whatever new normal will come to be.

“I’m changing my schedule,” Moore said. “I’m like, listen, I’m not going to work myself to death. I’m going to take these days off, that day off. And on Saturdays, I’m taking my last client at two o’clock. I’m not working past four on Saturdays anymore. …I don’t think things are going to go back to being the same.”