Black women and our beauty, from our hair to our nails, is something that we heavily identify with from childhood; getting our hair braided, sitting in the salon for hours, our first full set. It’s also d something that the world continuously tries to use against us; from not being hired for jobs because of the way our hair or nails look to those same styles being worn and praised by women who don’t look like us. It was only in 2019 that the CROWN Act (Create a Respectful and Open Workplace for Natural Hair) was passed in California and New York, a law that prevents workplace discrimination against natural and protective hairstyles. This means that up until two years ago, Black people could be discriminated against simply because of the way we wore our hair.
It’s exactly why Black women found safe spaces in places like the beauty salon, where you can be your full self with other women who look like you and walk out feeling like a million bucks. In other spaces like beauty supply stores and nail salons, there has often been deep-rooted tension and anti-blackness amongst the owners of the shops and their Black customers, with few Black women having ownership in the spaces. And, while many black women wear protective styles such as braids or weaves, there aren’t many that own the hair that’s used to create the look.
Teen Vogue spoke with three black women looking to change that by owning their own shops and brands. Paris McKenzie became the youngest owner of a beauty supply store, opening one at just 16-years-old in Brooklyn. Ryan Baker is the youngest Black owner of a luxury nail salon in North Carolina. Ciara Imani May is the first person to start a plant-based braiding hair company. These are three game changers and beauty bosses creating more safe spaces for other Black women.
Teen Vogue: When did your passion for beauty start?
Paris McKenzie: My mom owned a beauty salon and I was in there basically my whole life. If I didn’t grow up in a salon, I probably would have never learned how to actually do hair or to do nails. I was never a sit-at-home and do chores type of kid, I was a sit in the salon, wipe the chairs down, type of kid. One day I was in there and my mom had a wig and made me color it and it came out really well. I’ve been doing hair since.
TV: How did you pivot from doing hair to having your own beauty supply store?
PM: I knew the impact it would have. I [was] only 16 years old, and the impact of a Black 16-year-old girl opening up a beauty supply store changes everything. And that’s exactly what it did. The previous store was stocked as a regular beauty supply store, so my main priority is to stock the shelves for the community because that’s who is shopping in there, the community.
TV: What did you stock the shelves with?
PM: We’re located in Flatbush, so the community has a lot of young Black women. There are a lot of young girls now that own salons on Church Avenue and there are a lot of upcoming YouTubers. That’s really who the community is, it’s these Black girls that have found themselves through beauty and now they are somewhere where they can express themselves even more through beauty. I want them to be able to walk into the beauty supply store and find just what they need from wigs to natural hair. I have low porosity hair, and when I went natural after being relaxed for so many years, it was so hard for me to find products and a beauty supply store that kept me in mind. And now we have so many testimonies of our customers coming in and finally finding products that work for them.
TV: What was your first experience in a beauty supply store?
PM: No matter where I went, I always felt like I couldn’t find what I wanted, unless it was hair colors, when I started coloring wigs. That’s the only time I probably could find something that I really, really wanted. I’ve always been in Korean-owned stores and I feel like that’s what gave me the push to own my own store now, I always went into stores that I wasn’t comfortable in, and felt like I wasn’t being properly assisted. Sometimes you have to experience those times for you to be able to know what it feels like and try to do the opposite.
TV: How important is it for you to have Black-owned products on your shelves?
PM: Very, I love having Black-owned beauty products in the store. It’s not something I watch by number, but it’s something that I just feel like needs to be in there. Mielle Organics, TGIN, and Taliah Waajid are some products we have.
Teen Vogue: When did your passion for nails start?
Ryan Baker: I actually started doing nails when I was 16 and it started as a rebellion thing against my mom. I had to ask my mom to get acrylics and she said no. I was like, “Well, she can’t say I can’t get them if I know how to do them myself.” So I started learning how to do it myself on YouTube. I used to grab girls from school and sneak them into my mom’s garage after school and I’d practice on their nails.
TV: What did you love about nails as a child?
RB: My aunt does hair and I remember she used to wear these really long, square, shiny red, acrylic nails and I was just in love. You know how Black moms would say, “You can’t wear red when you’re a kid. That’s a grownup color?” That was my mom, so I could not wait until I was an adult because I was like, I’m going to get my nails just like that. That’s how red became my signature color.
TV: What sets you apart as a nail artist?
RB: The amount of passion I have for it. I think a lot of people get into the nail industry because they hear about how much money they could potentially make or they have one bad experience with a nail tech and they’re like, “Man, this is easy, I can do it myself,” then they find out how hard our jobs actually are. But for me, the dollar is not important to me at all. I have a real passion for what I’m doing and my clients can tell. I work really hard to teach them about the health and care of their natural nails. I want them to grow their natural nails. I’m not just about to slap on some acrylic and send you out the door. I take time to really build a relationship with my clients, I build it on trust and honesty, and a lot of transparency as well.
TV: Why did you want to open a luxury salon?
RB: Creating this luxury salon was something that I felt was important for the culture. I feel like a lot of times while we are the innovators of these things, we get the scraps. I remember when Kim Kardashian had chains on her nails and everybody was like, “Oh my god, Kim Kardashian’s wearing chains on her nails. She’s so cool.” It was like, do y’all not remember Janet Jackson and Busta Rhymes? Or how encapsulating money in nails did not start until Bernadette Thompson did Lil Kim’s nails for the “Get Money” video. People don’t give us our props.
Ciara Imani May, 26, Founder of Rebundle
Teen Vogue: What motivated you to start a plant-based braiding company?
Ciara Imani May: I was looking for something that was healthy and sustainable. I’ve suffered from scalp irritation many times before with plastic hair, so when I learned more about the chemicals, I started to really dive into the lack of research. Plant-based hair was a viable alternative to what was currently available.
TV: What was your first experience like getting your hair braided?
CIM: I had really long hair growing up, so I don’t think that I started getting extensions until maybe I was around seven or eight. I remember the girl who used to braid my hair, being super heavy-handed, the whole experience being uncomfortable and painful. It hurt getting put in, but the care afterwards [shocked me]. I would ask, ‘how could you itch so much? Why does it itch so bad?’ I had actual rashes on my face and my neck.
TV: Black women are often kept out of the sustainability conversation as it’s been gaining more traction, especially when it comes to our hair. How do you want to change that?
CIM: The intersection that we sit at has been overlooked because there hasn’t been enough Black women who wear braids in conversations about what it’s like in the daily practice in our lives. The reception is so positive because it’s really taking a look at a decade-old product, but a century-old practice and re-imagining what these styles can mean to our culture and to our environment. We’re no longer accepting poor products and dismissing the waste that is created by our hair at the same time. It’s really an opportunity to reassess our relationship with products that are not sustainable. If there’s an alternative: what does it look like and how does it function, and how do we make it available?
TV: How do you and just Rebundle want to be a game-changer and a part of that conversation?
CIM: There’s a lot of miseducation around synthetic hair products. We’ve spent a lot of time sharing what we’ve learned in this process and sharing what we know about the effects that it has on the climate. That data didn’t exist. It’s not something that is being tracked. It’s not like toothbrushes, or plastic bottles, it’s kind of quantifiable.
TV: What are some of the challenges of being a black woman entrepreneur that you face?
CIM: Funding was the first challenge and conveying the story came with that. When I’m trying to get into these programs and get grants, trying to tell this story of, ‘Hey, here’s what’s happening with braiding hair specifically as Black women and how I want to solve it’, it took a lot of practice to be able to craft that narrative where anyone could understand it. People might get it when I first tell them, but they also might not understand the concept of a plant-based. So I had to really explain [how] we’re having these negative reactions from chemicals and I want to make something that doesn’t have them and I also don’t want to be wasteful.
Photographers: Kendall Bessent (Paris), Emmy Su (Ryan), Joe Martinez (Ciara)
Hairstylist: Susan Oludele (Paris)
Art Director: Emily Zirimis
Fashion Director: Tahirah Hairston
Visual Editor: Louisiana Gelpi
These interviews have been edited and condensed.
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Originally Appeared on Teen Vogue