Throughout the twentieth century, hair styling has been the most prominent way Black women have gained financial independence in American society. During the Jim Crow Era, it grew as a powerful alternative to cleaning houses, washing clothes and performing domestic tasks for white people. It allowed them to make enough to not only support their families, but also donate money to political organizations advancing issues that affected their own communities. That tradition continues today, largely to provide means for a hefty financial burden — college education.
2019 marked the year of the highest level of student debt in the U.S. Today, average tuition and fees costs $22,577 to attend public colleges, and $36,801 for private colleges. Students often inherit this debt after graduating, and have to consider it as they pursue careers and the possibility of continued education.
For Black students, styling hair for their fellow coeds has long been a practice on college and university campuses as a way to offset the cost of receiving an education. Social media platforms — most notably Instagram and YouTube — have helped amateur hair stylists and barbers who are bypassing the cosmetology licensing process and doing hair on campus as a means to pay for tuition and living expenses while working toward a diploma.
Doing hair on campus has led these students to gain a sense of financial independence and sense of self. It’s been a way for them to make new friends across all different groups and cliques on campus.
Unlike professional stylists, students have to navigate a complicated web of school and state licensing policies. Although 28 states do not currently require a license to braid hair, all but one of the students interviewed for this story reside in states that do. According to the Institute for Justice “to legally braid hair for a living, braiders in many states must spend thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours on cosmetology training — training that has nothing to do with African-style hair braiding.” The organization’s model braiding bill is pushing for more states to change their policy and exempt braiders from licensure so they can get their businesses off the ground and avoid getting “tangled up in senseless occupational and salon licensing regulations.” Despite these restrictions, many Black college students continue to operate their businesses like so many kitchen beauticians before them.
While the policy is clear from the state perspective, it’s a bit murkier on the university level. Many of the universities attended by the students interviewed did not seem to have definitive policies around students offering services for a fee on campus. They encourage entrepreneurship through academic programs, or allow students to organize events where they can sell their goods, or even talk about how they started a small business on campus. However, the rules of whether or not they can regularly charge to perform services are unclear. Because of these factors, students interviewed for this piece are referred to by their first or middle name in an effort to protect their identity.
When I called Ariana, a junior at Hampton University studying marketing, she was in the midst of transforming a spare room in her friend’s home into a salon suite. She has been doing hair on campus since her freshman year, and business was booming. She wanted to create a permanent space outside of her dorm room where she could take clients.
Although she grew up practicing on mannequin heads and Bratz dolls, it was a bad hair salon experience in high school that shaped her into a YouTube-taught hair stylist. In 10th grade, her hair became damaged from hot blow dryers and flat irons. She decided enough was enough; it was time to get serious about learning how to do her own hair. She started styling her hair into braids and natural styles, and eventually it became a skill she could perform on other people.
But doing hair on campus was a total accident. Ariana was hanging out with a group of friends when they all decided to braid one girl’s hair. Once the group realized Ariana was a talented braider, they let her take over. In another instance, a friend booked a hair appointment and the stylist cancelled. Ariana came to the rescue — and without an Instagram page to promote and share, word traveled around campus that Ariana could do hair. She had unexpectedly started a small business and became the go-to girl on campus for braids, faux locs and twists. She now has an Instagram page of over 2,000 followers solely dedicated to her work. She takes two to five clients weekly, while balancing the six classes she’s enrolled in this semester.
For Ariana, this has all been a lesson in time management and making sure the hours she spends doing hair are worth it, because she could be studying. Although she didn’t wish to share how much she makes weekly, she explained that she’s raised her prices each grade year and uses the money she makes to buy more supplies, enjoy her college experience (this year she traveled to the Bronner Bros. International Beauty Show), and save for her continued pursuit towards a professional cosmetology license after graduation. Styling hair has also gotten her interested in a career on the business side of the beauty industry.
On campus stylists aren't new. There was a time when beauty culture curriculums were formally offered at some colleges and vocational schools, spearheaded by entrepreneur and beauty mogul Madam C.J. Walker — the first self-made millionaire in America whose life is the inspiration for a Netflix series premiering in March. Once a laundress, she started working as a sales agent for Annie Malone, another Black millionaire and hair care entrepreneur. During this time, Walker began developing and selling her own products, and created the Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company in 1910. She had no problem speaking proudly about her business accomplishments, and used her own story as an example of one way Blacks could achieve financial stability. She was a philanthropist and activist, often speaking at Black political conventions, stressing the importance of entrepreneurship among Black people, and encouraging women to stake a claim in the space.
Students who attended her stand alone Walker Beauty Colleges across the country were taught The Walker System, creating “beauty culturists,” or sales agents, who could sell her product door-to-door, or open their own salons with a Walker plaque hanging in the window. However, she knew that if she wanted to expand, getting a curriculum into colleges and universities would be key. She also knew bringing her successful system to schools could impact the quality of life among Black people.
“Walker saw this as such a lucrative and important way for Black women to get economic autonomy,” Tiffany Gill, professor and author of Beauty Shop Politics: African American Women's Activism in the Beauty Industry explained over the phone. Walker viewed hair styling as any other vocational skill Black men were being taught as a path toward financial freedom. And she knew the importance of having her program in schools such as Mary McLeod Bethune’s Daytona Educational and Industrial Training School for Negro Girls (which eventually evolved into Bethune-Cookman University), and Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute, which were both vocational.
“These were the schools that were about empowering African-Americans with skills that they could turn into money very quickly, ” Gill says.
Gill notes in Beauty Shop Politics that Bethune, who was a supporter and confidant of Walker, welcomed the Walker Beauty Culture Method into her school. However, Walker faced pushback in getting her curriculum into Booker T. Washington’s. It was Washington’s wife and daughter that convinced him that it was important to have The Walker Beauty Culture Method at his vocational school.
Walker no doubt identified a business opportunity that still holds weight today. According to Nielsen, Black consumers spend a total of $473 million in a $4.2 billion industry in total hair care. Black women make up 85 percent of spending with the beauty aids category and ethnic hair care. And like Walker, Black college students are tapping into that market.
But the game has changed quite a bit. Back then, Walker’s agents would gain clients by selling products door-to-door. Today, campus stylists use Instagram, Twitter and Snapchat to showcase their skills and gain customers. Most of the students who I spoke to have two pages: personal and business. On their business pages, you’ll find price lists, sales announcements during big campus events (like spring fest and homecoming), and photos of finished styles. Mobile apps such as Venmo, Cash App, and Zelle make the payment process seamless.
Sydneigh, a junior studying fashion at Southern University and A&M College, had clients even before she stepped foot on campus. She had made it onto a university dance team, which meant she and all her new teammates would always need to look on point.
“When we all made the team, we all found each other [online].” It was clear from her Instagram photos that Sydneigh could slay a hair look. “They just contacted me and asked me if I did hair or if I made wigs, and said they would want me to do their hair when I got to school.” She now does hair out of her apartment, making anywhere from $250 to $500 per week while juggling her course load. She uses the money to pay for living expenses such as rent and groceries. Right now, her tuition is covered through grants and loans, but she’s saving to be able to pay off student loans after graduation.
While word of mouth is still a strong marketing tactic — word of GroupMe, a group text message app, is just as strong on some campuses. When Karimah, a junior in Howard University’s School of Business, arrived on campus in the spring of 2019 to start her first semester of college, she knew exactly where to go to let people know that she did hair. At Howard, GroupMe serves as a virtual bulletin board.
“Any hustle you have, you can put it in the GroupMe and somebody will find it.”
Karimah says some of the groups she is part of have a little over 1,000 people offering everything from tutoring to clothes. With persistent posting, and the benefit of living in Howard’s biggest all-female freshman dorm, Karimah not only found new friends, she found clients — she can make up to $100 a week styling hair.
Black women aren’t the only ones cashing in on their hair styling skills. Black men are also tapping into the need for barbers on campus. Dre, an architecture student at Hampton University in Virginia, has built a clientele of not only students, but a roster of Black men in town looking for a cut through theCut, an app connecting barbers with clientele and vice versa. He takes an average of 20 appointments per week, and that number can double during school events and holidays. He’s learned to manage his time by scheduling appointments versus taking walk-ins. That allows him to still prioritize classes.
“You take some of the hype-ness of your business away by scheduling, but on the other hand, people respect you more because you have a set time.”
Of course, these students aren’t the only ones on campus offering up their talents. I asked Ariana if there was any tension among student stylists to gain customers and keep business going.
“I feel like people try to make it a competition,” she admits. “But there’s an understanding among all of us that we’re all students and we can’t handle doing everyone.”
Plus, all different stylists have their own specialities. If there is a style Ariana doesn’t have experience with, she’ll refer a client to someone who does. In the past, Ariana has partnered with other stylists on campus for events.
Using hair styling skills to gain financial independence is a tradition the community is all too familiar with. It's a means of ‘making a way out of no way’ and planning for a better future — as Black people have done for centuries.
For students who don’t attend a historically Black college or university, doing hair puts them in high demand as their Black peers search for services in a majority white community. Olivia, a sophomore majoring in public relations at American University, is one of few Black students on campus styling hair. Born in Guyana and raised in a largely Caribbean neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York, she plopped herself into another world by enrolling in a primarily white institution or PWI. She felt urged to start doing hair on campus after a conversation with a group of other Black women following a screening of the movie Nappily Ever After starring Sanaa Lathan. When they huddled together to talk about the movie’s themes, women began to open up about struggles with their own hair journey.
Olivia started going natural in high school after damage from flat ironing her hair.
“I feel like my hair was always the most important part of my appearance to me. Even subconsciously when I was younger,” she explains.
By the time she moved to Washington, D.C., she had done all of the experimenting and knew how to flawlessly pull off her favorite looks. The skills worked in her favor, as attending a PWI meant students were already in search for a stylist in a city that many of them were new to. It dawned on Olivia that there were women at a tough phase in their hair journey that she had been through, and she realized she could help right on campus. Today, she makes an average of $200 a week.
Every student stylist I spoke with has plans to continue in the beauty industry, in some capacity, after they graduate — either by receiving a cosmetologist license, styling hair for editorial photoshoots, opening a shop, or working on the business side of beauty.
Doing hair on campus has led these students to gain a sense of financial independence and sense of self. It’s been a way for them to make new friends across all different groups and cliques on campus. Ariana attributes her ability to be herself on campus to her styling skills.
“I never had to be someone I wasn’t to fit in,” she says.
After all, their practice draws back to the essence of forming community. The intimacy of sitting close to someone and talking about life while they style your hair is a sense of familiarity many Black people grew up with at home. And using hair styling skills to gain financial independence is a tradition the community is all too familiar with. It's a means of "making a way out of no way" and planning for a better future — as Black people have done for centuries.
The words "Black History Month" often evoke stories of luminaries like Rosa Parks and Dr Martin Luther King Jr. While their legacies will always be crucial to the culture, this year, we're going beyond. Roots is R29Unbothered's Black History Month series that delves into the tangled history of Black identity, beauty and contributions to the culture. Follow along as we shine light on Black history and Black present throughout February and beyond — because Black history is made every day.