It's not news that Sophia Bush is more than just a TV star. In recent years, she's also dipped her toes into producing, raised her profile as a social activist, and in 2017 became a female founder, alongside her best friend Nia Batts, of Detroit Blows, a Detroit-based one-stop, nontoxic finishing salon.
Nia, a Detroit native, was formerly senior director of strategic partnerships and social innovation at Viacom. She first came up with the idea for Detroit Blows in 2010, with her friend and now business partner Katy Cockrel. Detroit Blows isn't just a finishing salon — it also has a philanthropic arm, Detroit Grows, which is dedicated to helping other entrepreneurs invest in Detroit. As part of their goal to grow a mission-driven company, the salon donates a percentage of its retail footprint and $1 of every blowout service to support Detroit-based female entrepreneurs and other local, women-focused organizations.
Refinery29 interviewed Nia and Sophia by phone last December, and they were eager to talk about what inspired them to invest in a business in Detroit, why it's crucial for companies to reinvest in their communities, and what's next for the Detroit Blows community.
I read somewhere that you two met at a social-impact conference. I wanted to hear a little bit about how you two became friends.
Nia: “We are 99% sure we first met at the social-impact conference, but we don't totally remember.”
Sophia: “We met, and we were like, There you are. We were immediate and fast, best friends, and it's been a decade. That's crazy, it's been a decade.”
Nia, you left a big job at Viacom, came back to Detroit, and started Detroit Blows. I'm always so inspired by women who have the guts to quit the corporate world and become an entrepreneur. What inspired you to take the leap?
Nia: “I left Detroit when I was 18. I went to school in New York, and so I was away for a lot of the tough years. There's that really emotional connection that you have for the place that you're from. And I started thinking about ways in which the work that I was doing could drive resources and really impactful opportunities for the kids on the ground in Detroit.
“When I worked for Viacom, I would be in Detroit a lot for meetings with General Motors. Our other business partner, Katy, was running a PR firm in Detroit at the time. I was always asking her where I could get my hair blown out. There wasn’t anywhere inside the city — we had to travel out to the suburbs. At the same time, we were talking to GM about what it means to be a place where young millennials wanted to work. Their employees were living in the city, but spending most of their dollars in the suburbs because downtown didn't have the service businesses they needed. And I found I was doing the same thing.
“In my office in Viacom, I had a sign that said, ‘Remember why you started.’ And I realized that I needed to figure out something that I could do back in Detroit.”
Sophia: “I want to revitalize one of our great classic cities, and I had a personal stake in it because of my friendship [with Nia]. When we talk about cities being revitalized, you're always at risk for gentrification… So for me, as an investor and a partner, to know that Detroit is going through the big wave of revitalization, we wanted to have skin in the game. We wanted to be female founders. We wanted a seat at the table. There's plenty of developers who aren't thinking about [how their work will impact and take care of the community] — we want it to be the opposite of that.
“Detroit Blows is across the street from the Shinola Hotel, we're across the street from 340,000 square feet of commercial, residential, and retail space. We've had the ability to build this business in the most sought-after area, and oftentimes those opportunities are not always afforded to people who look like our management team.”
Can you talk a little bit about the struggles you faced launching this business? Has anything come up that completely surprised you?
Nia: "Traditionally, salons are segregated spaces, and we really wanted to actively combat that, especially in a city like Detroit. So when we were going through our initial training and talent development, it was really important that we could train stylists who might not have had exposure to every hair type.
“In doing that, we've curated a really diverse team. You can come into the salon, and you don't need someone who looks like you to do your hair. I love that moment when someone might be a little apprehensive like, Is this girl going to be able to do my hair? — I’ve been that person — and then to see them happy when they leave.”
Sophia: “When you look at all the data around how incredibly segregated the beauty industry still is, and also how dangerous and toxic it is: In the U.S., beauty-product ingredients haven't been regulated since the 1930s.
“Every single person who's coming in the door knows that they're coming into a space not only where they are emotionally safe, but where we're trying to take very good physical care of them as well. You hear about the incidence of liver disease in nail technicians because of the chemicals that they're using. You hear about upper respiratory problems with hairdressers because of the chemicals in all these sprays and dyes and things. We don't want to perpetuate those types of cycles.”
Nia: “On the product side, we are fully nontoxic. That commitment extends across the house, not just for the hair side of the business but also makeup, waxing, and vegan, nontoxic semi-permanent lash extensions.”
Sophia: “Building and growing the Blows brand has also surfaced opportunities for us to consult for Fortune 500 companies across all aspects of their brand; including marketing innovation, strategy, and creative. And all of these experiences in turn, help us to goal set and think of new ways to strengthen our own core business.”
You're also very dedicated to reinvesting in the community. Can you talk about why it was so important to make not only a profitable business but one that is dedicated to Detroit and giving back?
Nia: “It's important for people to feel like their dollars matter. We're really excited about the work that we're doing with Alternatives for Girls. We're excited to invest in other entrepreneurs in Detroit. We carry these stories with us, and they flow through the walls of the salon, and everyone shares them with one another. I think that energy is really important because oftentimes people don't know how they can get involved."
Sophia: “Communities need important opportunities. Having a business like Detroit Blows, that proves it's possible, is an incredible win. People think you are either for-profit or nonprofit. I find great irony there because ‘nonprofits’ need to make money so that they can do good work. Nonprofits are actually not non-anything, they're ‘for-purpose’ organizations.
“In this country, we are currently investing improperly. And so for us, as female founders, to say, ‘This is how we invest, this is what we consider to be profitable.’ Our business is a profitable business, and it is a for-purpose business. And when we give grants out, they do change the lives of the people who are receiving them.”
What’s next for Detroit Blows?
Sophia: “We've recently launched a web platform called Beyond the Blowout. We have a wonderful community in Detroit, but we have a massive online community of women that are such fans of the brand. They want us to expand to their cities, but that's obviously not something we can do overnight. So we've launched Beyond the Blowout as a hub.
“It's a really beautiful holistic platform about what modern self-care looks like, what women in business look like, how we do this and who we admire. We're trying to create a well-crafted safe space for women to come to for advice on a multitude of topics, that are in line with our brand and the women that use it.”