“Tattooed? Sorority member? Fraternity member? Younger? Older? Short? Tall? Introvert? Extrovert? Male? Female? Gender-Fluid? Gay? Straight? Bisexual? Like cats? Like dogs? Enjoy long walks in the park? Enjoy long Netflix marathons? Eat donuts? Drink wheatgrass?—if any of these apply to you, then we will make sure you feel welcomed when you visit Knoxville Beauty Collective by Scarlet Strange, Knoxville, Tennessee’s, judgement-free salon family.” --Knoxville Beauty Collective
This invitation is from Knoxville Beauty Collective, a salon in Knoxville, Tennessee, where staff greets everyone into their space with open arms and minds. Theirs is an example of a salon that prioritizes inclusion, and salon owners who have done the same say it’s been transformational, impacting hearts, minds and the bottom line. By fostering an environment that embraces individuality—gender, race, religious and political beliefs, culture or disability—on their team and in their books, they create a system where everyone feels respected and heard.
While the U.S. boils over with political tensions, a historically open-minded salon community reflects the best of human nature. Having a team with different stories, who share perspectives and experiences, helps organizations become more self-reflective and resilient as they learn together. And this sets the stage for how salon guests are treated as well.
“There are 14 different languages in addition to English spoken among our team,” says Karie Bennett, co-owner of Atelier Salons in San Jose, California. “We love hearing Japanese, Hindi, Spanish, Vietnamese, even Amharic from Ethiopia spoken in the salon. We have a strict no-harassment policy in our employee handbook and are zero tolerant. Because of this, our guests from all over the world can feel comfortable in our salons. We are judgement-free, which is also important when our transgender guests come in for the first hair appointment in their transition. We are honored to be a part of the journey.”
Fiona Tolunay, owner and director of operation, Vanity Salons in Houston, is the daughter of emigré parents. “I felt fortunate to have an upbringing that appreciated diversity,” she explains. Tolunay says that Houston attracts people coming to work in the oil and gas industries, for the energy trade and in the medical fields. “It’s never boring, and no day is ever the same. Our staff gets to interact with clients from all over the world.”
Tolunay’s clientele includes Muslim women who wear a hijab to conform to Islamic standards of modesty.
“These clients want a private space for religious reasons and so we schedule them for the hair service on a day when the nail technician or esthetician won’t be working in their rooms. We don’t have separate shampoo bowls so we let them know we can put them at the last shampoo bowl so we can help them stay covered and do everything we can to accommodate them.
“With things constantly changing and evolving, it can be challenging,” she adds. “But my mom taught our staff that being empathetic toward someone always goes a long way. If there is miscommunication or we don’t understand, at least show empathy so they know we are trying our best to do what we can. I always tell the front desk if there’s a situation, flip the story; if it was you, how would you want it handled?”
Graciela Santiler Nowik owns Hair Base Salon & Spa in Chicago, Illlinois, a neighborhood that has a large Orthodox Jewish community in which many women choose to cover their heads after marriage with hats, scarves and wigs. This standard of modesty is met at Hair Base, where Orthodox women have found that craft and caring go together.
“My mom, who had been working with wigs for years, had a woman come in whose regular stylist, at another salon, wasn’t available and that started the ball rolling,” Nowik shares. “Within 10 years, we became the place you go to for wigs in our area.”
Nowik and team had trained through Cosmetologists Chicago to learn how to fit cancer patients with wigs, so they were familiar with basic styling, but Nowik’s mother provided advanced education and the business grew.
“As years passed, and we listened to our client’s needs, we knew we needed more than just a little screen to put up for privacy,” she says. “We took over the space next door and designed three semi-private rooms so clients can come in whether they are cancer patients or someone needing a wig done for religious reasons. We got to the point that during Jewish holidays we were so busy that we had one person designated to shampoo wigs all day long.”
When Nowik’s clients bring in their wigs, usually on a head form, they are signed-in and tagged (“There could be up to 100 wigs being worked on during a holiday,” Nowik says.) and then left to be styled.
“Our team has thorough education and training, which includes explaining why the wigs are important to these women, and why they wear them,” she says. “We are a diverse group of hairdressers, and my staff treats everyone with the ultimate respect. While there are times when things can take you by surprise, they just roll with it.”
Bryan Nunes, co-founder and owner of Blo in Raleigh, North Carolina, developed the SnapSnip tool that empowers salon guests through a virtual consultation process. SnapSnip is easy to use—guests take a photo of their hair and, along with any inspiration pics and a description of their desired result, share it with a salon. When he set out to design it, Nunes couldn’t have foreseen how this technology would be used.
“The first salon that brought SnapSnip in shared a story about their first Snap submission, which came from a transsexual in the process of transitioning from woman to man,” he says. “He had very long hair and wanted a hair cut but was still getting used to his new identity. He received a very warm and welcoming response from a stylist, which was exactly what he needed to be able to come in and have his hair cut. He told me he appreciated the opportunity to feel safe and to not walk in, feeling vulnerable, without being able to test the waters.”
At the Knoxville Beauty Collective, owner Scarlet Strange wants everyone who comes through the door to feel comfortable with being themselves—guests and employees, alike. She doesn’t impose a dress code on her team because, “I want everyone to be themselves and be proud of that. I don’t want to force anyone into a mold, whether it’s clients or stylists.”
Strange says creating a judgement-free space took patience, mixed with a little trial and error. “It wasn’t a common thing around Knoxville at the time I opened my salon, so the first hairdressers I worked with struggled with understanding that judgment-free also meant that we were judgment-free, even if someone’s beliefs or opinions were opposite of our own. That is the true definition of being judgment-free. We can all respect each other, regardless of what you believe in or what I believe in. We are all human underneath it all.”
For Strange that judgement-free attitude is reflected on her menu with gender-neutral pricing, and in marketing efforts—this past year the salon offered half off services for students attending the local Diversity Prom.
At Blo, Nunes says they are refocusing on the guest experience, identifying the different touch points Blo employees have with each guest and understanding the emotional connections they make with each guest.
“What we’ve identified as most important for our guests and employees is trust,” Nunes says. “When clients come into a new hair salon, they have had enough experiences where they often come in with apprehension. We are approaching these touchpoints with behaviors that offer a worry-free experience. Trust is the goal that all of us are trying to earn or reestablish with guests.”
Atelier Salon has had calls from women who wear a hijab asking if they can ensure that no men will be in the salon so they can come in for a service. Bennett says they were never able to guarantee that privacy, because the stations are open, and they have heavy retail traffic.
“When we decided to close our four-chair barber shop, we did not know what to do with the space and were tossing around ideas,” Bennett recalls. “We remembered the challenges we had with offering privacy in the salon for the Muslim community. We did a bit of research on the web, and did not find any high-end salons offering it or advertising it. We learned women in the Muslim community were having quick hair cuts in kitchens, garages and bathrooms, and the experience was anything but relaxing and rejuvenating. We knew there was a void in our community that needed to be filled, because we believe that every woman has the right to a beautiful salon experience.”
Bennett and her business partner, Rob Willis, made the decision to create the Atelier Private Suite. “The room has its own access through the reception on the second floor of our salon, its own drink station and a comfortable sofa,” Bennett says. “We installed a floor-to-ceiling curtain, and stocked the station with thermal tools. The stylist brings their combs and shears, and greets the client in the Suite. We glammed it up and made sure everything a stylist would need was in the room so they never had to open the curtain during the service. We found the sofa added a cozy element that allowed mothers to bring their daughters with them and allowed a little socializing within their own community all in the comfort of the private suite.”
After a successful trial run, the suite was up-and-running, with the team embracing the idea behind it. “We discussed how we get to serve an underserved community and our staff were very proud of the concept and looked forward to serving a new clientele.”
Not every effort to create a business that celebrates diversity will bounce into place but merely paying lip service to inclusion will be a hollow exercise; real change requires deliberate and intentional action.
“I worried about the response when I opened my salon,” Strange says. “It has been nothing but love and light. We’ve had a few people that were confused by our aesthetic but now we have such a large diverse clientele. We have 80-year-old clients with purple hair, 20-somethings that prefer a soft balayage, young, old, liberal, conservative, PhDs, and everything in between. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”