Thinking outside the box helped salon through Covid-19
For a while, Akilia Darrell worried that her hard work would all go down the drain because of Covid-19.
She was the sole employee when she opened Hair Am I in 2012; the salon had a staff of 11 when the government ordered the island to shelter in place.
“The pandemic hit the whole world but being in business, not being able to work every day, not being able to supply your family’s needs, not being able to keep up with your bills was devastating.”
Friends and fellow entrepreneurs were calling “every day in a panic” as they tried to figure out what to do.
“One month of rent went by, then another.”
Eventually, more worried about the accruing debt than any threat to her health from Covid-19, she started to brainstorm.
“I always say a seed can grow in concrete,” she said. “You don’t need soil. There is always a next level. You have growth in everything.”
Ms Darrell started scouring social media to figure out what was bothering people from a beauty perspective: hair, beards and toe nails were often discussed.
“I came into the shop – I normally stock up on so many goods for pedicures – and I created little pedi bags. I would put all the utensils you needed to clip your toe nails, stuff to get rid of your calluses, a little bit of nail polish. That bag just took flight.”
She sold her first 40 for $40 apiece, in a flash. Then she started ordering boxes off Amazon, adding her own touch “to make it look more unique, and better in presentation”.
“I sold about 80 to 95 of these pedicure boxes before we opened up again.”
It allowed her to at least pay her utilities.
“It was bad but, out of this, a lot of people became inventors and came up with solutions to other people’s problems which created another stream of income,” Ms Darrell said.
She created a website for the first time, and started making deliveries.
“I never thought I would be jumping in my car with a wig to take it up the road to make sure that someone in need that can’t make it to the salon gets it,” she said. “The situation is bad, but there is good in everything that is bad.”
Even with that need she still had to prove herself when the salon was allowed to reopen at the end of May. Adding to that decline, large-scale weddings and major social events such as Bermuda Day and Cup Match were cancelled and a lot of people were working from home.
A few people came in looking to get dolled up for birthday parties and photo shoots but, for the most part, tastes shifted towards easy care.
“It was a good bit of people that came out but many others were still keeping their distance,” she said. “I had to show people what the safety precautions were that we had in place.
“People more interested in braids. My customers gravitated towards natural hair that would last them two months.”
Aware that spas would remain shut until Bermuda entered Phase Four, she began to offer waxing kits.
“That was a market I would not have seen every day coming to do people’s hair,” she said. “I was able to create income from the complaints people were making on Facebook.”
Nearly a year on, things are looking a bit better. On March 1 she took her staff to brunch at the Hamilton Princess to celebrate nine years in business.
The milestone felt especially satisfying considering all she had been through in business and in life.
With a Bermudian father and a Jamaican mother she bounced between the two islands. At 11, her mother sent her to school in Jamaica. Shortly after, her life started to derail.
“I was a troubled teen coming from a broken home as my father had a drug addiction,” she said. “At 13, I was caught driving my mother’s car in Jamaica. I shouldn’t have been on the road without a licence and registration. I gave my mother a lot of headaches.”
She was sentenced to a year and a half in a juvenile correctional facility where young girls were expected to take beauty courses along with academic subjects.
“It was part of the reform process,” Ms Darrell said. “It was so we could find a job when we came out.”
She earned a cosmetology certificate at 14. After her release she entered Excelsior High School where she received five CXCs, the exam standard set by the Caribbean Examinations Council for countries in that region, in subjects such as accounting and principles of business.
Years later these courses would help her start Hair Am I, but when she returned to Bermuda at 21 nobody “really knew what to make of [them]”.
She spent more than a year searching for a job in a salon, doing whatever she could in the meantime to get by.
Her big break came after she did the hair of a friend, Edwina Grant. That the weave looked so good for so long impressed her sister, Greashena Spence Lawes. About to open her own business, Plush Salon, she invited Ms Darrell to join her.
“She gave me the opportunity to start out in the beauty world. I said I know nothing much about hair, but I am willing to learn. She hired me as a junior.”
When she went out on her own in 2012 she made every mistake in the book: “I didn’t take out a loan. I used my own savings. My first years in business were murderation.”
With her own experience in mind she tries to stay on the lookout for young talent. She has taken on Bermuda College students so they can gain work experience, inspired employees to launch their own business, and has rented her space to youngsters just starting out.
“For me, that is the blessing of how I got into business,” she said. “I am more open to giving people chances; maybe you are not qualified but you do have something to bring to the table. I have given a lot of people chances without certification.”
Contact Hair I Am on Facebook @hairamisalon; hairamisalon.mysalononline.com; 292-8808; firstname.lastname@example.org.