By Sherese Gore
Butterflies are symbols of change and transition. The butterfly logo for the Henrico-based Karen Wilson Natural Beauty is an apt representation of the personal and professional metamorphosis of business owner, Karen Wilson. “My business is transformation,” says Wilson. “For me, it’s not just outward transformation but inner transformation.” Wilson, 36, has been styling hair her entire life–a passion that was for many years little more than a hobby. After receiving her bachelor’s degree in sociology, and later dual master’s degrees in social work and urban studies, cosmetology took a back seat to more pressing concerns as a research faculty member in psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University.
But Wilson’s passion for hair design remained strong. “On the outside, I had it made,” she says. “I had a wonderful boss who was very supportive. I had my own office, but that wasn’t enough because I wasn’t fulfilled.” In keeping with her hidden talents, Wilson gained her cosmetology license and began doing hair part time while continuing her fulltime work at VCU. But in 2008, Wilson’s hair was thinning, a loss she attributed to hair relaxers.
She had a revelation. “I’m in my 30s, and I don’t really know what my hair looks like,” she says. During this time, Wilson noticed an increased popularity in natural hairstyles; her investigative nature took over and she began researching the conversion process from relaxed to natural hair. In 2008, Wilson cut off her hair to begin her own journey into the natural process.
“I really, really loved natural hair,” Wilson says. That love, in turn, became the seed for a new business. She soon discovered that readily available hair products were overly drying to her new natural hair growth. In response, Wilson purchased hair products designed for natural hairstyles and developed a website to market her wares in 2009. But she jumped into entrepreneurship unprepared. The website never fully launched, and the hair products business was losing money. “I realized I did it all wrong,” Wilson says.
Wilson’s turning point came in the form of business classes offered by the nonprofit organization United Virginia. “The purpose of the organization is to work with people looking to start small businesses and to connect them with resources to make that happen,” says United Virginia Executive Director Josh Sheldon. “I learned the business of running a business,” Wilson says. “That’s what helped me to think of my business as a business as opposed to (being) self-employed.”
The knowledge she gained from United Virginia resulted in the reinvention of her company’s brand as well as the development of a solid business plan. Instead of simply selling hair products, Wilson incorporated natural hairstyling into the enterprise. Her clientele grew so much that she was forced to make a professional decision: continue her research duties at VCU or pursue her business full time. “I prayed about it, and to leave my nice comfortable job at VCU—it was really stepping out on faith,” she says. In December 2010, she resigned from VCU, and in January 2011, Karen Wilson Natural Beauty was launched. “When I made the decision, everything just fell into place,” she says.
Today, clients at Wilson’s salon in White Oak Village have the option of having their natural hair styled or can choose from products ranging from shampoos and conditioners to moisturizers and scalp stimulants. In addition, the company’s website is not just a digital storefront but an outlet disseminating hair advice and information. One video, in a series entitled Follow My Journey, depicts Wilson, shorn of locks, advising women about the benefits of proper nutrition for hair growth. “I’m a stylist, but I’m more focused on being an educator,” Wilson says.
Education is a strong component of her business. “For most women, our hair is foreign to us,” Wilson says. In response to this lack of information, Wilson began conducting home hair parties. During those events she answered questions about natural hair care and performed product demonstrations. The parties became so popular that Wilson began renting out space, and now she travels the country giving monthly speaking engagements about natural hair.
Wilson acknowledges that society is not always receptive to a black woman’s natural hair. The first step in converting to natural hair styles is transitioning your mind, Wilson says. “You have to think of your hair in a positive light, even if you don’t feel that way.” Hair textures vary from tightly coiled to loose and wavy–avoid trying to “look like your sister or girlfriend because it’s not going to look like it,” she says. For women interested in going natural but unwilling to cut off relaxed hair, Wilson suggests adopting the appearance of natural hair during the transition period by twisting together strands of hair. “Some people transition for six months, some for two years. For those that take longer, it’s because their mindset hasn’t changed,” she says.
Avoid applying heat to the hair during the transition process, and trim ends every two months, she adds. Meanwhile, a good moisturizer is essential. “Typically, your natural hair is very dry, and you don’t want your hair to start breaking off,” Wilson says. Petroleum-based products sit on the hair and collect dirt and debris; coconut oils are best, she says. In addition, Wilson advises against using products that contain sulfates—an ingredient she claims is drying to black hair.
In addition to workshops and speaking engagements, Wilson continues her involvement with United Virginia, this time as a mentor. For those curious about starting their own business, Wilson urges aspiring entrepreneurs to attend a business class and to develop a strong business plan. “If you fail to plan, you plan to fail,” she says. A business plan is a working document, she says, and one that she relies upon and updates once a year. “Based upon what I did in the past year, I plan for the current year. I figure out what works, what didn’t work, and I plan for the next year.”
According to Wilson, continued growth will be the focus of Karen Wilson Natural Beauty in the coming years. In particular, Wilson has recently completed a book about natural hair, which should be released next month. “I feel this is my ministry—to serve women,” she says.
Karen Wilson Natural Beauty, www.karenwilsonbeauty.com, (757) 619-2738, Salon Plaza, White Oak Village 4501 S. Laburnum, #515, Studio 110Richmond, VA 23231
United Virginia, unitedvirginia.org