Sometimes Monster.com falls way short. Sometimes the only way to find the employees you need is to grow them yourself. Business owners do this all the time through training programs, but it’s not easy, especially in a small business. “It’s incredibly expensive and a real tax on the business,” says Sasha Rash, owner of the Palmer Square hair salon, La Jolie. “You have to hire a team to teach.”
The U.S. census says that there are plenty of hair stylists to go around. But, says Rash, “it’s just not so. As a business owner trying to find help in an upscale salon, it’s a real challenge trying to find the right talent.” Rash is also president of the Salon Associates, her industry’s Scottsdale, Arizona-based trade group, so she knows that she is not alone in being handicapped by a lack of well-trained workers.
Rash has one location, at 4 Hulfish Street, and 45 employees, and says that there was no way that she could expand without a lot more qualified help. She already had an active teaching program, but it wasn’t enough. She says that there are 3,000 licensed salons in central New Jersey, and that there are six jobs waiting for every person who graduates from beauty school.
Rather than moan about the situation, Rash took a bold step to up the labor pool in her industry. In January she opened a cosmetology school, The Lab, in Ewing. The school is one of 20 franchises of Paul Mitchell The School, a subsidiary of Paul Mitchell Systems, the hair care products company. When it reaches capacity, the school will be training 300 students at a time, many in its 32-week full-time courses and some in the part-time evening classes it plans to begin in September. While most of the students will be enrolled in the cosmetology class, which leads to the state licensing test, others will be taking a 500-hour course that leads to teaching positions within the industry.
While few Princeton-area parents exert pressure on their young to train for a career in cosmetology, it can be a lucrative choice, and is, Rash points out, one of the easiest industries in which to start a business. “You don’t need $100,000 in equipment. It’s one of the few places where the entrepreneurial dream still thrives. Yes, you can spend up to $500 or $600 a square foot for a magnificent day spa, but you can open a 1,000 square-foot salon for $100 a square foot.”
The industry has been good to Rash, who lives in the financial district of Manhattan with her partner of 10 years, Jonathan Best, the chief methodologist for Princeton Survey Research Associates. She no longer has to be on-site at La Jolie, which is largely run by her managers, and only stops by a few days a month.
But Rash never set out to be a hair stylist — quite the opposite. Her mother, Barbara Rash, worked in hair salons and as a teacher in the beauty business during her childhood. “I was around hair dressers all the time,” she says. She saw that many struggled financially.
“It’s the entrepreneurial myth,” she says. “I’m a great technician and I’ll be a great business person.” The barrier to entry may be low, but that doesn’t matter if the hair stylist doesn’t know the first thing about marketing, hiring, or keeping the books. These things were a struggle for many of her mother’s friends, and so their salon businesses were anything but money machines. She wanted no part of it.
A graduate of the Hun School, Rash earned a B.S. in business from the University of Houston (Class of 1990). After graduating she enrolled in graduate school, picking art history as her course of study pretty much at random.
While she was in graduate school, Rash met a woman who worked for Visible Changes, the first multi-location hair salon business in the Houston market. The woman was about her age, and had just purchased her first home. She drove a Porsche, and talked about exotic vacations. In short, Rash found her lifestyle far removed from that she had seen her mothers’ hair dresser friends living. “I’ll never forget that night,” she says. “It was such an epiphany.”
The Visible Changes employee talked to her about the company’s management training program, and she promptly signed up, trading art history for a smock and a pair of sharp scissors. “It was the hardest work I’ve ever done,” she says, “but it gave me a glimpse of salon ownership as a viable business.”
Hard or not, she was hooked. She came back to New Jersey, where her mother was running La Jolie, a nearly 50-year-old salon, which she had owned since about 1985. And was her mom doing well? “No, she wasn’t,” says Rash. “She was struggling. She is an amazing artist and mentor, but she is a horrible manager.” Rash took over in the mid-1990s. Her mother remained, teaching and manning the front desk.
With training an increasingly onerous part of the business — and a brake on expansion — Rash heard about the Paul Mitchell school franchises. She began the process of starting a school 18 months ago, scouting a location and renovating a strip mall store front. Her marketing plan involved spreading the word to every salon and cosmetologist in central New Jersey. “Most girls choose a beauty school by asking their hair dressers,” she says. So she mailed information to every one of them.
As strapped for labor as she is, the salon owners have responded. “I’ve gotten calls from 100 salons,” she says. “It’s so good to know that I’m not alone.” There are few other options in the area. Mercer County’s technical schools do have cosmetology programs, both for high school students and for adults, but have space for only about 20 students in each session. There is a waiting list for its two high school programs, and the adult evening program fills up fast. The school, which does not charge for high school students, sets tuition for adults at $1,500 a semester for the four-semester course.
Rash’s school, The Lab, has eight students in its inaugural class, but expects to be up to 116 by the end of first year. Its second class begins on March 6. Each student pays $13,500 for the course, which includes state-mandated instruction in anatomy, physiology, skin care, chemistry, and hygiene as well as hair styling and manicuring. The school does the paperwork for those who want to apply for financial aid from Sallie Mae, a federal tuition-aid program.
In addition to teaching the fine points of layering and tinting, Rash has her teachers stress people skills. She believes that success in the beauty industry is up to 80 percent dependent on the ability to simply “be nice.” All of her teachers go out of their way to show respect to the students and to teach them how to interact with their future clients in an industry where businesses rise or fall based on personal relationships.
That future can be bright indeed. Rash says that cosmetologists who go into teaching can make upwards of $60,000 a year. Those who cultivate an A-list clientele can make substantially more, and those like Rash, who become successful business owners, have limitless earning potential.
The Lab, 25 Scotch Road, Ewing 08628; 609-406-0444; fax, 609-406-9818. Sasha M. Rash, owner. www.paulmitchellthelab.com