Braid It Up

Robin Hunt Fitzhew | Braid It Up
San Jose, California

In the small town of Piccione, Mississippi, 45 miles south of New Orleans, a little girl named Robin spent her days braiding. It didn’t matter whether it was grass, her doll’s curls, or the hair of one of her nine siblings. She just liked to braid. She’d learned how from a neighbor who ran a hair salon out of her garage that catered to all the local ladies, and it stuck.

A Navy brat, she moved frequently before settling with her family in East Palo Alto when she was 11 years old. The sixth of 10 children, Robin became a caregiver to her younger siblings. She jokes that she went from playing with dolls to caring for four children. She says it taught her responsibility, resourcefulness, and to put her all into whatever she was doing.

After high school, Robin headed off to fashion school in Los Angeles. She dreamed of becoming a famous designer. Instead, she became a crack addict. And, like everything, she put everything she had into pursuing it. Six years in, she gave birth to a happy, healthy, beautiful daughter. It took two more years — and a lot of prayer, meditation, and struggle — before she finally decided to put her all into her recovery so she could become a role model for her daughter.

She went to rehab and is focused on her future. But there was one thing from her past she couldn’t quite shake — that little garage where she and her neighbors gathered to get their hair done. That memory sparked something deep inside and she decided to go to cosmetology school. It wasn’t cheap, sos he started braiding people’s hair to make ends meet. Someone reported her for operating hair services out of her apartment without a license, and Robin got a visit from a kind gentleman who worked for the state board, who she affectionately calls Uncle Bill.

Uncle Bill told her what she needed to do and guaranteed that, if she did all those things, he would make sure she got an establishment license. He believed in her. And that’s all she needed. Robin got busy completing all the things Uncle Bill told her to do in the tenacious way she always does things. She also started saving. With the help of Uncle Bill, she got her license and started to look for a place to run her business.

It wasn’t easy. One day she got home and fell on her living room floor crying, only to be interrupted by one of her clients, a no-nonsense bus driver, who stood at the door. She told Robin to get up, stop her crying, and braid her hair. She also told Robin about a house on the East Side that she and her husband had just looked at — it was too small for them, but she thought it might work for Robin. She also warned her to keep an open mind because it was a fixer-upper. Robin went to look at the house and it was perfect.

She invested all her $15,000 savings into converting the garage into a six-station salon. Ever resourceful, Robin found used styling chairs and convinced a friend who worked in construction to build cabinets for each of the stations. She was only able to do a portion of the construction before her money ran out, and she still needed to purchase supplies, furniture, and flooring.

Robin went to her local bank. As a homeowner, she figured she would qualify for a business loan. They turned her down, told her to try again in 60 days. 60 days later, Robin was back in line, this time eight months pregnant. They wouldn’t give her a loan, but they admired her persistence and suggested that a new company might be able to help. They told her it was called Opportunity Fund and the founder’s name was Eric Weaver. Of course, Robin went home and pursued Eric the same day. Three days later, Robin got a loan for $10,000.

With lots of hard work and a little help from Opportunity Fund and people like Uncle Bill, Robin was finally ready to open her fully licensed business — and Braid It Up Hair and Beauty Salon opened its doors.

Over the years, there have been 42 operators at the salon. All of them say Robin has changed their lives. She pushes them. To get a cosmetology license, you must work 1,600 hours and then pass a very intense eight-hour test that includes a written exam and a practical portion. One of her newer girls, Corvette, wanted to quit, but Robin wouldn’t let her. She has her license now. Robin is now in the process of pushing Keisha to get her license. She’s almost there — her hours are finished so now she just needs to take the test. When asked why she does it, Robin struggles to find the best way to put it, she finally says that the salon is a place where people can transform their lives. As it turns out, the salon is also a magnet for young girls looking for transformations of their own, many of them struggling with the same issues that Robin did. Robin is there for them, braiding their hair and offering advice. In return, she has received an award from the Elks Club and has been featured on the front page of the San Jose Mercury News for contributing to the community.

Robin is on her fourth loan with Opportunity Fund. Her husband, a fellow entrepreneur, owns a company called Extreme Supreme Mobile Detailing and Pressure Washing, which Robin named. He’s an Opportunity Fund client, too. Her daughters both have the entrepreneurial bug and Robin plans to send them to Opportunity Fund when they open businesses of their own. Until then, Robin is busy running the salon and working as an educator to prepare cosmetology students for state board testing.

Robin no longer lives near the salon, but she’s decided to keep it in its current location because she loves the community. The area is a melting pot and most of the clientele have been coming for years. Mothers bring their daughters, fathers bring their sons, new clients — mostly from San Jose State, which is around the corner — wander in off the street. They come for braids, weaves, collagen treatments, haircuts, and conversation. But mostly they come because of Robin.

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