Our BlackHer Shero of the Week is Ruth Brooks, owner and operator of one of New York’s first natural hair salons, Organic Hair Salon. She’s also the founder of the city’s only hair school for natural hair, Natural Hair Course NYC. Ruth loves bringing her unique talents to the world of hair care. While we all wait to get our hair done following our sheltering in place, BlackHer talked to Ruth about her journey.
The hair business has often been an important one for Black women. Many Black women, in the tradition of Madam C.J. Walker, have been able to become entrepreneurs and support ourselves, our families and communities through hair and beauty salons. You have a hair salon and a beauty school! Can you tell us how you got involved in the beauty business?
I am naturally creative and artistic. When I was a child I wrote a lot of poetry and spent a lot of time drawing. I drew pretty accurate likenesses of people and won a few young artist contests in New York.
While I loved drawing, I wasn’t sure how I could make a living as an artist. Then something interesting happened: I saw the album cover Sister Sledge We Are Family. All of the sisters had these fantastic braids and I realized that hair care/styling is an art, and that stylists are very creative! I decided that I wanted to make my living as a stylist.
In the beauty business, different salon owners have different interests, whether it’s cutting, styling, coloring, etc. While my salon provides all types of services, my passion is hair coloring! l learned how to master hair color as an apprentice of Beth Leonardi of the Vidal Sassoon salon.
You’ve had an organic salon for more than 10 years, which was before the organic movement began. What led you to organic products?
As an apprentice learning how to master hair coloring, I was serving clients with color every 15 minutes. I loved my work, but I definitely experienced the effects of breathing bleach all day. I could tell that it was not great for my body. I started thinking that there had to be healthier products that would allow women to look just as good. Then in 2008, President Obama started talking about sustainable solutions. I was inspired to start thinking about the hair business through the same lens.
So what happened?
I started doing a lot of research on organic products. Before long, I was confident that I could offer Black women clients all the beauty services we want, but with non-toxic, organic products. I had a vision. I wanted to create a socially useful, cutting edge salon. I felt confident that I could create and run the business. To open my own salon, I used my 15 years of experience in the beauty business, working at celebrated salons, like Redken, Vidal Sassoon, Style Bar in Sag Harbor and the John Barrett Salon at Bergdorf Goodman. It worked! I’ve had a loyal clientele for years.
Brillant! Why did you open a Natural Hair School last year?
Part of the reason was the opportunity. New York State recently passed a law that requires many hairstylists to take a course in natural hair styling and pass an exam to obtain a salon license to serve clients. At the time that the law passed, no school in New York City offered the required course for natural stylists. My school, Natural Hair Care Course NYC, does.
I also opened the school to be of service to students and my clientele. I have been in the beauty business for more than 20 years. The business itself and my customers are evolving. Women want a gentle, safe and positive hair experience. More and more Black women want to go natural with their hair, which is terrific. We don’t want to use chemicals, which are often damaging to our hair and to our bodies. Teaching lots of people how to properly care for our natural hair is important for Black women.
Speaking of natural hair, how important is the CROWN (Create a Respectful and Open Workplace for Natural Hair) Act for Black people?
The CROWN Act is very important to Black people, since its purpose is to allow us to wear our hair naturally and freely without being discriminated against. It’s sad that it’s 2020 and Black people can still be punished for wearing our natural hair.
A lot of salons in this country are closed while we are all sheltering in place. We are all feeling “undone” these days. Will our entrepreneurs make it through this time?
In New York, salons and barbershops are closed by order of the governor because they are non-essential businesses. Some government resources are available to small businesses, like mine, through the Small Business Association’s Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, but there may not be enough resources for all applicants to get these funds. These are serious times for everyone.
Let me ask you the miracle question. You go to sleep tonight and wake up tomorrow and it’s April 2021 and a miracle has occurred for Black women. What happened?
Well, given where things are today, a miracle for all of us would be that the coronavirus has been completely eradicated and we are all back to business as usual.
Due to the coronavirus, many things will change. That’s unavoidable. The miracle would be that we reposition ourselves as relevant players in the face of change.
We are creative, entrepreneurial, and supportive of each other. Right now, we have no economy. But by the time it comes back, many, many more women will have had the insight to shift places and come back stronger in 2021.