When asked to recall their earliest memories of beauty supply stores, Black women will likely share the same ones: browsing the aisles to decide what might suit our hair best; examining the various lengths and textures of packs of hair for our first sew-in; and debating between hair colors to find the one for us.
Sixteen-year-old Paris McKenzie, however, will remember being racially profiled and followed throughout her neighborhood beauty supply store as one of her earliest experiences.
For Black girls, beauty supply stores can be a haven. We frequently veer from our list of must-buy products and leave those stores with so much more. Yet most of these locations where Black consumers spend their money are rarely owned or run by Black people. In a report from the Black Owned Beauty Supply Association, Tobi Idowu of Business of Fashion stated earlier this year that "of at least 9,000 shops specializing in Black haircare and cosmetics in the US, 3,000 are Black-owned, and the majority of the remaining are operated by people of Korean descent" (BOBSA).
“I have never been inside a Black-owned beauty supply store," McKenzie told Elle. "When I entered a beauty supply store, either I didn't receive good customer service, I received an attitude, or individuals watched me intently or followed me around the store." McKenzie now feels comfortable sitting in the back of Paris Beauty Supplyz, perched between a wall of Freetress braiding hair and a glass case filled with headbands and hoops. That's because her name is on the lease for the Black-owned beauty shop.
McKenzie was born into the beauty industry. Senica, her mother, has owned and run Brooklyn's Paris Hair Studio and Paris Runway Boutique for the past 16 years. Senica is a hairstylist and serial entrepreneur (both of which are named for her daughter). Growing up, McKenzie followed her mother around the house and frequently visited a supply store close to both of their places of work. It was then owned by a Korean family that Paris and her mother got along with well.
Prior to working as a sales associate at the Paris Runway boutique, where she gained daily customer interaction and pricing experience, McKenzie was a shampoo girl at the hair salon. "Every time a customer entered the store and began to look around, I would approach them and comment, ‘This will look beautiful on you. Try it on, please. It looks like your style,’" she recounted.
The beauty supply shops McKenzie and her family frequently visited made the decision to close when the pandemic struck earlier this year, and it was looking for new owners. Senica was approached by the proprietors with an offer she couldn't reject because of her standing and success in the neighborhood. But rather than adding another establishment to her portfolio, Senica turned to her daughter and suggested she buy the store for herself. McKenzie was able to get the lease on the space thanks to her brother Oshane, who assisted her in setting up an LLC.
The first order of business was to thoroughly renovate the store, starting with ripping out the carpet and ending with restocking the shelves with goods that cater to every hair type, texture, and way of life. She chuckles and continues, imitating a TV infomercial, "Come in here and you'll find it. Anything you want to make yourself feel more beautiful—lashes, concealer, lip gloss."
The visibility she received from a single Tweet, though, was unmatched by any TV placement. When she first established the store on September 4, she wrote: "At 16 years old, I recently became the youngest Black owner of a beauty supply store! [You can support me] by a simple retweet or like.”
McKenzie was surprised by more than she could have imagined when she immediately received praise and encouragement. The initial tweet received hundreds of retweets, garnering attention from celebrities like Janet Jackson and Bella Hadid who both retweeted McKenzie's statement. "Since it was Janet Jackson, my mother and I both went absolutely insane. Wow, Janet Jackson recognizes my name."
When you enter Paris Beauty Supplyz, you get a sense of familiarity that is soothing. Perhaps it is the cheerful welcome and smile Shawntelle, McKenzie's younger sister, gives you as you enter. Before rushing off to finish her homework, she asks me, "Is there anything I can assist you with." Another possibility is that Oshane, McKenzie's protective elder brother, is pacing the aisles to ensure that each item is properly positioned. In-store and online, McKenzie may choose to carry mass names over smaller companies, but maintaining family involvement in the company is still essential.
A mother and daughter recently traveled across Texas to meet the 16-year-old who is motivating young girls to start their own businesses regardless of their age. Since we opened, McKenzie says, "It's been this way."
She recalls learning about Kayla and Keonna Davis, two sisters who made history in 2019 by being the youngest Black women to open a beauty supply store in California. Sadly, the sisters' business had to be shut down since they had trouble getting goods from producers. The impact on young Black and brown females is what McKenzie is more worried about, even if she is aware that there would be hiccups along the way.
As she puts it, "It feels amazing to be able to join in on what was already going on because it was so influential and so important for a lot of Black, young girls, and Black people everywhere to see Black people stepping up and breaking those barriers that held us back for so long in the beauty supply market."
McKenzie is still thinking about a fallback strategy despite having a store to operate. The 16-year-old is currently attending a medical-based high school and is on track to graduate early. She is interested in becoming a pediatric orthopedic surgeon and anticipates being financially independent enough to enroll in an Ivy League college by the time college admission time comes around in August of next year. Her top two choices are Harvard or Stanford.
"Until I hear others exclaim, ‘Oh my my, a 16-year-old owns this,’ it still hasn't dawned on me how significant this is. Why are you folks acting so wild, I wonder constantly." Then she adds, “that makes sense because I am 16 years old and have a beauty supply shop.”