Finding beauty amidst the pandemic

Berkeley’s Black-owned salons and barbershops provide education, wellness and spaces for ‘me’-time.

Mea Salon at 1722 Solano Ave, Berkeley, CA 94707, and its owner, Micaela Jordan (“Mea”)
Micaela Jordan, known as “Mika” by her clients, owner of Mea Beauty, said she almost considered switching to another profession during the coronavirus lockdown. Credit: Clara Mokri

This Discovered in Berkeley story is brought to you by Berkeley’s Office of Economic Development.  

After a grand jury opted not to indict the police officer who shot and killed Michael Brown in Ferguson MI, in 2014, YaVette Holts, an acupressurist and South Berkeley community leader, decided she wanted to find a way to advocate for Black people to help them demonstrate a sense of agency and power. 

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“Protests last for however long and it’s generally not a problem, once the protest is over, for people to get back to business as usual,” said Holts. “My idea was to do something that would have a lasting impact — not necessarily a negative boycott-like impact — but a positive, effective and unified effort.”

So, that same year, Holts founded BAOBOB (Bay Area Organization of Black Owned Businesses), an electronic directory of Black-owned businesses and a member network that provides resources for participating businesses to achieve their goals and build supportive collaborations. 

“We really do believe that by fortifying and patronizing Black-owned businesses, intentionally, that gives agency to the community,” said Holts. 

During the pandemic, BAOBOB and the Uptima Entrepreneur Cooperative provided guidance to Black-owned businesses on how to apply for relief funds and helped them optimize their businesses for the long term as part of the City of Berkeley Office of Economic Development’s Business Retention Program.

Unfortunately, the pandemic proved particularly challenging for beauty salons, barber shops and other personal services businesses which, according to BAOBOB, comprise a majority of Berkeley’s Black-owned businesses.  

Rethinking the business model

Before COVID-19 hit, Sankofa Braiding and Natural Hair Care in the Lorin District had six employees and glowing reviews on Yelp and Google. But the small space with limited ventilation wasn’t safe to operate during the pandemic so owner Cynthia Obleton had to rethink her whole business model. 

 “As an individual, a business-minded entrepreneur, a mother, and a woman who is responsible for many other children, of course, I started thinking about what is next,” said Obleton. 

So Obleton, who said she “doesn’t give up easily,” is trying a number of ways to get a thriving business up and running in Berkeley again, now that the state has reopened. These include the launch of a new website that sells her holistic TrichoAfric herbal hair and scalp restoration therapy system, offering in-home or outdoor hair care consultations by appointment, and training others in the craft of hair braiding. She is currently fundraising through GoFundMe and identifying other sources of capital with hopes to reopen her salon in a new space in Berkeley so she can get back to helping people with hair loss issues and passing on her knowledge in holistic hair care to other aspiring stylists. 

Training is in Obleton’s DNA. For the past two years she has taught cosmetology skills such as coloring, braiding, styling and hair care at Laney College part-time. “My dream is to have a holistic and wellness hair care clinic, then to get a space big enough so that I can have a place to train people,” she said. 

Beauty industry entrepreneurs show resilience

Meanwhile, esthetician Micaela Jordan, known as “Mika” by her clients, owner of Mea Beauty, said she almost considered switching to another profession during the coronavirus lockdown. She even enrolled in a course on nutrition and thought about becoming a dental hygienist before small business emergency grants and unemployment insurance for the self-employed became available.

Jordan set up her Berkeley studio on Solano Avenue in 2014 in a rented space behind Modena Salon, and offers beauty services such as lash extensions, microblading and bridal make-up. The location is easy to miss but it’s also what makes it private enough to feel intimate, away from the bustling street noise.  

“I really wanted clients to have a space where they could come to get their beauty treatments and kind of have some ‘me’-time away from their busy lives,” she said. 

During the pandemic, Jordan was able to provide personal services for one wedding. But the main way her business stayed afloat was through a number of clients who would send her money in advance for unscheduled future appointments.

Jordan feels immense gratitude towards her patrons.

“My clients are a huge part of my business being successful because they’re just such good people,” she said. 

Since reopening the studio, business has picked up quickly, welcoming old and new patrons alike.

While there were many variables that left Jordan unprepared during the pandemic, she said that, now, she is planning for future potential emergencies or another economic downturn. She is building a cushion in her savings and looking for insurance programs that provide support. Once she feels more stable, she hopes to expand her business to more locations, and create more YouTube tutorials

Berkeley’s Black-owned beauty industry is a source of pride

Sankofa Braiding and Mea Beauty are not alone in their demonstration of perseverance; Braid Bar and Beauty, Jesse Porter Barbershop (celebrating 60 years in Berkeley this September), African Braiding-Le Balafon, and Take It Down Salon & Braids all also bring beauty to our community. 

As we celebrate Juneteenth this weekend, Holts hopes the community will not only acknowledge the challenges Black-owned personal services businesses have had to overcome (due to pandemic-induced health orders, and historically) but also the contributions they make to youth education, individual wellness, and community pride.

This story was paid for by the City of Berkeley’s Office of Economic Development which helps new and established Berkeley businesses build strong connections to the community, navigate local policies, find affordable financing and real estate, and become more sustainable. OED helps entrepreneurs, artists and community organizations feel welcome in Berkeley and thrive.