We Do Nails, Too! Why Black-Owned Nail Salons Say The Asian Community Isn’t Their Competition
The boisterous manicurists on Claws may do nails, but they’ve found another way to rake in money besides mani-pedis. For them, money laundering has become as common as filling and filing.
But in real life, Black-women owned nail salons have concerns that extend beyond nefarious doings. For one, they have to survive against the Asian domination in the nail space, among the many other challenges of being an African American entrepreneur.
Bianca Mayers, owner and head nail tech of Chicago-based Beautiful Sisters Nail Salon, was drawn to the nail space after leaving the corporate world. She had studied to become a pharmacist but after about four years she was unable to continue school. “I researched careers that were in demand and found nail techs in high demand. With short schooling of only three months and a high yield of income, I decided to go to school for nails and open up a Black-owned nail shop. If the business was a success I would not finish school to enter pharmacy. If it wasn’t, I would finish.”
Mayers told her sister, April Jones, about her plan and she left her job with the Chicago Transit Authority to become a partner and launch Beautiful sisters with her in 2011. Though she has since left the business, the salon is still a family affair. “In 2016, my daughter, Dayja, joined the staff,” Mayers shared. “We are steadily doing better each year.”
For Candice Idehen, owner of Harlem, NY-based Bed of Nails which specializes in luxury manicures, it wasn’t a career change that led her to become a nail entrepreneur but the lack of services in her area. “I couldn’t find a nail salon that provided quality, consistent service, a fun atmosphere, knowledgeable staff that knows trends, had great products, and was clean,” she said.
“In college, I took a Black Studies class called Black Business and Entrepreneurship where I created Bed of Nails. I didn’t want to only run the business; I wanted to work in the business so I went to Christine Valmy Nail school while in undergrad at City College and learned how to do nails. Upon graduating from both schools in 2011, I jumped into freelance nail artist work and did nails for fashion campaigns, fashion week, commercials, and photo shoots, and subsequently in salons to gain practical salon experience because I knew I would have my own salon. Bed of Nails opened October of 2013.”
Mayers agreed with Idehen on the lack of high-quality salons in the Black community. “The main reason I wanted to own my own salon is because I felt that there weren’t any Black-owned nail shops or any that I knew of locally so I thought that the market would be good. I believed a lot of people felt like me. They wanted to go to someone who understood them and was friendly,” she pointed out. “I had a few bad experiences where I was treated rudely or the techs didn’t understand my request due to speaking another language. I felt there were more people like me who wanted to go somewhere the technician understood at them and was nice. So I decided to open up a nail salon.”
Venturing into the nail sector also opened up entrepreneurial opportunities. “I wanted to be my own boss. I never wanted to work for someone and I knew I didn’t have to if I owned my own business,” Idehen explained. “I was always into business so once I decided I wanted to do nails it was a no-brainer to open my own nail salon. I wanted to be able to provide my customer with an exceptional experience. I saw a void in the nail industry that I wanted to fill. I also wanted to bring a lux salon experience to my community–Harlem–that we didn’t have. I spent too many years searching NYC for the perfect salon that had trendy products, a clean fun environment, and great staff that you could communicate with but never found the perfect mix. So I decided to create my own.”
The lack of Black-owned salons and Asian dominance in the nail space prompted Kevin Pickett to open Summit Nail Bar in Los Angeles. “I wanted a luxury nail shop in the Black community with first-class experience,” he said. “I have always taken care of my hands and feet, but every nail salon was Asian. I could not figure out why it was predominantly Asian. It is a good way to make a living.”
Having a staff who could understand the needs of Black clientele was primary for Pickett when he opened his doors. “I have a predominately Black staff, from nail techs to front desk and the manager. The clientele feels comfortable coming here and they make comments on how they are impressed we have technicians who are of different nationalities but who all speak English.”
Still, despite being minorities in their field, these nail entrepreneurs said they don’t feel they are competing against Asian salon owners. “I don’t feel that Asians are my competition. Their setup is for quick nail services. The services offered in their salons are less skilled but fast,” Mayers pointed out. “My shop offers skilled services — sometimes fast — but depending on the complexity of your service it may take a little longer. However, we offer unbelievable art that you just can’t get from an Asian salon, as well as nail sculpting that’s more perfected than they offer.
“Our shop is more of an upscale feel when theirs is a fast pace feel,” Mayers added. “All of our technicians are licensed and thoroughly trained and follow proper sanitation measures. We appeal to a more researched buyer. A client looking for more than just their nails being polished but the full complete health of their nails as well. I think that Black-owned nail shops appeal to a different type of client and those who are looking for an Asian type salon, those shops appeal to them.”
Idehen concured. “I survive because the Asian dominated nail salon scene is not my competition. Their clientele is not my market. My customer does not want to frequent that kind of salon and understands the difference in service, quality, and experience.”
In fact, said Idehen, often customers seek out her salon because it is Black-owned. “My customers are in touch with their Black heritage and want the Black community, on the whole, to do better. They are very supportive of Black businesses as a whole. Most of them specifically will only go to Black-owned nail shops or Black nail techs. She or he is a researched buyer. They have thoroughly researched the shop and are looking for the superior services that we offer,” she said.
Yet it has been a challenge for the market to realize that yes, Black women do nails, too. “I do come across people who don’t know Black women do nails,” Mayers said. “Some of them are scared to come to Black-owned shops even when our quality work is higher than our competitors. Also I don’t think the Black community on the whole realizes how much money nail salons make; they think it’s a career that doesn’t make much when, in fact, a good nail tech can be very successful.
Because of these misconceptions, Mayers said Blacks in the business have to work harder than others. “Some people won’t even come to you just because you’re Black and they believe that it’s not a field for Black people. A Black nail tech just can’t be average they must be great, even when our counterparts can be average. We must be better to get the same level of respect,” she said.
As far as Claws’ representation of a Black-owned nail salon, these entrepreneurs are here for it. “I must admit I binge- watched the show. I work a lot of hours and had never seen it, but when I tell you I love this show — I loved it!” Mayaers said. The character, Desna Simms (Niecy Nash), was so animated. Kinda like me. I don’t know why, but us nail techs can be super extra. Listening to the clients tell stories about their lives is an everyday experience. Learning and laughing from them. I give advice and get advice. I fell in love and will be watching regularly now.”
Added Pickett, “We are fans of the show! We can relate to the multi-racial staff. Every day is a new creative adventure in women’s nails. Add the personality and, of course, the drama and you have a nail salon.”