In this series, I speak with people who know what desperate feels like. While now blooming into success, these founders share with me their deeply personal financial struggles and lessons learned on their way back to black.
In Melony Armstrong’s Tupelo, Mississippi, salon, braiding clients sit for hours at a time in the pursuit of great hair. It’s an exercise in patience. And Melony is no stranger to patience. She painstakingly built Naturally Speaking—a hair studio dedicated to the art of traditional African hair braiding—from nothing. For years, she worked out of her small living room, sometimes for no money, gaining experience and saving every penny.
Twenty years have passed since Melony opened the salon’s doors. In that time, she successfully took on Mississippi lawmakers to change beauty licensing regulations, paving the way for hundreds of other businesses. She also opened Armstrong Braiding Academy to teach her art to aspiring young entrepreneurs. But getting here wasn’t easy. Here, Melony shares how perseverance, the kindness of strangers, and a pinch of luck helped her realize her dream.
In Melony’s words:
In 1995, I decided that I wanted to be a professional hair braider. I didn’t braid hair growing up, so I signed up for a class that was being taught in Atlanta. It was $1,200. I was working for a nonprofit at the time and we had just lost our biggest funding source. Overnight, my job was gone. We were living from paycheck to paycheck, but I was still signed up to take this class.
I really didn’t have anyone I could borrow from. I solicited funds from church members and I got some responses but it certainly didn’t make a dent in the $1,200. And so I put together a garage sale. It was the day before the class started, so I kind of procrastinated. Gladys, the wife of a gentleman that my husband knew through the church, calls me up and asks me could she include some items in my garage sale. Not only did she bring some items, she actually stayed the entire day.
We knew we were only going to be able to afford to eat off of the dollar menu at Wendy’s. But I didn’t care.
I ended up not meeting my sales goal and I was really feeling down. I had also just put my car in the shop because it needed some work just to make the trip. I got a call from the auto mechanic shop and they said, “I’m sorry, you won’t be able to get your car out today.” So now all of a sudden, I don’t have the money, nor do I have a car. But I’m scheduled to take this class the next day. My mother called me that evening and she said, “Well, the funniest thing happened.” She ended up getting an unexpected check in the mail and was able to Western Union me the rest of the money. But I still had no transportation.
When I was getting to know Gladys at the garage sale that day, I had found out that she had just purchased a new van. I hear a voice in my head that tells me to call her. Now, mind you I had never met Gladys before that day. For me to ask a total stranger to use her vehicle to drive hundreds of miles to another state just seemed ludicrous. But I dialled her number and I told her that there are some other things wrong with our car. Before I could complete my sentence, this woman, who I had just met hours before, tells me to come and get her brand new van.
I was totally encouraged at that point. My husband and I had the exact amount of money that we needed, down to the penny, for this trip. Money for a hotel, money for gas, and money to eat. We knew we were only going to be able to afford to eat off of the dollar menu at Wendy’s. But I didn’t care.
When I returned from the class, I literally practiced on a mannequin head day and night for six months. Then, I created a flyer and I would solicit people at Walmart or in grocery stores or wherever I was. That’s how I got clients in the beginning. I didn’t charge for the services then—I just wanted to be able to have live people to practice on. I always tried to be as professional about my business as possible, even though I was working in my home. But our house was small, like really small. I’m sure it was probably 1,100 square feet. We had one small living room, a small dining room, a kitchen, and then a hallway that led to the bedrooms. A friend of mine gave me a styling chair that I put in the small living room. And so my family would have to hang out in the bedrooms when I was braiding hair.
I always saw myself as being able to make something from nothing.
One time, I was doing a client’s hair and her boyfriend came to the door. I felt kind of apprehensive to let him in my home because it was late and my husband was not there. He sits down on my couch and immediately I could tell that he was under the influence of something. I felt in danger. I felt very unsafe. I was pregnant with my now 22-year-old at the time. I remember thinking that I really had to look for a commercial space because doing this in my house was not going to work. It was really challenging.
I tried to save, to move toward that goal. But at the same time money was still very, very tight for us. We had no savings. My husband and I started looking for a commercial building anyway. Again, we had no money. We found a space and got in touch with the owner of the building and told them what we were doing. He said, “I’ll tell you what. You guys don’t have to pay us any rent until you’re ready to open.” That was good because I found the building in April but, after renovations that my husband did, I didn’t open the salon until September.
I never borrowed money from the bank and we’ve been in business 20 years.
When we were ready to open the salon, we had no product, no equipment. Around this time, a family member of my husband came over to our home and we were just kind of sitting around visiting and I shared my vision with them. After they left, they contacted us back and said, “We really believe in what you’re trying to do and we want to give you $5,000 to start.” Here, again, I’m at another place where I’m struggling—and my struggles were, a lot of the time, centered around money—but something would always come through to allow me to be able to continue the journey.
I never borrowed money from the bank and we’ve been in business 20 years. My thinking was that all I needed to do was to work the system and the system would work. I always saw myself as being able to make something from nothing.
To hear more of Melony’s story, including how she lobbied Mississippi lawmakers, watch her episode of Beauty Mark, our series exploring women, beauty, and entrepreneurship around the world.Illustration by German Gonzalez