The first step in any Black woman’s haircare ritual is a trip to the local beauty supply store. Ask a Black woman to recall her earliest memory of these essential establishments and it will mirror the memories of countless others: perusing the aisles to determine whether a Just For Me or Dr. Miracle’s box perm would best suit her hair; scanning the different lengths and textures of Sensationnel’s packs of hair for her first sew-in; and comparing Adore’s semi-permanent hair color in Spiced Amber and Cinnamon to see which one makes her look grown, but not too grown. (It was Spiced Amber for me.) Ask 16-year-old Paris McKenzie to recount one of her earliest memories and it’s the one about being racially profiled and followed throughout her local beauty supply store that sticks out the most.
Beauty supply stores can be a Black girl’s sanctuary. They are places—like Target or Home Goods—where we often stray from our list of need-to-buy items and walk away with so much more. But these physical spaces where Black consumers spend their earnings are rarely Black-owned or operated. Tobi Idowu of Business of Fashion wrote earlier this year, “Of at least 9,000 shops specializing in Black haircare and cosmetics in the US, 3,000 are Black-owned, and most of the remainder are operated by people of Korean descent,” according to report from an organization called the Black Owned Beauty Supply Association (BOBSA).
“I’ve never been in a beauty supply store owned by a Black person,” McKenzie tells me. “When I walked into a beauty supply store, either I didn’t get assisted well or I was given an attitude or people watched me like a hawk or followed me around the store.” Now, sitting between a wall of Freetress braiding hair and a glass display of headbands and hoop earrings in the back of Paris Beauty Supplyz, McKenzie feels at home. That’s because the Black-owned beauty salon store has her name on the lease.
The business of beauty is in McKenzie’s blood. For the past 16 years, her mother Senica, a hairstylist and serial entrepreneur, has owned and operated Brooklyn’s Paris Hair Studio and Paris Runway Boutique (both of which are named for her daughter). Growing up, McKenzie shadowed her mom, often frequenting a supply store within walking distance of both businesses. At the time, it was owned by a Korean family with whom both Paris and her mother had a rapport.
McKenzie worked as a shampoo girl at the hair studio before becoming a sales associate at Paris Runway boutique where she learned how to price items and interface with customers daily. “Whenever someone would walk into the boutique and start browsing, I would go over to them and say, This will look nice on you. You should try it on. This looks your style,” she says, as she acts out the scenario.
Manning her mother’s boutique made her very perceptive to a customer’s needs. “After working in a boutique for so long, you learn how to learn people when they walk in. Because you can look at their outfit and know a little bit about their style and what to sell to them. Same thing applies to a beauty supply store. Somebody walks in with their hair out, you know what texture their hair is. You can kind of see the level of dryness or moisture. So now you know what products to advertise. I want people to feel like they’re shopping with somebody who knows them in and out.”
When the pandemic hit earlier this year, the beauty supply store McKenzie and her family frequented decided to shut down and was on the hunt for new owners. Given Senica’s longstanding reputation in the community, the owners approached her with an offer she couldn’t refuse. But instead of adding another store to her portfolio, Senica turned to her daughter and suggested she purchase the shop for herself. With the help of her brother Oshane, who helped McKenzie create an LLC, McKenzie was able to obtain the lease on the space.
The first order of business was to completely remodel the shop, from removing the carpet to rebuilding inventory with products that appeal to every hair type and texture and lifestyle. “Anything you want to make yourself feel more beautiful—lashes, concealer, lip gloss—come in here and you’ll find it,” she says with a chuckle, mimicking a TV infomercial.
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However, no TV placement could have gotten her the exposure that she got with a single Tweet. On September 4, the day she opened the shop’s doors, she wrote: “I just became the youngest Black owner of a beauty supply store at 16 years old! A simple retweet or like can help support.” The immediate praise and support McKenzie received was more than she could ever have anticipated. The original tweet was retweeted thousands of times, drawing attention from the likes of Janet Jackson and Bella Hadid who both reposted McKenzie’s announcement on their own accounts. “I was at a last-minute photo shoot when I saw somebody comment under the post, ‘Who’s here from Bella Hadids’ page?’ I thought it was a little troll comment. But I watched her story and I was on it. I screamed. We had to stop the photo shoot because I was like, no, this can’t be real,” she recalls. The following day, Jackson did the same thing. “My mom and I were both going crazy because it was Janet Jackson. Oh my gosh, Janet Jackson knows my name.”
There’s a comforting familiarity you feel when you step into Paris Beauty Supplyz. Maybe it’s the chirpy greeting and smile McKenzie’s little sister Shawntelle gives you when you walk through the door. “Is there anything I can help you with?” she asks me before running off to finish her homework. Or maybe it’s McKenzie’s protective older brother Oshane pacing the aisles to make sure every product is placed just-so. McKenzie may make compromises in carrying mass brands over smaller brands—both in-store and the online shop—but one thing that remains a must is keeping family in the business.
At one point during our conversation, Oshane politely interrupts to inform his sister that a lady from South Carolina has arrived to meet the young entrepreneur. “It’s been like this ever since we opened,” McKenzie tells me. A mother and daughter recently drove from Texas to meet the 16-year-old inspiring little girls around the world to launch their own businesses regardless of age.
“The little girl brought a whole book of questions she wanted to ask me for her lemonade stand. She asked me questions about how long it took me to open a business and how it feels to be a young business owner. I never expected to be such an inspiration to other young girls. They drove here to speak to little ol’ me.”
She remembers hearing about the two sisters—Kayla and Keonna Davis—who made history in 2019 as the youngest Black women to own a beauty supply store in California. Unfortunately, the sisters had to shut down due to difficulties in procuring products from product manufacturers. McKenzie is aware there will be bumps along the way, but it’s the impact on young Black and brown girls that she’s more concerned about.
“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,” she says.
Even with a store to run, McKenzie still has her eye on a backup plan. Currently enrolled in a medical-based high school where she’s on track for early graduation, the 16-year-old is interested in becoming a Pediatric orthopedic surgeon and hopes that by the time college admission rolls around next August, Paris Beauty Supplyz will be self-sufficient enough that she can attend a Ivy League school. Harvard or Stanford are her top picks.
“It still hasn’t hit me yet how influential this is until I hear people say, ‘Oh my gosh, a 16-year-old owns this.’ I’m always wondering, Why are you guys going crazy?” she adds. “But then it makes sense— I am 16 years old and I own a beauty supply store.”
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