While the gifts given two Christmases ago to other children her age may already have been tossed away and long forgotten, six-year-old Aaliyah Henry still cherishes the one given to her by her...
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Hair's a toast to Cristal's success
Another busy day is beginning at DC Hair & Spa, situated in the plush streets of St Clair, surrounded by embassies and high commissions. As hairdressers and beauty therapists arrive to begin the day and the phone begins ringing incessantly in the background with clients booking appointments, Cristal Pierre, the salon owner, takes a few moments out of her schedule to do an interview with the T&T Guardian. You can hear in her voice the tones of a now established businesswoman. Confident, happy and focused, Pierre has worked extremely hard to make it to this point. At many stages along the journey things looked rather hopeless and forlorn. Pierre, a San Fernando girl, had a baby at the tender age of 18. The father of her child she describes as “a wild one.” It wasn’t planned, of course, and like most teenage pregnancies, the consequences for her had a big impact, mostly financial.
At 17, and a bright girl she ought to have been thinking about her A-levels but instead she suddenly found herself in a position where she needed to earn money, fast. Always interested in fashion, beauty and hairdressing, she decided to train for nine months as a hairdresser in San Fernando before moving to a salon called Headlines where she earned only $250 a week in wages. “Luckily I have a fantastic mother, who looked after my baby and allowed me to find my feet and a career,” Pierre says. “She said to me, ‘You’re young, don’t waste your life sitting around all day, you need to work.’.” But for five years, Pierre worked hard for very little money. “There were times I really didn’t know where the next meal was coming from,” she says.
She had a stepfather who worked, while her mother cared for her baby, but she didn’t feel it was right to ask him for financial help as he had other children of his own to support.
Her biological father, growing up, was “around but not around. He hid money from my mother. One time she asked him for milk to feed me, when I was a baby and he said he didn’t have money to give her and she watched him walk out into the street, take money from the trunk of his car and give it to somebody else.” Such were her early years. After five years working at Headlines salon, a friend, Roxanne, told her she wasn’t fulfilling her full potential. She told her Pierre could earn a lot more and achieve something in Port-of-Spain. “I learned a lot from my first boss at Headlines,” says Pierre, “but after a while you feel you don’t love what you do. You want to really showcase what you are capable of but people make you feel you can’t do it.”
The move to Port-of-Spain, while inevitable, was bold.
“I didn’t have a car, didn’t know the city or where I was going but I set off travelling in a taxi nevertheless and went to take a job at Hairlines at the Normandie (in St Ann’s.)” She worked for Gillian Thong for over two years, working on commission, taking home a percentage of what she earned. It was a lot more than she had been earning but there were still days she didn’t know how she was going to pay the bills. When Hairlines closed its St Ann’s salon and moved to Maraval, she decided it wasn’t the right move for her; for a long time she had wanted to go independent — which in hairdressing means, initially, renting your own station within a salon. She had already built up a loyal client base and they all followed her to her next salon at Ellerslie Plaza, Maraval.
“It worked out well at first. I knew what it was like to make your own money, be your own boss and not have a boss putting you down,” she says. “It was then that I decided when I have my own place I would never have employees working for me on commission with me taking money off their earnings. Hairdressers and beauticians need the ability to stand on their own two feet, not be ripped off by salon owners.” She says the atmosphere at the salon gradually deteriorated and her relations with the other workers became strained. “Lots of women often means lots of bacchanal,” she explains. The salon was taken over by a new owner and not for the first time she was dealing with anger, jealousy and resentment from somebody senior to her. She moved again, this time to Maraval, but it ended up being a leap from “one bad situation into another. It was a disaster.”
Initially she was paying $3,000 in rent, but the owner saw Pierre had a lot of clients and decided to suddenly up the rent to $4,000, using the excuse that she needed to pay a cleaner. No cleaner materialised, and Pierre, in protest and to make a point, stopped cleaning the salon until the boss complained about how untidy the place was. They had a disagreement and she could feel the workplace tension rising again. Over Christmas period 2011, Pierre says she prayed for something to come along to change her fortunes. “I said to myself, ‘I’m ready to go it alone now and open my own place,’ but I didn’t know where the finances would come from.” Within two weeks her prayers were answered. Skimming through the T&T Guardian she saw an adfor a 1,200-square-foot salon for rent on Herbert Street, St Clair. She went to look, saw it needed some work but realised “it was open, airy. It was me.”
With no idea if she’d be able to afford the monthly payments, she took a huge risk. All the money she had saved in the world she withdrew and paid off her last month’s rent in Maraval and her first month in St Clair. She figured that as it was Christmas — a busy period for hairdressing so a perfect time to kick off a new business — and her clients would be likely to follow her again, it made sense. For the Christmas period she worked there by herself, with just one chair, a brush, a blowdryer and a mirror on the wall. Her customers had faith that the place would get better with physical improvements. “They stuck with me through thick and thin,” Pierre says. Her family members made her furniture and she transformed the shop into a cosy, warm salon. It has three hairdressers, three manicurists, a facials room and a boutique selling clothes and accessories. Two and a half years down the road, her business has proved a success.
She married her husband just over a year ago, a senior technician at TSTT whom she met on a Carnival Tuesday playing mas in the same band, Spice. She had wanted her stepfather, the real father figure in her life, to walk her down the aisle. But he told her it was only right if her father had the honour of doing so. Her daughter, Denisia is now 12 and a straight A student at her school in San Fernando. She is building a family home in San Fernando, drives an SUV and, with her husband, is setting up a company, Szuk Events, to organise and promote boat parties. The first, a cooler party called Rock So, is scheduled to take place on July 27. Asked what the name Szuk means, she explained that it means, “I’m feeling lucky.” She has every right to feel charmed, but it’s not luck that has brought her this far, it’s talent. Talent that will, no doubt, see her succeed in every venture. In this life, as Pierre knows, you make your own luck, even when the odds are against you.