Atlanta, Georgia – 2010
Ronald Johnson dropped a stack of papers on a table at his house in Atlanta, Ga., where his cousin Herman Smith Jr. sat. He pulled up an empty chair.
It was a business plan, Johnson explained, for an ethnic beauty supply store. It outlined everything from a market analysis to possible locations, paid for and created by a professional.
A young, Black father at the time, Johnson set lofty goals for his family. A barber by trade, he was self-made, an entrepreneur. In 2006, he even moved the family from Flint to Atlanta where his sister lived, for an opportunity to grow his business and career. He was ready for the next step, a business that would leave a legacy for generations to come.
He waited for his cousin’s response. The rest of his family called him crazy. It was a well-known fact that Korean Americans had for years controlled the market. It was rare to see someone who looked like him running an ethic beauty supply store. Yet, the industry thrived on Black dollars.
But Johnson knew it was possible to funnel the money back into his own community, to support them. Across the street in his Atlanta neighborhood, a Black woman owned her own beauty supply shop. Johnson could see it from the window in his townhouse.
“I just knew that, if somebody else can do something, I could. It triggered something in my brain,” Johnson said.
Finally, Smith sighed, then laughed. “Okay, shut up. Let’s do it,” he said.
The excitement was short-lived. Johnson would never start a beauty supply business in Atlanta. A custody battle with his wife at the time would drag him through the struggles of single fatherhood, putting the beauty shop plan on hold. Dreams come second to daughters.
It would take 10 more years, a move back to Flint, and a global pandemic for Johnson to finally open up shop. Even then, one seemingly innocuous commodity, yet one so important to the success of any ethnic beauty supply store would make his dream of supporting the Black community harder than he ever thought possible: human hair.
Flint, Michigan – September 2020
Eighteen-year-old Brianna McMillian stands behind the counter of Caught My Eye Beauty Supply and Barbershop on the corner of North Saginaw Street—the same street where her Johnson, her father, was shot in the face when he was 19.
“All of this is metal,” Johnson said, pointing at the side of his face. He’s let his beard grow out past his chin. A few ashy gray strands expose years of work and stress.
McMillian and older sister Tori McMillian spent most of their childhood growing up in Atlanta, Ga. They watched their father wrestle through single parenthood after the divorce. Her family survived on haircuts and beard trims, a consuming schedule that kept her father at the barbershop instead of at home.
But after all those years, and with high school finally over (she hated school), McMillian could focus on supporting the family business and her father’s dream.
Behind the counter where she stands now, two mannequin heads sport wavy honey brown wigs. Below them hang red, pink and blonde extensions, each wrapped in their own gold-trimmed packaging that reads “Empire 100% Human Hair.”
There on the wall, the hair looks like it has always been that way. Smooth. Long. Never once belonging to a woman—except it did.
The original owner of the hair was likely from India or another Asian country, someone with a name and family and life who gave a piece of herself for cash. Or, perhaps, a woman shaved her head in an Indian temple as an act of devotion to the Hindu gods—a revenue generator for the temples that, in turn, sell it to hair factories in China for processing and export.
But this, the journey from the head of an Asian woman to the shelves of ethnic beauty supply stores like Caught My Eye, is what has made it so hard for McMillian and Johnson to be here at all.
It started in South Korea.
The 60s and 70s were the height of modern industrialization in South Korea due to the commoditizing of Korean women’s hair. In the springtime, hair peddlers traveled from village to village shaving the heads of women and girls who needed extra money to support their families until the harvest season. The hair collectors would export the raw material to other industrialized countries for wig production.
Jason Petrulis, a historian and lecturer at the University of Hong Kong, described the history of the wig through the lens of South Korean industrialization in his article, “‘A Country of Hair:’ A Global Story of South Korean Wigs, Korean American Entrepreneurs, African American Hairstyles, and Cold War Industrialization.”
Wigs, like many fashion trends, started on the Paris runway in 1958. Their popularity spread across Europe and the to the United states. Wig production first began in Europe but as demand increased, the capitalist model reared its greedy head and called out for cheaper labor.
Enter South Korea, a country with a surplus of raw human hair collected from poor village women. Wig factories boomed and by the mid-1960s became the cornerstone of South Korea’s working class.
Cold War politics also spurred South Korea’s wig economy. At the time, the U.S. was making tremendous efforts to solidify economic relations with South Korea. Government officials would even arrange wig factory tours with U.S. retailers.
When South Korea ran out of domestic hair, the U.S. brokered a new relationship with India where South Korea could source raw hair and export it back to their factories for production. Between 1966-1969, the U.S. received 95% of South Korea’s wig exports.
Factory life became its own culture, one that defined Korean immigrant entrepreneurs who came to the U.S. in 1965 when the U.S. opened its borders to Asian ethnicities. One in ten businesses started by South Korean immigrants in the U.S. was a wig shop.
But then white women stopped wearing wigs and the industry crashed in 1970.
However, Korean American immigrants saw opportunity. Their best customers were Black women, so they seized the moment to capitalize on this niche but profitable market. And they knew how to do it because they had watched as their mothers and sisters sold their hair to the hair collectors who knocked on their doors every spring.
They gathered their products and began peddling wigs in Black neighborhoods. By 1975, 70% of Korean American wig stores were located in predominately Black areas.
But good business sense became entangled with racial tensions and Black identity. Korean Americans established a stronghold on beauty supply shops: they had a direct line to human hair products and a generous amount of credit from their country.
For Korean Americans, it was a great opportunity. Those who hoped to enter the market, however, were effectively blocked from the supply chain.
Johnson and his family would still feel the ripple effects 45 years later.
In 2014, Johnson moved from Atlanta back to Flint to be closer to family and to spend more time with his daughters. When he first arrived, he started a life insurance company.
“Because, money,” he said, chuckling as he trimmed a client’s beard whom he referred to as his “little homie.” The two went way back.
“But I’m a barber, that’s me,” he said. By the end of 2014, he had accepted a job at 1st Class Cuts Barbershop.
His dream of opening a beauty supply store still rolled around in the back of his mind. Life just kept him busy.
But in March 2020 when the pandemic hit, he looked as his daughters, now women, and decided it was time.
“I was sitting at home with my kids and I was like, ‘Shit, if I’m going to die and catch this stuff, I might as well live my damn dreams.’”
And the rest of the family played their part.
Instead of a high school graduation party, McMillian sold tee-shirts, a brand she created called Caught My Eye, which would later become the name of the beauty shop.
It was meant to bring attention to important issues, she said.
“You can pair it with anything. Black Lives Matter Caught My Eye. Breast Cancer Awareness Month Caught My Eye. Black-Owned Businesses Caught My Eye. That’s what I want to support, that’s what I want to push.”
She raised over $1,000 which she invested back into her family, into her father’s dream. Together with the help of her sister and Smith, the family spent the summer saving every last penny they had.
“Well, I wouldn’t say all the money, because he bought a truck,” McMillian said, side-eyeing her father as they sat in the middle of their store.
“A truck? We needed to get around! I bought a $600 truck,” Johnson retorted.
“You bought a truck,” she teased.
Despite the $600 setback, the family opened Caught My Eye on Aug. 10. But one obstacle after another has made keeping the business going difficult.
Keeping the Dream Alive
Sourcing hair isn’t the only reason it was hard for the family to open up shop, though it’s still at the root of it.
Caught My Eye is the only black-owned beauty supply store in Flint, a city with over 50% black residents.
Of the 35,000 beauty supply stores in the U.S., only 2,500 of them are Black-owned, compared to the 7,000 operated by Korean Americans—most of which are still located in Black neighborhoods.
A 2018 Nielson report showed that the ethnic hair and beauty aid industry generated $63.5 million. Black dollars accounted for $54.4 million, 85.65% of the total spent. But that money isn’t going back into their own communities.
“None of our competitors live here,” Johnson said. “Their kids don’t go to school here and they come here and take our money, go wherever it is and live awesome lives.”
The business of hair remains relatively unchanged since the mid-1970s. South Korea still dominates the hair market, though much of the raw hair comes from India and production has been outsourced to China where labor is cheap.
With such a tight grip on the collection, preparation and distribution of human hair products, Black entrepreneurs hoping to break into the industry don’t realize what they’re up against.
“The hair is the moneymaker in the store,” Sam Ennon said, founder and president of the Black Owned Beauty Supply Association. Ennon has helped open 1,000 Black-owned beauty supply stores in the last 18 years.
“Clients come to us and usually 90% of them don’t know anything about the hair market. They want to get into the business but they don’t have a clue,” Ennon said.
And it’s almost impossible for small business owners to get fair prices in reasonable quantities, he said.
Shake-N-Go, a parent company that carries some of the most popular human hair brands like Milkyway and Freetress, have high minimum orders ranging between $5,000-$10,000 Ennon said. Small business owners simply can’t afford that.
Johnson and McMillian learned these lessons the hard way. “Until you get in this, you don’t know about anything that goes on,” McMillian said, shaking her head.
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But in addition to the lack of capital and relationships with hair suppliers, Black-owned beauty supply stores are treated unequally by Korean distributors, Ennon said.
“Oh, the horror stories we’ve heard,” Johnson said, referring to his many conversations with those who have attempted to open up beauty supply shops in the past.
Forcing Black business owners to pay higher minimums is one discrimination tactic, Ennon said. Korean distributors have also been known to threaten wholesalers not to sell to Black-owned businesses or they will pull their products, he said.
Shake-N-Go in particular bars Black-owned beauty supply stores with policies that prevent stores within an 11-mile radius of one another from carrying their products.
When choosing the location of Caught My Eye, it wasn’t something they Johnson about. “We didn’t know at first that we had to be 11 miles away until we tried to sign up for it. And then they tell you,” McMillian said
Johnson’s voice raises with a tinge of anger mixed with disbelief. “They won’t sell to us. But our community will still support them and buy all the products.”
It has to do with convenience, McMillian said. Being a small store, they don’t always have the products their customers want. Sometimes, customers have to wait. And they don’t like that.
“I get it because it’s like a routine. If I know everything’s at Walmart, I’m not going to go to Target,” she said, “but that’s something that’s going to have to change.”
Johnson’s barbershop is now located in the back of Caught My Eye. His dream is real, brick and mortar, no longer a stack of papers sitting in an Atlanta townhouse.
He asks a customer to look down so he can check the evenness of his hairline. He seems pleased with his work and brushes a few stray hairs from the man’s neck.
“You’re all set,” Johnson said, as he removes the cape.
Nearby, McMillian mans the counter, her post when she isn’t traveling with her sister to find wholesalers for products.
Though they always aim to find the highest quality, their real value to customers is first-hand experience.
“People feel more comfortable asking people about products they actually use instead of people who just sell stuff,” McMillian said.
The door chimes and a father and his daughter walk inside. The little girl hops down the aisle, landing in front of a pile of glittery lip gloss and iridescent hair beads. She tugs her dad’s sleeves pointing at the shelf. That’s all it takes. He sighs and allows her to pick out an item.
McMillian rings up the purchase, a tube of blue lip gloss, and hands it to the little girl. She holds it, glances up at McMillian, a Black woman who looks like her, and bounces excitedly by her father’s side.