Aesha Ray Owns Her Town's First Black-Owned Beauty Supply Store. Here's How She Did It
WORDS: Tonya Abari
VISUALS: Cherkita Williams (photos) and Bunmi Abari (photo editing)
All while working a full-time job and raising two boys by herself no less.
When Aesha Ray was a high school senior, she had her mind set on becoming a cosmetologist—until, that is, her mother encouraged her to pursue a path that included graduating from college. After all, Aesha would be the first person in her family to graduate from a four-year university.
As a college freshman, Aesha flipped through the pages of her lengthy course catalogue, wondering which career path to choose. She landed on becoming an accountant—a whiz with numbers, Aesha would go on to make a more-than-respectable income while climbing the corporate America ladder.
But after a decade in accounting, Aesha couldn’t quiet the voices in her head—voices that reminded her of her love for all things beauty and business.
“Am I fulfilled?” Aesha wondered. “Is accounting really my dream or is this road just a safe go-to-college-and-get-a-great-paying-job-to-live-someone-else’s-dream dream? Is switching careers the best decision at this time?”
Questions like these encouraged Aesha to really consider what she wanted for her future. Now a 30-something, single mother of two young boys, Ray knew that switching career paths could be both a formidable task and a serious risk.
“Leaving a stable job—and income—to follow a passion could make parenting financially difficult,” she says. “As the sole provider for my boys, there are only two possible outcomes: sink or swim.”
For the sake of setting a good example for her children, this was a risk she was willing to take.
“It’s never a wrong time to reaffirm your mission in life,” she says.
Deciding on a different career path wasn’t easy. But with faith—and many hours of weighing the pros and cons—Aesha arrived at a decision.
Her town of Alexandria, Virginia is a diverse area near Washington D.C., but it was missing a Black-owned beauty supply store. Aesha was confident that she’d have plenty of customers to service if she opened up a store.
“African Americans have cornered the ethnic hair and beauty market, ringing up $54 million of the $63 million total industry spent in 2017,” she points out.
In fact, according to a 2018 Nielsen report, Black shoppers are still spending heavily on beauty and hair products. Still, the beauty supply stores where Black women shop have historically been owned by Korean Americans.
Aesha desperately wanted to be a part of the shift in increased African-American ownership of beauty supply shops. After Googling “how to open a beauty supply store,” she reached out to Atlanta-based firm Beauty Supply Institute, which helps Black owners open storefronts.
Turns out opening a store is a lot of hard work.
“As a single mom, I thought about the sacrifices I’d need to make in order to bring this dream to fruition,” she says. “It wasn’t going to be easy, but I was certainly up for the challenge.”
LAYING THE GROUNDWORK
Aesha had to jump over several hurdles while establishing her storefront.
In addition to mastering time management and organization, all while juggling a demanding full-time job, she needed to find quality care for her children.
Family and friends soon realized that Aesha was busy working on an important project as she began turning down invitations to social events. Still, not many volunteers stepped up to watch her boys.
“The children occasionally spent some weekend time with their dad, but for the most part, they were with me.
“In order to balance the store with single parenthood, I took advantage of early mornings and late nights,” she continues. “I didn’t want to put pressure on myself with dates, so I padded the timeline for opening the store. No Netflix and chill, either. Eliminating television and other time-consuming pleasantries helped to keep my eyes on the prize.”
Opening a store required making financial sacrifices, too.
“For several years, the household operated on a tight budget,” Aesha says. “I researched free events for the kids to attend, decreased extracurricular activities, only hired a babysitter when absolutely necessary, and, with the exception of special occasions, cooked all meals at home.”
Getting the store ready and parenting took some serious juggling.
“There’s just so much to do when opening a store. I only wish I had extra hands! But one thing I knew I couldn’t sacrifice was spending time with my children.”
Overwhelmed, Aesha needed to ensure room in her schedule for the boys. To accomplish this, she put firm boundaries in place.
“There were some days when a sitter watched the boys so that I could spend extra hours reading about inventory or visiting other supply stores for organizational ideas,” she explains. “ There were other days that I purposely blocked off for quality time with my sons.”
With the assistance of a “sizable” personal loan, Aesha financed this venture by putting away any extra money—tax refunds, bonuses, and savings—towards the store.
“Beauty Supply Institute assisted with securing vendors,” she says, “but I spent a lot of time relearning marketing strategies as well as basics like how to build a website and use social media.
A DREAM NO LONGER DEFERRED
With lots of research and building her knowledge in regulation, inventory, and stocking, Aesha was able to open northern Virginia’s first Black-owned beauty supply store, EnvyUs Beauty Supply on October 1. (While there are other Black-owned beauty supply stores throughout the state of Virginia, EnvyUs Beauty Supply is the first Black-owned establishment in Virginia’s most populous region.)
During the grand opening, Aesha realized the store had a much deeper meaning than selling beauty products: Opening the store served as an example of entrepreneurship, diligence, goal setting, and persistence to her community and her sons.
The oldest of Aesha’s two children, 6-year-old Johnnie, said proudly, “It’s your dream and my dream to open this store.”
And 4-year-old Jace, said, “Mom, I’m going to help you sell things to people. Whatever they need.”
Even at this young age, the boys help as much as they can.
“Johnnie has volunteered to clean the windows and sweep, while Jace has committed to greeting people and passing out business cards to new customers.”
Aesha views this as a chance to do something really special for her boys: to show them the importance of entrepreneurship, community, and personal career fulfillment, all without placing restraints or limitations on yourself.
“What a blessing it is to give children something to be excited about,” she says. “While it brought me great joy for over a decade, I can’t pass down the accounting job. But this store—my very own store—can be a symbol of hope for generations to come.”
There’s a lesson in Aesha’s story. Every working parent should consider these questions:
What values are you passing down to your children through your career?
Are you truly happy?
Are you constantly thinking of a dream deferred?
Is it time for change?
“Our biggest boundary is our own self-doubt,” Aesha says, “but if we truly believe the capabilities we have inside ourselves, our trajectory is limitless.
“Single parenthood is not a limitation. I was raised by a single mom and a single grandmother. They provided for us with little to no resources,” she continues. “Although I may have had a few financial concerns, I’ve never doubted how far I could take my career as a single mother. If I can open a beauty supply store while simultaneously holding down a full-time job and caring for two small children, then so can you.”