One salon in Santo Domingo has been turning an old beauty ideal on its ear since December 9, 2014. Miss Rizos, the Dominican Republic’s first hair care institution strictly dedicated to curly, kinky and afro’d hair, is pioneering hair acceptance in a Caribbean Latin American country marred with a complicated history of anti-blackness, despite its majority Black population.
For National Black Business Month, BET tracked down Carolina Contreras, the woman behind the mantra “Yo Amo Mi Pajón” or ("I love my big / afro’d hair"), who against all odds successfully established and continues to run a salon serving Black women, children and men as a scrappy entrepreneur.
In a Q&A below, Contreras outlines her biggest setbacks and rewards as a Black woman business owner (including being ripped off by imposters), the social activism driven by Miss Rizos, and the success that has afforded her to open a second location in the heart of Washington Heights, New York—home to the largest population of Dominicans outside of the island.
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BET: Describe why it was so important to open this salon in the Dominican Republic?
Carolina Contreras: I wanted a place that didn't judge you or your hair. A safe haven of sorts for curly women, men and children. It was important because there wasn't a space that provided high quality curly [and kinky] hair services, while providing customers with all of the education and resources to care for their hair at home. Finally, it was important to create this space that would allow us to generate the revenue needed to sustain our social impact activities.
BET: What has been the public’s reception of the salon since its opening?
CC: Honestly, the reception has been amazing. We've been covered by nearly all national media in the Dominican Republic. The only business college [around] did a case study on us that is now [being] taught to other business men and women. Even the government has been receptive to our work.
BET: Who are your biggest clients?
CC: Women 25-34 are our biggest clients, but we see men, lots and lots of children and older women who are just now discovering and loving their [natural] hair.
BET: Were there any setbacks? If so what were they?
CC: I've had dozens of setbacks as a business owner because I am really new at this. The biggest one by far was getting our ideas and formulas stolen by a local company that claims to work for women empowerment. That was really heartbreaking. But I've learned to fail forward and to see failures as 1) a redirection of my plan and 2) a lesson learned.
BET: What are some of your biggest hurdles as a black woman business owner / entrepreneur?
CC: Capital. Capital. Capital. It's so hard to expand, upgrade or even start your business without the right amount of seed money. It's what has motivated me to have my very own venture capital firm when I grow up. I want to invest in all of the Carolinas out there who have great ideas, but little to no resources or money.
BET: What are some of the biggest rewards?
CC: Wow. So many. Seriously, I feel like life is so generous. I've learned that although money is obviously important, the non monetary rewards have been the most significant and what has kept me going when rent is due and my bank account is at $2.74! Being able to be the boss and leader of a group of black women and seeing them grow is just so special. We invest in both their professional and personal development. So being able to run the company of my dreams, the one that I've always wanted to belong to, is really amazing.
I also get to see in real time the impact that we have in our community and the world around us. Being able to see more women embrace their hair, and more schools and work spaces allowing women to wear their [natural hair], is a result of so many years of hard work along with others who are fighting this fight. Our social media platforms allow us to not only reach thousands of women worldwide, but we also receive so many stories of how they've been impacted by Miss Rizos. Finally, being able to work with little girls these past five years and seeing them transform themselves, their community and us, has been the most fulfilling part of what I do.
BET: What inspired opening one in New York?
CC: I've been doing events Uptown since 2012, that’s seven years ago! From day one people in New York have shown so much love and support. Many of them even fly to DR just to get their hair done at Miss Rizos. I am paying homage to this community, while also bringing something that is so needed Uptown. Could you believe there are no exclusively curly/kinky hair salons in the Washington Heights and Inwood area? We are really [about] to educate and bring the curly love to this part of NYC, but we are also ready to absorb and learn from this beautifully vibrant and very special place.
BET: Describe a little bit about the process that is taking for you to open a second location?
CC: A lot of tears. "Jesus take the wheel" is something I've expressed a lot in the past six months. We actually ran a pre-sale campaign back in April where we were able to book 400 appointments and raise $30,000! But finding the space was definitely the hardest thing. I had to fire two brokers and simply do this myself. And I did. We signed our lease a few days ago and will be opening our shop on 190th and St. Nick, the heart of Washington Heights. The process for this second space also involves the support from an angel investor, a Dominican woman who simply believed in me and decided to take a risk and join me on this adventure. My DR team, especially my partner in crime Nikol, has also been a huge part in helping me make this happen. They say that if you could make it New York you could make it anywhere, I now know why they say this.
BET: What would you like for the people to take away from the work you do?
CC: I want to inspire people to bring to life their wildest dreams and to connect their work with helping others and leave the world better than how they found it. Beyond being able to eradicate discrimination on the basis of hair, which has always been a goal of mine, I want to motivate black and latina women to think big and to do what they love.