On 12th August, Paris McKenzie, a 16-year-old entrepreneur and high school student, opened up a beauty supply store in Brooklyn, becoming the youngest Black owner of a beauty store in America. On 4th September, she posted to Twitter, standing proud in front of Paris Beauty Supplyz. The tweet got 140,000 likes. On 8th September, Bella Hadid gave her a social media co-sign. “My life has changed so much,” McKenzie tweeted.
McKenzie markets her products primarily to Black women and girls, selling the same shampoos and conditioners she uses in her own hair. Natural hair can be challenging for Black women to maintain in a society that discriminates based on hair texture, and nearly three quarters of beauty supply stores across the US are owned by Korean-Americans, who might not understand the distinct needs of Black hair.
Since the launch of Paris Beauty Supplyz, McKenzie has seen a steady stream of customers coming into the shop – just a few doors down from the salon her mother, a cosmetologist, owns. Though McKenzie has plans to enter medicine in the not-too-distant future, she knows the importance of a young Black girl taking up space in the beauty industry and the need for Black-owned businesses. “Black-owned businesses are important because we need to be able to see that we can do what we want to do,” she says.
When did you open your store?
We officially opened on 12th August, that’s when I got this store and rented it for the whole day for the first time.
What gave you the idea to open this store?
I grew up in cosmetology. My mom has been a hair stylist since before I was born. She’s owned her hair salon for sixteen years now, so I already had a head start in the industry. I knew how to market the products in the store, and how to tell [customers] what to use and how to use them. And that really gave me a push into [taking] this opportunity.
What kind of products are you selling?
All types of hair products for natural hair or relaxed hair, for curly hair or straight hair. We also sell extensions for braiding hair, and hair accessories. In terms of beauty we sell lip gloss, lipstick, stuff like that. We have Shea Moisture products, or Cantu, Cream of Nature, Aussie, OGX, Shine and Jam, which people love to purchase. We have a lip gloss section, too – it’s like a dollar a lip gloss. Those are my favourites because it’s cheap, it’s not sticky and lasts a long time.
Everything to make a person feel more beautiful or anything to add on to their beauty, we sell it here.
It can be challenging enough to open up a new business, but then you’re also really young. What kind of difficulties have you faced as a young person, who owns this store and manages it?
One of the challenges is hearing, “She’s underdeveloped, she can’t handle it herself, she can’t open her own business.” There are a lot of negative comments like that. Then there are other challenges when it comes to my academics, because I’m an honor roll student, I participate a lot in school and I take college courses at 16 at Hunter College. School does play a part in how I run this store because I have a heavy workload.
Why do you think Black-owned businesses are important to own and buy from, especially in New York, which is getting really gentrified?
Black-owned businesses are important because we need [to be uplifted]. We’ve been suppressed and oppressed for so long, and been shut out of so many opportunities. Especially when it comes to young kids growing up, they need to see someone who’s doing good, so they can say, “I’m able to do that.” And we need to get back the places that we built. A lot of the places in New York, we built the stores and made the areas as popular as they are now. We’ve been spending our money in the community for so long. It’s better for us to circulate the Black dollar instead of spending it elsewhere.
A lot of stores for natural hair and Black beauty are owned by non-Black people, such as Asian Americans. How do you think that has affected the Black community, and Black women in particular?
It’s made us feel like we can’t achieve something that we might aspire to achieve. It makes us feel less dominant, because you might want to do something [in beauty], but there’s so many people that are there to tell you that you can’t do it. And seeing nobody that looks like you, it makes you feel like it’s impossible to achieve.
Why do you think it’s important that Black women take up space in the natural hair industry?
It’s important because we are the main consumers. Any beauty supply store you go to, and you ask them who’s the main consumer, who’s the customer that you see the most, they’re going to tell you it’s Black women, and especially young Black girls because we’re so into the new styles and every trend that comes out. I feel like it’s important to see representation in a place that we frequent.
For Black women, when we walk into a beauty supply store, there might be someone that’s following you or rushing you with a purchase. Going to beauty supply stores so frequently, you want to feel comfortable there, and think it’s important for us to show representation in a place where we are so often.
What kind of struggles do Black women and Black girls have to face in managing their hair?
There are many different obstacles, really. Making sure your hair stays moisturised plays a very big part in natural hair, and sometimes you walk into a curly beauty supply store, and the [owners or managers] might not even be able to assist you with that and how to care for your scalp. That’s because they don’t know what’s on our head. They don’t know what it takes to control it, maintain it, and help it grow. Sometimes it might be dietary and you might not know, other causes are low porosity, which might be a little harder to manage because it can’t hold moisture that well.
Maintaining natural hair is very expensive compared to the prices on relaxed hair, and I think that’s one of the reasons why a lot of Black girls get relaxed hair and texturizers. Because once you do that, you don’t have to worry about a curling custard or a leave-in condition or pre-poo, or things like that. Some people walk into a beauty supply store and spend 70 something dollars at one time, while a person with straight hair would spend only 10 dollars. There are a lot of obstacles with natural hair, but that’s why it’s good to have Black-owned beauty supply stores because we can help each other.
How was your journey into embracing your natural hair? Did having your mother as a hairstylist help?
My mom being a stylist was part of why I relaxed my hair, and that’s common with a lot of other beauticians’ daughters, who do press-outs, try the new styles or relax their hair. Growing up in a salon, you’re around chemicals all the time.
I think I was about 12, just entering middle school when I finally said, “I’m going to stop relaxing my hair, and I’m going to grow it out and see what it actually looks like.” And it was one of the best moves I’d ever made, because my hair has never been this long or healthy until I went natural.
Our hair is a very big part of our personality. As a child, I really didn’t have as much representation, a lot of people weren’t walking around with natural hair, they were getting relaxers and perms. And it wasn’t until I got older and this natural hair movement started again, that’s when I started to fall in love with my hair all over again and finally see my curls. It’s very important to us because it’s something that builds our character.
How do you go about choosing the products that you want to put in your store?
I mostly focus on what’s requested the most, or what moves out of the shelves the most. And also what’s best for people’s hair, because of course as a businesswoman, you’re going to want to sell and make a lot of money, but being the honest person I am, I also want to care for my customers. What builds customer loyalty is seeing people come back because the products you’re recommending are great, and their hair is growing.
Younger people are often more aware of beauty and fashion trends than older people, because they’re passionate about it but also because they’re plugged into social media. Why do you think it’s important that young people get involved in business?
It’s important for young people to be in business because we are the customers. Who else is better to help us than us? Because we are the people who know the trends, we know what’s selling, we know what to market, so it’s easier for us to invest than an older person. Even if an older person owns a store, they’re going to hire younger people [to help them], because younger people are buying.
Where is your store located?
My store is located at 3311 Church Avenue, Brooklyn, New York, 11226.