The process of launching a new small business can be incredibly daunting for almost anyone. But for Akyra Thompson, the founder and owner of Wholeness Hair Clinic in Williamsburg, the challenges were particularly vast.
Not only did Thompson open her salon in October 2020 – during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic – but she also endured a two-year period of homelessness on her journey to getting the business up and running.
Thompson hadn't always planned on running her own business. After stepping into the beauty industry in 2009, she took on numerous hairstylist positions, starting out at local chains and then working her way up to privately-owned salons.
"For years, I didn't want this," she said, referring to her current role. "I was completely content with just doing my clients' hair and going home."
But Thompson, who grew up in Gloucester County, saw a stark need for something else in the area: a salon that caters to people with curly and natural hair.
"You really don't have many options for haircare if you have a curlier hair texture," she said. "It's definitely an untapped market here, especially if you're a woman of color."
Thompson envisioned filling that gap by starting a salon of her own. But the road to getting to where she is today has been filled with tremendous barriers.
In 2016, Thompson - a mom of three - hit rock bottom. After separating from her significant other, she became homeless - with her young children in tow.
That’s when she turned to NATASHA House, a nonprofit transitional home that seeks to provide a safe harbor for women and children facing homelessness. Based in Yorktown, NATASHA House emphasizes empowering and equipping women so they can achieve self-sufficiency.
"They build you up as a woman and give you a space where you can dream again and re-plan your life,” Thompson said. “They’ve definitely played a big part in my success.”
Thompson said that when she arrived at the house, she was given a picture of a bridge, which she hung up outside of her room. Upon her graduation in 2018, she brought the picture with her to display in her new home – this time in a place she could call her own.
"They call themselves a ‘bridge to wholeness,’ because they're a bridge, bringing you from your tumultuous past into your new life,” she said of NATASHA House.
That term - "bridge to wholeness" - was the inspiration behind the name Thompson chose for Wholeness Hair Clinic.
"That's where I got 'wholeness' from," she said. "Because I want to speak to the whole person. It's not just about your hair, but it's about gaining confidence. It's about self-acceptance."
Now that Thompson has carved out a pathway to success, she gives back by volunteering for NATASHA House. She even has a donation box at the salon to raise funds for the organization.
"That's where I dreamt about this business, in my room when I was living there," she said. "It's great to see the fruition of that come to pass."
Today, Thompson's talent and persistence have earned her a loyal client base, many of whom are happy to rave about her services. The Wholeness Hair Clinic has an average five-star rating on its Facebook page and nearly 1,500 followers.
Thompson says one of the most rewarding things about her work is having the opportunity to help young women who struggle with self-esteem issues due to challenges they've faced with their curly hair.
"I have a heart for building up young women with curly hair, to make them see their hair in a positive light and embrace their curly hair texture," she said. "I do have a lot of moms and dads that bring in their little girls for me to care for their curls because they might not know how."
While Thompson continues to specialize in curly and natural hair, she provides services for all hair textures. She focuses on using plant-based and vegan hair products, which she says are a healthier option than many other traditional salon products.
"I learned about the toxic ingredients in a lot of our hair products and a lot of the chemical services that are done in salons, in particular relaxers, or Brazilian blowouts or keratin treatments," Thompson said. "After reading about that, you can't un-see it, and I wanted to speak to people who want healthier alternatives."
Thompson also enjoys working with people who suffer from alopecia and other scalp issues.
"A lot of places offer extensions or a weave but not something that is natural,” she said.
Thompson takes a different approach, with an emphasis on nourishing the client's own hair and scalp so they can work toward getting the look they desire.
In addition, she offers a range of other services, including botanical hair color, trending haircuts, smoothing treatments and more.
Still very mindful of safety precautions amid the ongoing pandemic, Thompson is operating on an appointment-only basis and generally sees clients Wednesday through Saturday. She wears a mask during appointments and asks her clients to do the same. She also routinely disinfects chairs and other shared items after each use and avoids double-booking clients whenever possible.
Looking ahead, Thompson sees a bright future. She just got married in August, she said, and she hasn't stopped generating lofty goals for her salon. After building up her business in Williamsburg, she hopes to open up some other locations in Virginia and ultimately step into a purely managerial role.
"My goal is to retire by 55," she said.
Thompson, who is currently the sole person operating Wholeness Hair Clinic, said the greatest challenge she's faced since starting the business is trying to juggle all the roles required of her.
"The success of the business rides on me. So I have to suit up and show up every day. Even when I don't feel like it, I have to keep going," she said. "And then insert social media. Now, I have to be a videographer and a photographer and a social media specialist," she laughed.
Nonetheless, Thompson said she remains grateful for the opportunity to pursue her dream and provide a service that is otherwise difficult for local residents to access.
"I'm just creating a space where you don't have to choose beauty over health," Thompson said. "And you can rest assured that your hair type is not going to be turned away but nourished and cared for."