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Ep#3 – Bringing Beauty and Wellness to the Marginalized with Jessie Santiago

Bringing Beauty and Wellness to the Marginzaled with Jessie Santiago

In this episode of You Did That!, I welcome Jessie Santiago, the owner of Salon Benders, a full-service beauty salon based in Long Beach, CA focusing on LGBTQIA+ competency and wellbeing. Jessie has been working in the beauty and wellness industry for over two decades, having first tried her hand at doing hair at age 17.

Main Topics Discussed:

  • Loving yourself, no matter how many societal norms you bend
  • Advice to aspiring marginalized entrepreneurs
  • Living your values as a business owner
  • Why integrity is so crucial to the success of any business
  • Why having faith in humanity is the greatest motivator

What led to your fast success as a hairstylist?

Jessie: To be totally real, I lean into stuff that makes me feel completely terrified. I was really focused. I never found something that I was good at because I never felt very smart as a child and as a young adult. When I tried doing hair for the first time, I found something that really clicked with me and I was passionate about. From then on, I did everything I could to perfect my craft. I knew it had to work because while I love doing hair, I also needed my passion to pay my bills.

Why did you start Salon Benders? Were there any trade-offs you had to make when you got started?

Jessie: I think it’s so important to talk about this. Everything was a trade-off: It was my physical and mental health, identity, and culture. I had to whitewash, assimilate, code-switch, be low-key about being queer, be skinny, be beautiful—there were all these things that I had to be to be lucrative and be seen as a professional in this industry. I did all of this for 20 years. Right before I opened Benders, I met my partner Cal. He later asked me whether I ever considered working within my own community and offering my services to other trans and queer people. I never really considered it because I was struggling with my own identity and mental health. I had a lot of trauma within my own community because I didn’t identify as “gay” or “straight” when those were the only two categories anyone talked about when I grew up. The moment that Salon Benders became official was a year before we got our space, when I created the Salon Benders brand on social media. It was just myself starting out. But it all really dawned on me when an older trans woman reached out to me for a house call. I saw her as a sister, and I knew that this was the work I wanted to do: to prioritize trans women, especially trans women of color.

Where did the name “Salon Benders” come from?

Jessie: Cal and I always knew we wanted to open a salon but we didn’t know what to call it. We spent the next six to seven months throwing around all of these different ideas. I am connected to my culture and spirituality, and meditation is a part of that. My grandmother taught me how to ground and reach out to information that somebody might call “collective consciousness”. So, I was lying down one day, deep inside of my higher consciousness, and I asked, “Who are you? What speaks to Cal and I?” We broke every societal rule there is: We’re queer, poly, trans, brown, small, tattooed, fem, loud. We bend or break all of these norms. We’re benders. We bend everything. So, I decided to open my salon to everyone else who was questioning, asking, and bending.

What were some of the early challenges you faced after opening Salon Benders?

Jessie: When I moved to California from Virginia, I thought that I wouldn’t encounter any sexism, racism, homophobia, or transphobia. When I called for a meeting to talk about the space, I was open about who Cal and I were because we were going to put up an LGBTQ-centered community and hair salon. I had to bring Cal in for all the negotiations because I was treated completely differently compared to him. It boggled my mind. I was also groped by one of the contractors. On top of it all, I never had someone guiding me in business. I had to figure all of this out by myself.

What advice do you have for aspiring business owners?

Jessie: The best piece of advice I can give to any budding entrepreneur, especially female or marginalized entrepreneurs, is to find at least three values to live your life by, and never compromise on them. For me, it’s honesty, integrity, and fairness. If we say we are trauma-informed and we allow for possible traumatic things to happen to our employees and our customers, we are not living by our word. Commit to bettering yourself and taking responsibility for your wrongs as a business owner and as a human being, because they will happen.

What keeps you going?

Jessie: My faith in myself. I believe in myself. I believe that I can do something extraordinary. I know it’s going to be hard, but I believe in human beings. I have faith in us all. We’re all flawed, but I have faith in humanity and that pushes me to see the good in people and in myself. That allows me to forgive and to try to find empathy and compassion in every situation and in every decision that I or other people make. Maybe that’s naive, but it’s what keeps me going.

What would your younger self think if they saw you now?

Jessie: You’re exactly right: You check the boxes, sister. That’s what we were going for!


Learn more about Salon Benders:

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