The first time Vanessa Howard reached out to a homeless shelter offering free services, they were understandably skeptical. She was calling on behalf of her business, Giving Hands Salon, offering to bring in a group of women, give them free haircuts and massages, lunch and a bag of toiletries. The skepticism shifted quickly, Vanessa remembers: “Right away, we were getting calls from some of the homeless shelters saying, ‘What are you doing?’” as women would return from the spa day and suddenly land jobs. The shelter staff wanted to hear more about this place the women said made them feel beautiful.
Vanessa was uniquely positioned to found Giving Hands, a brightly-painted hair salon in Tampa, FL that gives back through its non-profit foundation. She has always loved doing hair and considers it a gift. She taught herself how to do a French braid at just 4 years old and dreamed of her own salon, but was unable to afford cosmetology school after having her first child at 16.
There’s a turning point in every entrepreneur’s story though. For some, it’s identifying a void in the market that could be filled. For others it’s a forced decision, perhaps a layoff or a need to work from home and care for family. Vanessa’s turning point was a bit different. In 2008, as a single mother of three, she moved to Florida from her native Milwaukee, following a corporate job with a great paycheck. But with the economy failing, the job evaporated, leaving her without a plan or a path. Eventually, Vanessa found herself homeless and, by her own description, broken. She had no rental history and didn’t have funds for a deposit or rent, but one evening, a landlord passed over a stack of applications and offered her an apartment. She was honest about her financial situation, but he gave her extra time to find the money, right at the moment her family needed it most. And it’s exactly that kindness that pushed Vanessa to look for a way to lift other women who have felt her same pain.
The first step to becoming a business owner was cosmetology school. Vanessa still couldn’t afford it, but took a leap of faith, found a school that didn’t require a deposit, and signed up. Within a week, she received a long-awaited job offer, and began to split time between work and school.
By 2014, after working in a few salons, Vanessa was able to open her own, and reserved one full day per month on the schedule to give free hair, makeup and massage services. Starting with women in shelters, she has since expanded to serve suicidal teens, cancer survivors and victims of domestic violence and human trafficking. She also hosts “Princess Parties” each August for children whose parents can’t afford school supplies, sending them home with fresh haircuts and full backpacks.
“The Princess Party is something that’s really fun,” she says. “We literally deck the salon out and it takes me back to when I was a little girl when we couldn’t afford a lot for back-to-school, and not having sometimes all the school supplies, the clothes. The Princess Party allows a child to come into the salon and just be a princess for a day … and we buy everything they need to go back to school: book bags, school supplies, uniforms, socks, shoes — that’s what I wanted my life to be.”
For homeless women, who she still hosts regularly, Vanessa provides a catered lunch and a full assortment of services. When these women first come into the salon, Vanessa says, they have “walls.” But she and her volunteers — some of whom are salon clients — sit down next to them for lunch and ask which kinds of hairstyles they like, and whether they’re interested in having their nails done, or perhaps a massage. Over the course of the 6-to-8-hour day, the walls break down as the women see and feel their own beauty again. And their renewed confidence and hope pay off; Vanessa says over 98% of attendees go on to secure jobs. She has served more than 275 women in the past 5 years, and aims to expand her reach with a bigger team, a resource center, and eventually a shelter. “I definitely have my running shoes on,” she laughs.
Of the people she serves, Vanessa says, “I was once in their place. I literally walked in their shoes. I can remember when I was home with my three children at the time — I thought during that period in my life that that was my final state. However, what you think about yourself is what you’re going to become. And so what I always tell the women that come here is that homelessness is not who you are … it’s just a part of your story, okay?”