After Hadje Achta Boukari Youssouf earned her master's degree in business from Central Methodist University, she went to her father and asked to enroll in cosmetology school.
Nearly four years after earning her cosmetology license, she opened her own business, Haby's African Hair Braiding, last November. Boukari Youssouf, 38, said her training in building clientele relationships and owning a salon meant more than sanitation practices — it built her confidence.
Her salon, inspired by her native country Chad, is painted powder blue and yellow and decorated with traditional African textiles of bright orange and green. There's a waiting area to the left, a register counter to the right and a single braiding chair near the back corner. Packs of hair extensions hang on the wall like floor-to-ceiling curtains. The astringent aroma of incense fills the space as Boukari Youssouf bends over her client's head, twisting and pulling a single braid before proceeding to the next strand of hair.
“To me, I’m doing hair like I’m a doctor," Boukari Youssouf said while finishing a set of micro braids, a style that can cost between $180 to $220 per client. "The person trusts me, the ones that come and sit on my chair. They work hard for their money to give it to me, so I need to give them what they deserve. It’s not about the money all the time.”
But like many other businesses, hair braiders face their own industry pressures — which, in their case, are regulations that require practitioners to obtain a cosmetology license.
Before Boukari Youssouf enrolled in courses at Cosmetology Concepts in 2012, she had been braiding hair unlicensed. She shared similar concerns about the regulations with fellow hair braiders: The costs were high, the time demands were stringent and she had three children at home, all under the age of 10.
But her attitude changed when she came across an article while scrolling through Facebook featuring a woman who had contracted HIV while getting a sew-in, a method for braiding hair with needle and thread. After reading the article, she knew the sanitation remedies she and her friends were taught, such as using apple cider vinegar and hot water, were not adequate for their clients.
"I would wash my comb with something like apple cider or vinegar, and when I would leave it for so long it would become rusted," Boukari Youssouf said. "I never knew there was special product for it. So, to me, I would advise to everybody that wants to go to school that it's worth it. They will never regret it."
Meanwhile, Rep. Shamed Dogan, R-Ballwin, has reintroduced a bill that would eliminate the license requirement in lieu of an informational brochure and training video accompanied by a self-test. The bill is scheduled to make its way to the state Senate after passing the Missouri House of Representatives with nearly 89 percent of the vote.
According to previous Missourian reporting, Dogan aims to eliminate irrational burdens on hair braiders, and the bill "gets the government out of people's hair." Boone County representatives voted in favor of the measurement.
The hair braiding case has also been heard in Missouri courts. On Jan. 11, two St. Louis hair braiders lost an appeal to remove the requirements on hair braiders to obtain their license. The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the law that requires hairdressers to have 1,500 hours of practice and completion of a licensing exam.
Through shared history, Boukari Youssouf can understand how hair braiders end up practicing the craft without a license. She learned how to braid in Chad, and the passion traveled with her to college in 1998. While studying in Morocco and Paris, she would practice on her friends' hair just as she had on her dolls back home.
"It’s something that I’ve loved since I was young," Boukari Youssouf said. "Everywhere I go, I keep telling people I know how to do hair. Hair is my passion.”
During the day, Boukari Youssouf's mom watches her 3-year-old upstairs while the three older siblings attend school. It's the middle of winter, but their front yard is littered with plastic cars, balls and a children's basketball hoop. She takes appointments seven days of the week but wishes she could spend more time with the kids.
Since building her clientele at cosmetology school, she is confident the relationships are strong enough to allow her to begin decreasing her hours. Her clients, some of whom drive nearly two hours to have their hair braided, appreciate her mindfulness and professionalism.
Emma Hargrow, a client of Haby's Hair Braiding who lives in the Kansas City area, said she prefers her hair braiders to have a license.
“Before I went to Haby, I used to go to someone back in Mississippi, and they had their license," Hargrow said. "I have never dealt with anyone that didn’t have their license."
Boukari Youssouf said she believes licensing laws should remain untouched. She said a cosmetology education in sanitation and scalp treatment is indispensable and well worth the professional benefits.
“If they could get more financial aid, it would motivate more people to go instead of hiding themselves and making people dangerous,” Boukari Youssouf said. "School is worth it. People are complaining now, but as soon as they go to school they’re going to say, ‘Oh, I’m glad I’m here.’”
Supervising editor is Ron Stodghill.