Latashia Ringold moved to Columbia to change her life more than a decade ago.
When she met Debra Harris a few weeks after the move, she had no idea the impact it would have on her life. Harris was more than just a hair stylist for Ringold; she was an ongoing positive influence.
“Debra would encourage and help me to be a better mother, a better person, a better woman and a better friend,” Ringold said.
Harris is the owner of A Cut Above the Rest Hair Salon on Providence Road, which supports independent contractors who work under the same business umbrella.
Harris and her husband, Al, also co-own Harris Cosmetology and Barber Institute, which does business as Sam Brown Cosmetology and Barber Institute in the Broadway Shopping Center.
“Harris Cosmetology is an institute where we train and prepare students for their state board licensing,” Harris said.
Columbia is chock full of hair salons, but Harris is able to retain loyal clients and regularly get new ones. As a stylist, she is a short-hair specialist.
“She’s the queen of short hair," said Ringold. "She’s awesome at what she does.”
A number of independent stylists and barbers specializing in different styles work under the banner of A Cut Above the Rest, so customers have multiple opportunities to find the best fit.
“Some people walk in and they have never been to the salon before," Harris said. "Whoever gets them grooms them, and if that is the stylist they choose, then they take them on as a client."
Other clients may rotate among a few stylists or simply choose whoever is open on a particular day.
Harris prides her salon as truly accessible for all.
“We service men, women and children," she said. "It's more like a family salon in the sense that we service pretty much everybody."
When Harris isn’t taking appointments herself, she can be found at the Sam Brown Institute, a private cosmetology school that offers part-time or full-time classes. They get hands-on experience working with actual clients in a full-service salon.
The students take theory classes in the morning to help prepare them for the written portion of their licensing exam, then spend afternoons or early evenings working on the floor and putting what they learned into practice.
“Clients can come in and get serviced by students for cheaper than going to a fully professional salon," Harris said. "It’s a great option for college students.”
When she and her husband purchased Sam Brown Institute in November, she combined her passions for hair styling, helping others and family under one roof.
“I had a few stylists who came to me trying to build a clientele, but they didn’t come to the table with a enough knowledge to be successful," she said. "So I was thinking, ‘Well maybe long term I would like to have a school so I could have input to make a stylist better.’ ”
Purchasing the cosmetology school was the Harrises second business venture together. Debra Harris came to Columbia in 1989 ready to raise her children in a smaller community. She enrolled in Jerry’s School of Hairstyling, then began working as an independent contractor while her husband attended cosmetology school.
“We both wanted to be independent contractors, so it just sounded like the better financial idea for us to open our own salon than to pay for a booth somewhere else,” Harris said.
When her children were young, she took them with her to work and used time with her kids to teach them life lessons.
“The salon was a teaching mechanism of general people skills," she said. “The interactions of my children with my clients, which are my extended family, and building those bonds and teaching at the same time were crucial to me as a mother.”
Harris hopes one day her children will follow in their parents' footsteps.
“I want to grow my businesses and create a legacy and to bring at least one or two of my children into the business so they can understand it and the businesses will continue on and have longevity even after I’m gone,” she said.
Harris hopes to maintain steady growth at A Cut Above the Rest, but she has more ambitious goals for the school. She is starting a barbering school, the first and only such program in Columbia.
"The closest place you could go was St. Louis or Kansas City, which is 125 miles away," Harris explained about the need for a program. "So I wanted something in this community for men and women who want to be in the barbering field.”
She also is in the process of getting her teaching certificate so she can be fully certified at the Sam Brown. She believes cosmetology is more than just a leisure service, it is a way to connect with people, uplift people and shine light into others.
"She's awesome at what she does and she's a really good wife, mother and friend," Ringold said.