When Najah Aziz nodded off during an annual job performance review, she knew she had to make a move. She wanted out of the insurance business and into the hair salon, feeding a passion she developed as a child styling her six sisters’ hair.
Quitting the security of corporate America after 16 years came with a second ambition: to inject a new sense of professionalism into the African American hair industry.
Aziz eventually took the leap and put her evening cosmetology classes to work. Fifteen years later, she is a nationally recognized stylist, owns the Like The River Salon in Atlanta and wages a one-woman national crusade with “Beauty Beyond The Hair” clinics.
She travels the country up to 20 times a year to run four-hour “look and learn” sessions, three-hour business seminars for salon operators and a seven-hour “Short Hair Boot Camp.”
Students get a crash course on business etiquette, marketing, community service and client retention and growth.
“The model for African American salons has been broken for a long time,” Aziz said. “It’s been broken in the way the businesses operated, the way business was conducted, the way stylists presented themselves, the atmosphere in salons.
“I was a client long before I became a hair care professional and so I noticed all the issues,” she said. “I sat in a salon for six hours to get my hair done. I watched stylists talk on the phone as they worked. I saw people coming in off the street selling products to clients, while listening to rap music blast away. And none of it felt right. In fact, it was all disappointing.”
Aziz hosts some sessions at her award-winning salon where she coaches stylists individually and in groups. And she offers hourlong phone mentoring to share business advice.
“I believe in her mission of being more professional in our culture because it allows us to move in arenas that were not available to us,” said Loriane Robinson, stylist and owner of In God’s Hands Beauty Salon in Chicago. “We were completely blinded to the fact that the beauty industry is bigger than making money doing hair.”
Robinson first spotted Aziz on Instagram and embraced her teachings in a 2016 session in Chicago.
“I’ve learned that our industry also has to first be about being professional, on time for work, building your image, social media presence, continuing to be a student,” she said. “When we apply her knowledge, create new habits, we can experience this multibillion-dollar industry in a fresh and new way.”
Jasmine Ashley, owner of a Los Angeles salon that bears her name, said, “Every time I see Najah, she drops a jewel or several. I’ve learned from her that staying relevant, current and professional at all times holds more weight than stylists know.”
Aziz said she started slowly with one or two clients a day. But she studied hair videos in her off-hours and observed other stylists’ work, gradually building her clientele.
“My intent was always to educate myself,” she said. “Even now, all this time later, I’m excited about learning and improving.”
Her salon is a soothing environment where clients have limited wait time because there is no double-booking.
Aziz flexes her community-service muscle three times each year, offering complimentary hair care services to homeless women in Atlanta.
“I believe in giving back,” she said.
Her formula seems to work. More than 285,000 fans follow her on Instagram, hair magazines feature her work and annual industry mega-events like the Premier Hair Shows and International Beauty Show give her platforms to teach and tell her story.
“Najah is so amazing,” said Brooklyn stylist Gillian Garcia. “I support her mission. It’s time the ‘Black salons’ treat our gifts, talent and purpose with a little more respect.
“I totally love that Najah continually references her corporate experience because we are professionals also. She has shown you can be creative, professional and business-savvy. She’s released an inner power within me and I have not been the same since I met her.”