There’s something to be said about all the brave souls who have thrown caution to the wind and opened new businesses during the pandemic. Extra kudos go to those that got things started during the upstate winter, which has already seen its fair share of frigid temperatures and inclement weather. But for Stefanie Thomas, who checks both of those boxes, opening her Clifton Park business, Stefanie’s Beauty Supply, back in December was about more than just bringing a great idea to market. It was about preaching empowerment.
A Glens Falls native, Thomas grew up one of the only black children in her school system and remembers being teased and bullied because of her hair—it was always too poofy or frizzy or big and didn’t fit the other kids’ image of “normal.” “I was really self-conscious about my hair right up until adulthood, honestly,” says Thomas. “It’s been a huge factor in [my] confidence.” Back then, there had been the added complication of having to walk into beauty supply shops whose owners didn’t look like her, weren’t experts in her hair type and didn’t really want to help her anyway. It was a source of constant source of frustration. “I’ve always been someone that would complain about beauty supply stores,” she says. “I’ve been saying my entire life, ‘Why don’t we have a black-owned beauty supply store in the Capital Region?'”
Of course, the real go-getters in the world don’t let questions like that hang in the air too, too long. After all of those years of being picked on and going down beauty shop dead ends, somewhat ironically, Thomas had become an expert in beauty supplies no one seemed to want to sell her. And even though she’d spent years earning a master’s degree in criminal justice and was teaching it at Hudson Valley Community College at the time the pandemic hit, by the end of the last year’s spring semester, she was plotting her exit. “I wanted to do something positive for my community and my own daughter and for myself, and here I am,” she says. She hatched her plan for the beauty supply store in October and by December, she’d opened up its doors on Crossing Boulevard in Clifton Park.
The true catalyst behind Stefanie’s Beauty Supply, though—the one that drives Thomas to want to bring beauty product equity to the Capital Region—was watching her own 10-year-old daughter, Stella, deal with the same identity- and confidence-crushing issues she dealt with while growing up. She wanted to put an end to that vicious cycle. “I was sick and tired of life going on like this, where, if you look different, you’re made a spectacle,” says Thomas, “instead of embracing it and being happy. Although I know I can’t prevent kids from being teased, I can certainly help those that are being teased feel differently or handle it differently.”
So what can you or your child expect to find at the shop? “I’m offering everything we need,” says Thomas. “It’s not just products, shampoos and creams. I also offer wigs, hair extensions, bundles, braiding hair and ponytails.” And it’s not just products for women and girls: Thomas stocks everything from shave gel and molding wax to aftershave balm and hair/body wash for men. Besides offering all the tangible products, Thomas is also providing her customer base—some of whom are her daughter’s age—with a dose of empowerment. “I have an ’empowerment wall’ for children,” says Thomas. It’s a blackboard on which children can write their names, one thing they like about themselves and what they want to be when they grow up. “Then they can stand in front of it and get their picture taken,” says Thomas. Nearby, she also has a mini self-empowerment library, with children’s books that tackle complex topics such as racism and embracing your hair and skin color.
When I talked to Thomas this past Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, she said that, despite the pandemic and her shop’s sign not being installed yet, business was moving along steadily, and she had begun to see return customers. For her, opening the business was not only a chance to provide a safe, comfortable environment for men, women and children of color, but was also an opportunity to shatter some of the most pervasive societal stereotypes. Opening Stefanie’s Beauty Supply “was about changing how people view black ownership in general,” says Thomas. “Because if you ask any black woman that opens up a beauty supply store, the one thing that she’s going to tell you that she experiences most is people asking her if she does hair.” In other words, the stereotype is that all black women who work in the beauty business are employees, not self-made entrepreneurs. “[Society’s] just programmed to see everyone but black people own these stores that cater to black people, and that is something that needs to change,” she says. Amen.