How far would you go to follow your heart’s calling?

Alex Mbugua, 34, resigned from a well-paying job in IT to study hair-dressing and beauty. PHOTO| JEFF ANGOTE

What you need to know:

  • One day, he told his cousin that he wanted to become a hairdresser.

  • He was shocked.

  • “This job is for hustlers!” his cousin exclaimed, you are a professional, why would you want to work in a hair salon?” he asked, aghast, and advised him against making a rash decision.

What would make a young man resign from a well-paying job, move from a comfortable home in a reputable area and into a shack in what is considered a lowly neighbourhood?

“A man with a dream,” Alex Mbugua would tell you.

He was 23 when he turned his back on what everyone thought was an enviable career, to become a hairdresser.

Alex had studied software and data management, and even though he was in a job that promised rapid career growth, he was unhappy, and had not been for a long time.

He says,

“I was miserable. I wanted to use my hands to create beautiful things, yet here I was, stuck behind a computer every day – I felt as if I was in jail, I felt out of place, and was sure that this was not where I belonged.”

One of his cousin’s worked in a hair salon, and he would visit him regularly. When he was there, he would oddly feel alive, and knew without doubt that he would enjoy working in a hair salon. One day, he gathered courage and asked his cousin whether he could help. From then on, whenever he visited, he would occasionally help with menial jobs at the hair salon.

“It gave me tremendous joy to see a happy client, even if all I had done was hold a mirror for them.”

One day, he told his cousin that he wanted to become a hairdresser.

He was shocked.

“This job is for hustlers!” his cousin exclaimed, you are a professional, why would you want to work in a hair salon?” he asked, aghast, and advised him against making a rash decision.

KNEW WHAT HE MUST DO

But Alex had given the idea a great deal of thought and knew what he must do. What he had not thought about though, was the magnitude of opposition he would face.

Everyone he told about his decision to quit his job and study hairdressing advised him against it. Eventually, he told his parents, who he was still living with.

Not even that Airtel commercial about the young man who calls his mother and announces that he wants to become a rapper can compare to his parents’ reaction to the news of his career move.

“Dad was sure I had lost it. His emotions ranged from anger to despair, and at one point he wondered whether I wanted to become a hairdresser so that I could meet lots of women,” he says, now able to appreciate the humour in what was a tense outburst at the time.

He understood his father’s disappointment; he is the eldest, and is therefore a role model to his siblings, who looked up to him, but he was determined to follow his dream.

“My parents pleaded with me to reconsider, my mum even suggested that I could at least open a barber shop - she felt it was more respectable to cut men’s hair than plait women’s hair.”

When they saw there was no shaking his resolve, they asked his friends to “talk” to him, hoping that they could speak sense into him. It is then it occurred to Alex that most people considered hairdressing a job for those who had not gone to school, or had failed their exams. Out of the many friends and relatives who “talked” to him, only one of his friends understood just how passionate he was about his dream.

“If you feel deep in your heart that this is your purpose, follow your heart, after all, if you change your mind, your IT certificates will get you a job,” this friend told him.

This was all the encouragement he needed to convince himself that he had made the right decision. He immediately resigned from his job, withdrew his savings and joined a hairdressing college. His parents were so disappointed in him, that they kicked him out.

APPRECIATED THEIR INVESTMENT

“I appreciated that they had invested a lot in me, and gone out of their way to give me a good education, but I would have been going against my calling if I did not follow my heart.”

Alex found a tiny room costing Sh800 a month, not very far from the hairdressing college so that he could save on transport costs.

Many days he slept hungry because he couldn’t afford to buy food. His parents had cut him off completely. In fact, he and his father only got to speak to each other a year-and-a-half after he left home.

“My mum at some point softened her stance, and occasionally, she would give me money to buy food, even though she never stopped asking me to reconsider my decision  or at least try barbering, instead of hairdressing.”

In spite of the financial strain, he found hairdressing a very fulfilling experience. He was so good, that when he completed the course, he was offered a teaching job at the college. But he had a bigger vision. He wanted to own a hairdressing salon in future, and to be successful, he knew that he needed to get hands-on experience, and that meant working in several high tier salons.

His first job was in a salon in the city centre. It is here that he learned just how lowly the profession is viewed. He was also horrified when he received his first pay - it was a pittance.

Since the job was commission-based, many days he went home with nothing, and regularly slept hungry.

“Did you at this point regret resigning from your job?” we ask him.

“Never! The only disappointment I had was how the hairdressers in that salon had no zeal for their job. It was obvious that they were in it only because they had to make a living, they felt no attachment,” he says, adding that his experience has taught him that to truly succeed in what you do, you need to be passionate about it.

“I told myself that when I succeeded, I would bring professionalism into my work, understand everything to do with hair, and give outstanding service,” he says, adding that it broke his heart to see a woman with chemically damaged hair continue to abuse it with chemicals and heat.

Since he had not yet built a clientele base, he often helped out his colleagues, not only to learn more, but also to earn some money. This taught him something that would later influence his line of specialisation. His fellow hairdressers would avoid attending to clients with natural hair, which they considered too difficult to work with.

“There aren’t many options for such customers, yet, I enjoyed working with such hair.”

He ended up taking on most of these clients, and to ensure that he retained them, he did lots of online research about natural African hair, and learned about the best products to use, including what was locally available. Within a short time, his clientele grew, thanks to referrals.

REMEMBERS HIS FIRST CUSTOMER

He particularly remembers his first customer. Her hair had been damaged from chemical use. He convinced her to cut the limp stresses and try a short natural look. She loved it so much, she is one of his most loyal customers, 10 years on.

Determined to become the go-to guy where natural African hair is concerned, he decided to buy books online, after realising that free online material was not enough. But he did not have enough money to do this.

To raise it, he teamed up with a friend, and together, they started making cakes and mandazi, which they would hawk in salons, to make extra money. He attracted ridicule, especially from those who knew him, but he did not allow this to deter him, he had a goal, and he remained focused on it.

“If you want something badly enough, you must learn to focus on your vision, and not be bothered by what people say. You should also not be ashamed to start small. You can’t be big if you don’t know what it means to start small.”

His determination paid off. He managed to raise money to buy a couple of books, as well as a bicycle, which saved him a chunk on transport. When he did not have a client, he read his books instead of chatting with his colleagues. This made him the butt of many jokes.

“Do you have an exam coming up?” his colleagues would often mock him.

 “Everyone has a purpose in life. When you find it, you cannot afford to rest until you fulfil it,” he explains the motivation behind his relentless drive.

His breakthrough came about when one of his happy clients referred him as a guest speaker at a forum that had been organised for women with natural African hair. He quickly designed business cards, which he handed out after the conference. He must have made a very good impression, because he got so many clients from that conference, that he had to schedule the appointments for a couple of days.

Today, Alex owns his own salon, Artistry Salon & Spa, located in Hurligham, in the outskirts of the city centre. He hopes to expand to other areas in the near future, and become a household name. 

It seems as if his phone never stops ringing. Most of the calls are from his clients, who want to book an appointment.

We jokingly ask whether his wife is bothered by all those phone calls from women. Alex is married, and is a father of two.

“When we were dating, she was a bit bothered - I understood her concerns, and so I worked hard to earn her trust. It does not bother her now, if anything, she is free to answer my calls or read my messages if she wants to,” he says.

He has a message for anyone who identifies with his story, someone who is at a point where everyone thinks he should stick to his socially acceptable job instead of following his heart’s desire.

“Go for it! No one promises an easy ride - you must be ready to stay focused on your goal and remain resilient. Dig your heels in, even at your most discouraging moment. You will eventually get there.”

As for parents, he advises them to support their child’s dream, no matter how outlandish it sounds to them.

“Don’t insist on your children studying the safe and tried careers, rather, encourage them to discover what it is they are passionate about, that which burns in their hearts. Each child is differently gifted, we can’t all be doctors and lawyers. This world needs hairdressers, actors, chefs and musicians as well, so support them to become the best in their chosen fields.”

In case you are wondering, Alex and his father are the best of friends today, and he can say without doubt that his father is proud of him.

“I think I earned his respect by sticking to my guns and achieving something worthwhile in the end.”

 

This is what my experience  has taught me

  •   To truly succeed at what you do, you need to be passionate about it.

  •   Do not be ashamed to start small. You can’t become big if you don’t know what it means to be small.

  •   We all have a purpose in life. When you find it, you cannot afford to rest until you fulfil it.

  •   No one promises an easy ride. There will be many challenges, but you must be ready to stay focused on your goal and remain resilient.

 

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