Her family torn apart by drugs, Rosalind Holsey learned to fend for herself early on, separated from her mother as a child in West Baltimore, living in a foster home, bouncing from place to place as a teenage runaway.
Shut out of cosmetology at a high school vocational center, she found herself among the boys in a barbering class. It gave her all the chance she needed.
"I didn't know my talents then, but my teacher did," said Holsey of the well-known Baltimore barber Willie Harry. He told her, she recalled: "Get your life together. If you want this world to work, you have to stand on your own feet and make it work."
Holsey, 45, took the no-nonsense advice to heart and has been cutting, coloring and styling hair, opening salons and training others ever since. A year after relocating her fast-growing Studio 7 The Salon to Mount Vernon from Federal Hill, she's poised to expand again, opening a spa offering manicures and massage in the building at 800 N. Charles St., which once housed a Donna's coffee shop that was displaced in a five-alarm fire in 2010. The expanded salon is opening Friday.
The salon has drawn 1,000 new clients since moving from Federal Hill, Holsey said, more than half of whom have returned. Combined sales for the last five years topped $1 million last year.
Those who know her say Holsey has succeeded on a winning blend of hair-styling skill, charisma, business acumen and vision.
"She dreams so big," said Meghan Ruppert, the salon's manager and a stylist for Holsey for more than five years.
Holsey's venture is part of a $20 billion, highly fragmented hair salon industry, with the 50 largest companies generating about 15 percent of total sales, according to the U.S. Small Business Administration.
Fueled by increases in disposable income and declining unemployment, demand is growing, research from IBISWorld shows, which estimated the broader salon and spa market at $42 billion last year. Consumers are expected to spend more on higher-value services, such as manicures, pedicures, facials and massage, and IBISWorld projects industry sales to climb to $58.2 billion by 2019.
Studio 7's expansion has turned a basement that once housed a restaurant into a spa, with painted brick walls, tiled floors, custom-made canary colored pedicure chairs, dark wood accent tables and metallic-toned artwork. There's a waxing room, a massage and facial room, a pedicure-manicure area and space for classes and bridal events.
"This is me, my personality," said Holsey, who created the color scheme and shopped for furnishings on craigslist. "I like nice things, clean and organized. ... I want you to feel like this is a retreat."
Emma Stokes has been getting haircuts at Studio 7 for about three years, and followed the stylists from Federal Hill to Mount Vernon though she lives in Otterbein, largely because of Holsey.
"She's unique, and so multitalented," said Stokes, perched in a salon chair on a recent weekday as stylist Anthony Fikes cut her hair. "Her style I adore."
Fikes, a former salon owner himself, met Holsey through their church but was impressed when he saw her work and a presentation she gave at a convention center hair show.
"She had a line of people waiting," he recalled. "I said 'I want to work for her. '"
Holsey's salon is multicultural, where stylists, all employees, specialize in all textures of hair, regardless of a client's gender or ethnicity. Holsey said she wants to appeal to neighborhood residents, workers and students and offers both high-end packages and more affordable choices a la carte.
Bonnie Crockett, a business consultant for Maryland Capital Enterprises Inc., began working with Holsey when the salon outgrew the Federal Hill location, opened in 2009. The nonprofit, funded by state and federal grants, including video lottery terminal funds, made Holsey a $50,000 loan for the move to Mount Vernon and another $50,000 to expand with a spa.
The salon business tends to be highly competitive and risky, especially for inexperienced operators, but the small business-focused lender saw an opportunity, Crockett said
"What we're looking for is someone whose business can really benefit from our loan, not just dig someone out of a hole that they'll dig again, but help a business grow and expand and do better, and that was the case with Rosalind," she said. "She's been growing by leaps and bounds and has demonstrated her abilities as a business person to make the right decisions… The place is beautiful. She understands she's targeting a market that responds to that."
Holsey, who has been married for 18 years and has two grown daughters, said an entrepreneurial streak runs in her blood. Her late father worked as a tractor-trailer driver and ran his own oil heating maintenance business.
But he also struggled with a heroin habit. When she was 11, she and her brother, 10, were taken from their home in Sandtown and sent to live with a foster family. Their grandmother eventually took them in, but Holsey, who was 14, rebelled against her grandmother's strict rules and ran away, staying wherever she could, with a cousin, friends or boyfriends.
"I don't know if I'd be the person I am if I hadn't gone through all that," Holsey said.
School was a haven where she could count on shelter, meals and friends. When Rosalind met Harry at the Westside Skills Center, her life changed direction. Known to cut the hair of sports and entertainment figures, including Oprah Winfrey when she was at WJZ-TV, Harry gave Holsey her first pair of professional clippers and her first job.
Holsey went on to enroll in hair school and get her cosmetology license, complete a general equivalency high school diploma, then complete an associate degree in massage therapy at Community College of Baltimore County - Essex.
Over the years, she worked at salons throughout the city, for others and for herself, including her first business, A Stylists Dream, in her old neighborhood of Sandtown. Someday she hopes to leave her current business to her daughters, Shanicka and Shamaere, who have their own careers.
"This industry literally changed my life," she said.