How one hairdresser’s journey led to launching a whole new business centred around doing good for the industry and beyond
The story begins back before the days of COVID-19, when travelling and physical interactions were much more straightforward than we saw it become, and Birmingham salon owner Helen Davis was running her business. Helen had been following the journey of a non-profit organisation, Hairdressers without Boarders (HWB), founded by Ester Nieremeijer, and the work she had been doing alongside company secretary, Peter Sellmeijer for women in disadvantaged countries. Helen reached out to Esther and Peter with her interest in taking part and helping out, if there was ever an opportunity to join a course.
There were plans in motion for HWB to take a (fourth) trip to Nepal, after Esther had formed a good relationship with another non-profit called BlinkNow Foundation, founded by American national Maggie Doyne in 2007. Maggie had travelled to Nepal in her late teens and struck by the severity of women in poverty after suffering domestic abuse or trafficking, began setting up a women’s centre, adopting nearly 300 orphaned children. Esther proposed the idea of starting a beauty school, teaching hairdressing to these women, and their first course was a success.
Unfortunately, COVID cut the application process short for Helen, but once restrictions had been lifted, she interviewed and was successfully selected to travel to Surkhet in Nepal to train 21 women, funded and supported by Authentic Beauty Concept.
Due to the lack of running water and electricity, the two-week trip saw the women participate in 10 days of intense hair cutting and learning, each with three doll’s heads, before Authentic Beauty Concept ambassador Juliette den Ouden arrived to share her expertise in bridal hair and make-up with the women – a huge part of Nepalese culture. Another key figure who played a significant part is Shandeep, a Nepalese hairdresser based in Katmandu, who dedicated his time to join the team and translate.
Helen’s time surrounded by these empowered women, teaching valuable skills distraction-free, was a stark contrast to her busy life as a salon owner. It was there she realised, as she stared out across the backdrop of the Himalayas, that this concept could work for a lot of people…and so began her mission towards The Stylist Retreat.
Helen returned to the UK and sold her salon to pursue a journey of using her skills to help people.
“On my first course, I had four girls that are all really terrified of cutting hair. And I think that is a really big thing in our industry,” says Helen. “The younger generation are really afraid of cutting hair. It’s all about colour. If you go on Instagram, it’s about the perfect balayage or the long, beautiful, wavy hair. And actually, if you’ve got them to cut a bob, they would be petrified about it.”
The Stylist Retreat is a four-day, no-phone zone, out in the Shropshire Hills, away from the bustle of the city, built around building confidence. Helen had also provided food hampers to encourage the girls to cook dinner together and arranged for evening mindfulness sessions, centred around empowerment, letting go of fears and sharing journeys and experiences.
“It’s for anyone of mixed ages to come and regain their confidence in cutting after COVID, it’s just about stepping back and understanding a haircut,” explains Helen. “A lady, in her 40’s, was telling me about an incident when a client came in for a wolf cut, and confessed to having had absolutely no idea. The reality is she had probably never been taught one, but actually if you get taught the basics in the right way, you will know how to do it, because it’s all about the angles that you take.”
So, what does the future hold for The Stylist Retreat? “Just to make it make it work,” Helen states. “In the ideal situation, it would be nice if this became something that people did when they had just qualified because it’s really daunting coming out of college,” she adds. “Being thrown onto the salon floor ready to cut anyone’s hair is daunting, but if this could be something that you did after you qualified, it would be great because it would give newly trained hairdressers more confidence. I’d love to work with different colleges, and have the retreat be something that they came on afterwards.”
Helen’s dedication for helping people and teaching transferable, hairdressing skills has sparked future ideas such as educating schools and colleges on the industry, or providing the opportunity of taster session for parents, or young girls and boys that have been in foster homes or have no direction, to come and see if they’d like to take that route.
Helen’s work with Hairdressers Without Borders continues. Esther has made her a partner, and 10 per cent of The Stylist Retreat bookings go back towards the organisation. The team will return to Nepal in February to help set up a salon, funded and supported by Authentic Beauty Concept, which will allow the women to become self-sufficient and ensure they feel confident in everything.
This will be followed by a visit to a refugee camp in the Netherlands in April to cut their hair, talk to refugees and make them feel special. There’s also trip to India planned for October, where Helen and the team will work with a LGBT group. This is an incredibly big deal, as India only legalised homosexuality in 2018.
“You can educate someone to do a skill that doesn’t cost any money. If they’ve got a pair of scissors, a comb, and some brushes, they can then feed their families by doing that – which is amazing,” she concludes.