Eric Garrett Sr. had a dream: Provide job opportunities for young black men and women in the Akron area.
Even if they had criminal records.
Even if they didn’t have a high school diploma.
To fulfill that dream, he started a barber college.
“So many people could benefit from this,” Garrett said in a recent interview. “Giving back is what it’s all about for me.”
Beyond Expectations Barber College opened its doors last month in its nightclub-turned-school building on Romig Road near Rolling Acres in Akron.
The school so far has enrolled seven students and four student instructors, working under the direction of a master barber instructor who came out of retirement to help with the effort.
Garrett, 42, who grew up in Akron, is pleased to see his plans taking shape and has big aspirations for the future.
“I was entrusted with the task to make a difference, and I’m gonna do it!” Garrett said enthusiastically.
Not everyone is thrilled, though, with Garrett’s decision to open a second barber school in the Akron area.
“I don’t think we need another school,” said James Subotin, owner of Akron Barber College, which his family has operated since 1951. “We’ve got room for 50 or 60 in here. I don’t think there’s enough room.”
Akron Barber College,established in 1920, moved from downtown Akron in 1989 to its current location on Arlington Road in Coventry Township.
“Our reputation stands on itself,” Subotin said. “There’s not a whole lot I need to say.”
Akron isn’t the only major city in Ohio with more than one barber college. There are 13 schools in the state, including four in Cuyahoga County, two each in Columbus and Dayton, and five in Ohio prisons. The last new college opened in Niles two years ago, said Howard Warner, executive director of the Ohio State Barber Board.
Warner says more barbers are needed, with a 14 percent growth expected in the craft over the next 10 years, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projections.
Warner also says colleges in Ohio might move or expand, but they rarely fail. He hopes that will be the case for the new college in Akron, which he has visited a few times.
“[Garrett] seems to be very dedicated to wanting to help people and getting them to working,” Warner said.
Garrett said the idea to open the school came to him last summer as he and his family were visiting the National Great Blacks in Wax Museum in Baltimore. He said the museum inspired him and he decided he needed to “do something special.”
“I wanted to give back to the community,” said Garrett, a married father of two.
Garrett isn’t a barber. In fact, his professional background has been in other areas, including serving in the U.S. Army, working for the U.S. Social Security Administration for 21 years and operating a day-care center in Akron.
When Garrett decided he wanted to open the school, he learned he needed to find a master barber instructor who was willing to work with him. He contacted Roberta Nelson, a barber for more than 40 years in Akron and one of only three master instructors in the Akron-Canton area. The problem: She was retired.
Garrett tried to convince Nelson, a family friend, to join his cause.
Nelson, 66, said she struggled and prayed on the matter for a long time.
“What really brought me back was to be able to help these men and women,” she said of the students. “I came out of retirement for them.”
Garrett also recruited four barbers to work under Nelson and become barber instructors. Rodney Pryer, who cuts LeBron James’ hair — brought some star power to the school. Pryer, who is Garrett’s cousin, talked up the college to his Facebook friends, helping to create some buzz. He thinks the school will succeed.
“We’re so hands-on with the students — really paying attention to what’s going on in class and out here,” said Pryer, referring to the area of the school where students and instructors provide services to the public.
For Paris Gladman, another instructor, the barber school is giving him a second chance.
Gladman, 30, of Akron, began learning the barber trade when he was an inmate at Richland Correctional Institution, serving time for possession of criminal tools.
“It gave me the opportunity to get back to doing barbering,” said Gladman, who is also taking a class to try to get his GED.
Gladman appreciates that Garrett wants to help people like him who have troubled pasts and are trying to get their lives back on track. He said he wants a better future for him and his two sons.
“For people trying to get in, it’s a good way to change your life around,” he said. “It’s a great opportunity.”
The college also is offering a fresh start for Taja Frieson, the first female student at the school.
Frieson, 24, of Akron, attended Akron Barber College, but didn’t finish the program. A barber must complete 1,800 hours, which takes about 10 months, and pass a state exam to get a license. A barber instructor must complete another 500 hours and pass a state test.
Frieson said she likes Beyond Expectations, saying it has a “family environment.”
“Every time you walk in, there’s a smiling face greeting you,” she said. “I don’t get treated any different from the male barbers. I like that. I don’t want standards lowered.”
Frieson, who said some men like a woman cutting their hair, eventually hopes to open her own shop. She called barbering an art.
“I like the art of having to use my brain to bring what somebody else wants done to their head to life,” she said.
Roberta said a good barber needs to have desire, focus and pride in his or her work.
“Anybody can cut hair,” she said. “It’s the details that keep people in your chair.”
When the school builds up enough clientele, Garrett wants to expand from 10 students to 32, a process that would require knocking out a wall and moving the classroom space into an area not currently in use.
Garrett hopes to open two barber shops in different parts of Akron where students from his college can work after they graduate. He also wants to provide his students the chance to teach in the college and eventually in a vocational program he would like to start in Akron high schools. (He has not broached this idea with Akron school officials.)
While Garrett opened his school with the hopes of providing jobs to black men and women, he said the school won’t discriminate among its students or its customers. His students recently got the opportunity to cut a white person’s hair, which many of them had never done.
“I preach to the guys that racism is dead,” he said. “Everyone is welcome.”
Garrett admits to having some difficult days as he was trying to get his school up and running, renovating the building and figuring out how to pay for it, an expense he shouldered himself. He hopes these trials will all be worth it.
“At the end of the day,” he said of his students, “I’d like them to know that hard work really does pay off.”
Stephanie Warsmith can be reached at 330-996-3705 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter: @swarsmith.