St Helenian Sandie Walters had been a hairdresser for 25 years.
"Most of the beginning of [my hairdresser training] was on-island," Sandie said. "I spent a couple of months training in Switzerland, most in London, and back to St Helena."
Sandie worked in salons across Europe, but had always dreamed of setting up her own salon on her home island.
But until 2018, Sandie was only able to function as a mobile hairdresser on St Helena.
She couldn’t secure a location to set up a salon, despite efforts, and eventually she began wondering if she should move back overseas to set up business.
It wasn’t until earlier this year, thanks to the help of Enterprise St Helena (ESH), that Sandie managed to establish a salon on the island.
On March 7, 2018, Sandie opened the salon Cutting Edge at Unit 14, ESH Business Park, Ladder Hill. Now, Sandie said, she could keep her training and passion on St Helena.
Five months in, Sandie is continuing to run the business solo: Cutting Edge is doing well with its clients, and is continuing to overcome the challenges it faces.
The first challenge for Sandie –the one that lasted years – was finding a location to set up her salon.
Before finding a building, Sandie was a mobile hairdresser – in fact, she still partially relies on the income she gets from carrying out her Cutting Edge services on the road, as some clients prefer this service.
“The difficulty of establishing a business, is trying to find a place – for me, I had help from ESH,” Sandie said.
“I handed my business plan in, and I managed to get the place.”
The unit Sandie set up in, was already a salon (formerly ‘Hair 4 U’ run by Wendy Benjamin). But still, the next challenge was paying for furnishings.
“Financially, I needed a little help with buying the furniture,” Sandie said. “ESH helped with that as well.”
And now, the ongoing challenge; sourcing products, paying for the shipping duties and import taxes, and ordering at least three months ahead of time so the products can arrive on the MV Helena and clear customs.
“It’s difficult trying to get products to the island, and the waiting…” Sandie said. “The worst thing to say to a client is ‘Oh, I can’t do your hair today because we don’t have the product.’ We have to order three months in advance, so we have to think ‘Will we run out of this product or that product?”
And not only the waiting can be difficult for businesses like Cutting Edge – the shipping and import costs can also serve as a significant challenge.
“We have to pay 20 percent when you buy straight from the manufacturers, and then another 20 percent getting it into the island,” Sandie said. “So it’s 40 percent on top of what you bring in, and if you want to aim for something different in quality products, it’s costly.
“So you have to think about what’s affordable for people. Maybe [SHG] will think about dropping [import taxes on salon products] a bit for us.”
But the most difficult challenge Sandie has faced so far, is one that all businesses on St Helena are currently facing in an era when an influx of tourists to the island was promised.
“Tourists? What tourists?” Sandie asked. “Tourists are a bonus for me, it’s the islanders that are totally supporting my business.”
On the Cutting Edge
Now she has a physical location for her hairdressing services, Sandie aims to offer that little ‘something different’ than you’ll find at the other on-island salons.
Products of the quality that KeraStraight keeps to, Sandie said, aren’t available in any shops on St Helena – and no other salon offers KeraStraight services.
KeraStraight is a product line that Wendy used when she ran ‘Hair 4 U’ from Unit 14. (In fact, Wendy had to speak directly with the higher-ups in the company to be able to import and sell KeraStraight, and both she and Sandy maintain contact with them.
They are intrigued that the island is importing their products: “I had to Google where you live – you really are remote!” the CEO once said to Wendy).
“This product is for all types of hair,” Sandie said. “Those with unmanageable hair – walk into Cutting Edge, I’ll work with the product, and you will walk out very happy.”
While importing products like KeraStraight can be time-consuming and costly, Sandie and the other island salon-owners are being alleviated of some of the stresses of ordering, waiting on shipping and clearing products through customs: Wendy has recently established herself as the first on-island wholesaler for St Helena’s salons.
Sandie extended thanks to her customer-base, to Wendy and to ESH for helping the development Cutting Edge. She said she looks forward to continuing her current services as well as further expanding if/when the opportunity arises.
“Basically, you need to come into my salon and I can show you what I have to offer,” Sandie said. “Massages (head massages, leg massages) – eventually, extending from there, hopefully I can go into doing some manicures and pedicures.”
Sandie said that despite her years of difficulty securing a location, and despite the ongoing challenges, she’s ecstatic about the opportunities Cutting Edge is providing. She loves working on St Helena and with the Saint population. Any potential investor, whether Saint or not, she said would love it too.
“The locals are brilliant,” she said. “Once you have customers, they’re very loyal to you. If you want help [finding a location, customers etc.], you’d just have to ask, because I’m sure there is help here on the island.”
St Helena is a unique and wonderful place with lots of opportunity. But this is a challenging era for St Helena – for businesses, for individuals and for overall economic development. SAMS has partnered with ESH to check in with two businesses a month and maintain coverage on these important but underreported stories of challenges and success in the local economy.