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Meet Charlie Kirk-Martin of Salon One Six One

Today we’d like to introduce you to Charlie Kirk-Martin.

Hi Charlie, we’re thrilled to have a chance to learn your story today. So, before we get into specifics, maybe you can briefly walk us through how you got to where you are today?
I think my story is like a lot of people who grew up in the Midwest — I was born and raised in a small town (that was best known for its water tower), and although it was not a bad existence, I just always knew that it wasn’t where I belonged or where I would flourish. After some trial and error, I ended up in St. Louis to attend cosmetology school and it was the first time I really felt like I was meant to do something– my passion and my talent intersected to create something tangible that I could pour myself into.

Right out of school, I started working at a large, successful salon and although the experience was priceless, it definitely was not the right environment for me. I felt overworked with too little pay and felt like my voice would never be heard. Most of the employees seemed so emotionally invested in the salon, but the salon did not seem to return that investment.

When I left that job, things got rough for a little while. I felt lost in terms of what I wanted out of a work environment. I was also creatively and financially drained. I ended up renting a styling station at a wonderful salon here in the city. I really enjoyed the freedom of running my own schedule, handling my own finances and essentially being my own boss. Emotionally, I started to bounce back. However, I still felt as though something was off or missing.

While I was in the process of filing for bankruptcy, someone reached out to me from my previous employer. The owner “heard” I was planning on opening my own salon. Which at that point, that idea that had never crossed my mind. She then informed me that I could be sued due to a breach of contract. I truly appreciated the heads up, she meant well and seemed to be looking out for me. When I hung up the phone, I just started laughing. I thought to myself, I literally own nothing and my bank account is currently overdrawn. Come and get it! My very next thought- You know what? I AM going to open up a f****** salon. I then started to build a plan and grow my clientele base.

A generous friend that believed in my concept loaned me $2,000 to start my own salon. It was definitely a slow start, but I opened Salon One Six One in June of 2010 with the goal of creating an environment where employees had autonomy and would be rewarded for their investment in our brand. I wanted to create a work environment where people were encouraged to work smarter, not just harder and longer hours. I wanted people to feel like they could make decisions about things that matter without having to constantly have my input and direction. I also vowed to never make anyone sign a contract. I truly believe that if someone wants to be somewhere, they will stay.

The salon started with just two stylists in a small space. We now have nine team members in a beautiful space that I am really proud of.

We all face challenges, but looking back would you describe it as a relatively smooth road?
Nothing worth having is ever really smooth, is it? I don’t think so. A successful business requires a lot of work and discipline. As I mentioned before, I went bankrupt early in life and that was a major setback. I think I easily could have let that defeat me, however I was fortunate enough to have a support system that didn’t allow that to happen. My willingness to ask for and accept help changed my life; that was a lesson I keep with me always.

One thing that used to be an issue for me was that I had a really hard time saying “no” and I felt like I had to take every opportunity that came my way. Learning to trust my instincts and protect myself from burnout has been absolutely key to my success. There is a lot of power in saying “no”.

Growing into a leadership role has also been difficult for me. I inherently want to make people (especially my team members) happy and make them feel included in important decision-making, but I’ve had to learn when to stick to my guns so that my vision remains clear. It is a challenging balance, but I am constantly learning and growing.

As you know, we’re big fans of Salon One Six One. For our readers who might not be as familiar what can you tell them about the brand?
I think that one of the things that I made intentionally different at Salon One Six One is acknowledging that the client is not, in fact, always right. This is not to say that we do not care about our client’s needs or concerns! It just means that I trust and believe in my employees first and foremost because we are a team. They have just as much authority to make decisions and handle delicate situations as I do as the owner. This belief empowers the stylists and builds confidence, which in turn actually creates a better experience for the client– it’s a policy I stand behind 100%.

Another focus that makes us stand apart is the seriousness that we give to continued education. We all have our strengths and our areas of expertise so we actively hone in on those skills to benefit our entire team. We are all expected to educate and support one another at all times. There is no real ‘ownership’ over clients at Salon One Six One because if someone else is more suited for the task, that person should do the work. It’s a very uncomplicated concept, but it’s a little different from the norm in our industry.

Probably the thing that I take most seriously about differentiating our salon is that we don’t just cut and style hair, we teach our clients how to manage their hair without us. We want them to walk away with the tools to feel their best in their skin every day, not just on the day that they leave our chairs. We believe that beauty should be accessible and tailored to your personal styling abilities/willingness.

How do you think about happiness?
At age 35, every single thing in my current life makes me happy. It hasn’t always been that way but at this stage, if it doesn’t make me happy, it doesn’t get to occupy space in my life. There was a time when I put a lot of value on financial growth but now I am all about the hot commodity of time. My time is everything to me and I only spend it on things that fulfill me. The fact that I get to work with talented, kind-hearted people every day that care about this thing we have created is not lost on me; it is such a privilege. It has been an immense amount of work to get to where we are at today, but it has been worth all of the effort. I am proud of what we have built.

With all of that being said, my husband and daughter make my life beautiful in ways that my financial and business success just can’t even touch. My greatest happiness is our life together.

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