San Francisco—You walk into Akimi Hair Gallery on Kearney Street and immediately feel at ease. The spacious hair salon three floors above the street is cool and elegant, just like the owner, Carolyn Luu. A former architecture student, Luu knows style and practices it every day through the services she provides to her loyal customers, some of whom have been with her more than 20 years.
A native of Vietnam who fled the country as a child in the late 1970s, Luu and her family arrived in San Francisco via Utah in 1980 to begin a new life in America. She attended Mission High School where a counselor suggested cosmetology as a potential career. Luu took classes at a San Francisco beauty school and later attended San Francisco City College with the thought of becoming an architect.
“After working at a couple of hair salons,” said Luu, “I realized I wanted to be in the hair business full-time.”
Luu worked as an employee for several years when a client told her about the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) and the programs it offered for people who wanted to run their own business.
“I went to SBA in San Francisco, then to a SCORE counselor, and I was actually thinking about getting an SBA loan,” recalled Luu. “The SCORE counselor looked at my business plan and actually told me I didn’t need a loan.
“The initial meeting with SCORE was very important to me because I didn’t have a business background. I needed to talk to someone about the basics of operating a business and SCORE did that.”
Luu opened a hair salon with a partner in 1987 and the two remained together until the lease expired. That’s when Luu decided she wanted to be the sole proprietor of her own salon. It took almost a year to find a new location in downtown San Francisco but when she finally did, Akimi Hair Gallery was born. Her faithful customers followed. Amazingly, Luu has never relied on advertising. She gets customers through referrals and word-of-mouth.
“The business started as a hair salon,” Luu said, “but I always wanted to also have my own line of beauty products.”
As a child in Vietnam, Luu soaked “bo ket” pods in warm water, then used the same water to wash her hair. The result was clean, glossy hair with a wonderful fresh scent. Fast-forward 30 years later and Luu, the businesswoman, spent three years searching for the right ingredients without harmful chemicals to replicate the “bo ket” experience.
“My original thought was to have the products manufactured in Vietnam,” said Luu. “It was my way of giving back to the country where I came from. However, after careful consideration, I decided against it. My home is here and my heart is here. This country has offered my family and me so many opportunities to better our lives. If I need to help create or keep jobs anywhere, it’s here.”
With the help of a customer, Luu discovered carob bean pods contain ingredients that naturally cleanse and condition hair. It was a long, trying process but Luu finally found a lab in Berkeley to manufacture her products which include a carob bean shampoo, conditioner and reconstructor. Customers can also choose from a variety of scents that can be added to the shampoo and conditioner.
Vanity Fair has tested Seed by Akimi products and will feature them in the magazine sometime in 2011.
Luu, who continues to take SCORE classes periodically, says the road to her success has required the willingness to explore unchartered territories. “Running a business can be a daunting task,” she says, “but SCORE has provided me with the necessary tools to overcome my fear of starting a new business and launching a new product line.”