Article by Cheryl H. Forbes
Photographer: Shana Sureck
It is widely accepted that the definition of an entrepreneur is "one who creates and/or operates a business or businesses, and is responsible for greater than normal financial risk". Hopefully the person enjoys the rewards. To succeed, especially in today's economy, you have to have intestinal fortitude, vision, perseverance, and a champion's spirit. Vivian Akuoko has all of that, and then some.
For more than 30 years, in her quiet Upper Albany converted three-family establishment, she's been steadily building a beauty empire at Evay Beauty Salon and Day Spa. Since 1978, Akuoko has reigned as the go-to-guru for everything from sassy cuts, laid and healthy relaxers, to invisible weaves and silky natural blow-dried styles.
In fact, Akuoko, whose office wall features celebrity contacts and pictures with Oprah Winfrey, is not only a hairstylist and salon owner, but an industry innovator. She, along with then business partner, Ida Mae Rivera, was the originator of the bonded weave. When telling the story, Akuoko is quick to add that due to timing and an influx of copycat products, she didn't reap the anticipated financial reward.
"The beauty business is pretty cut-throat. Back then I didn't realize how bad it was. Other than my cosmetology training, my knowledge of business has been through personal experience. I learned that can sometimes cost you a lot of money. I didn't have a mentor, and once I got rolling, it was hard to go to school for training and say no to a paying customer," she said.
Until 2 years ago, Akuoko continued to run her business with six other operators in the shop, personally logging in 40-50 hours a week on client hair care. Add to that number an additional 20 hours on related administrative tasks and you've a glimpse into the life of a successful salon owner. After years of running at full throttle, Akuoko, called "Miss Vivian" by clients and Avenue residents alike, had to take a long hard look at how to manage work/ life balance while keeping the salon on track.
"In business as in many things in life, timing is everything" Akuoko recalled, " The economy began to slow-down, and clients began to transition to more natural hair styles. I could see that times were changing. So I had to make a change too. In the summer of 2011, I got a knock on the door that helped me make the transition. That's when I learned about the Hartford Small Business Technical Assistance Program (HSBTAP)."
The HSBTAP offers free business advising, technical assistance and training to qualifying small businesses located in Hartford. The program is offered at the Entrepreneurial Center at the University of Hartford and is funded by a City of Hartford grant. The Entrepreneurial Center, which offers services to small business owners throughout Connecticut, also receives funding from the U.S. Small Business Administration.
"At first I couldn't believe the City of Hartford was offering real help to small business owners. Through that program, I learned the technical aspects of running a business. I had always had a good sense of cash flow and basic bookkeeping, but the QuickBooks training and marketing assistance I received helped me take the business to the next level. I now have a computerized inventory control system and I'm a whiz at spreadsheets. It's empowering to have that kind of knowledge. It gave me the confidence and the tools to expand my product sales nationally."
Armed with her new business skills and a revamped business plan, Akuoko approached Sam Hamilton at Hartford Economic Development Corporation (HEDCO) for a loan. The process took about four months. The effort was worth it. The capital financed product reformulation and development, packaging, advertising and promotion.
"The assistance I received from HEDCO and the Entrepreneurial Center was just what I needed. I really benefitted from both programs. It shows what can happen when state and city resources come together to help small business owners. Although I didn't have to, I've now moved all my business operations to Connecticut. My chemist, manufacturer, consulting dermatologist, and product packager are in Connecticut, and my web designer is in Hartford."
At a Harford City Council meeting Akuoko decided to "go public" with Evay Cosmetics and announced the launch of her Evay anti-aging skincare line. A complementary hair care system followed. She's already booked for tradeshows in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Georgia, Florida and Ohio. Her cosmetics and hair care website, www.evay.co is attracting interest and customers from as far away as West Africa.
"Exporting on a grand scale has always been a dream of mine," says Akuoko. Now that I've strengthened my business knowledge, got a new marketing plan, and financing is in place, I'm ready to fly."