We are thrilled to have our salon and owner Anu Prestonia featured on AmericanExpress.com

What does it take to create a business that attracts a loyal fan base? This pioneering business owner reveals how she let her skills do the talking for her.

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FEBRUARY 20, 2015

Written by:  Founder, mater mea

African-American women are having a love affair with their hair. Or, to be more specific, their natural hair as it grows from their heads—tightly curled and unprocessed by the straightening chemicals that have been de rigueur for more than a century.

Natural hair, as it’s known in the black hair community, has become a big business. Market research firm Mintel projects that the natural hair market will grow to $761 million in 2017, eclipsing relaxers, or hair products used to straighten African-American hair, sales of which have dropped by 26 percent since 2008. There are scores of small-business owners whose lines of natural hair care products are now being sold in big-box stores such as Target and Whole Foods Market after years of being sold in their own salons or online.


Though the natural hair wave may seem to just be on the rise, Anu Prestonia has been one of its longtime champions. Owner of Khamit Kinks, a natural hair salon in Brooklyn, New York, Prestonia has been braiding and twisting coarse and curly hair since the ‘70s.

“I was always intrigued by hair,” she explains. “My grandma was a hairstylist, so I was always having my hair done nicely.” Prestonia wears her own hair naturally as a result of a relaxer causing extreme hair damage and breakage when she was a child.

But it was a chance encounter at a party in Washington, DC, that took her from being a hair enthusiast to a hair entrepreneur. Prestonia learned how to do her own hair in intricate, beaded braids when she was unable to afford to have them done. “A guy came up to me and said that he was a stylist, and he worked at a salon that was looking for someone to braid hair,” she says. “I went by and I got hired. And the rest, as they say, is history.”

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She became a stylist by trade and worked in Jamaica and Miami before moving back to New York City in 1980. She started braiding hair in her Harlem apartment’s living room, and in 1987, expanded her operation to the entire garden-level apartment floor of the brownstone she bought in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood. She focused on growing her clientele, something she claims came with ease.

“It was all word of mouth,” she explains. “People would just see someone with their hair done. There was hardly anyone else doing that kind of work: really, really tiny braids with tiny, tiny beads. It was really exquisite work. It was like artwork, and it took hours.”

Prestonia ran a one-woman, home-based shop for a few years. But it soon became clear that it was time to move into a brick-and-mortar store after Essence magazine ran a feature on the business.

“We went from getting a few calls a day to 70 calls a day,” Prestonia recalls. “I had to train people to work with me because I couldn’t handle the demand on my own.”

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Even with the five new pairs of hands in her home, the business was outgrowing the space. “Even though we had four stations, we only had one shampoo bowl and one dryer,” she says. “We didn’t have room to put in another because even those two things were in the office area.”

Prestonia set her sights on TriBeCa, a Manhattan neighborhood now more known for celebrity real estate and dining than hair braiding.

“I was interested in staying in Brooklyn, but could not find any place larger than the space I already had,” she explains. “TriBeCa had large rental spaces and was still an artist colony—not the place that it is today. Clients have always followed us—after all we had Stevie Wonder coming to BedStuy. More than foot traffic, I was interested in my staff and clients being able to have access to quality cafes and restaurants for good coffee and lunch. Sounds crazy, I know, but that was my way of offering an extended quality experience to my staff and clients.”

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Prestonia started the administrative steps necessary to take Khamit Kinks out of her home and into a proper storefront. She opened a business account, registered the business and took advantage of a New York University business school program that paired business owners with grad students to help create a solid business plan. That business plan secured Prestonia a $40,000 loan to open her store.

But $40,000 can only get you so far, especially in Manhattan. “I didn’t get scared until I was all the way in it,” Prestonia says. “The construction, everything cost more than the money I had. The rent was so much more than I was used to paying in my brownstone.”

She tapped into her personal network and reached out to a friend in construction who did the job for her for much less than it would have cost otherwise, and dipped into her savings to keep construction and the store going in its early days.

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When Khamit Kinks officially opened in TriBeCa in 1997, it quickly became a destination for working professionals and celebrities to get their hair braided. The store was an anomaly in the area, and attracted a lot of media attention, with spots on TV shows and write-ups in The New York Times. She capitalized on the attention by creating a blog and e-newsletter to educate existing and potential clients about their natural hair. For some of Prestonia’s customers in professional industries, it was the nudge they needed to embrace their hair.

“They’re afraid of being marginalized and not making it up the ladder if they have their hair looking ‘militant’ or ‘other than,’” she explains.

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“I’ve done consultations for many of these women, and you find out that they have [had] perms all their childhood so they never knew what their natural hair looked like,” she explains. “So it’s a discovery for them; they’re excited to learn about their hair and know what it can do and can’t do.”

Khamit Kinks was hitting its stride until 9/11. “It was like starting over again, because a lot of our customers were [affected], too,” she says. In 2006, when her lease was up, Prestonia decided to move back to Brooklyn.

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While the move made good financial sense, Prestonia lost her one-of-a-kind status: hair braiding shops and natural hair salons are no longer rare finds on many Brooklyn avenues. And, according to Prestonia, these shops attracted customers by promising to charge less than their competitors.

Prestonia decided she wouldn’t compete on pricing. “We stood out because we have an emphasis on customer care,” she says. “We used to have a tagline that ‘we set the standards that all others follow.’ When [the competition] came in, all they were looking to do was make money. Because of my experience of losing my hair as a child, I had an emphasis on hair care, on the health of your hair and what’s best for your hair.”

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That same desire to provide the best for her customers also led her to create her own line of hair care products called Anu Essentials. The organic line addresses one of the biggest woes of women with natural hair: dryness. “I wanted to have a product line address the need and concerns of a lot of our clients,” she explains. “So our products are formulated to have a high level of hydration and moisture to replenish that which is missing in the hair of our clients. I have clients who tell me that they have to hide it from their family members. It’s a quality product.”

It’s seems “creating what you don’t see in the marketplace” could be Khamit Kinks’ other tagline—and the one that’s secured the salon and Anu Prestonia’s position as a name to know in the natural hair community.

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Photos: Natalie Keyssar for OPEN