In a North Philadelphia salon, Steven Washington, a big man with closely cropped hair that gets cut weekly, was going on about the attributes of long locks.
Not because he was thinking of growing his. He was explaining the reasoning behind forming his new company, I Love Remy Hair Inc., in August, and why he's confident it's going to make him a millionaire in a little more than a year.
"No matter what happens, people still want to look good," Washington asserted.
He's helping women do so as he looks to capitalize on a flourishing fashion trend: hair weaves. But Washington's hope is to improve the experience for consumers with "virgin" hair imported from India.
Such hair, which women in India either donate as a sacrifice in shrines or grow for sale, is not put through chemical processing or mixed with synthetics.
"This is the high end of hair," said Washington, an Overbrook Park resident who knows something about women and their hair. He lives with a wife and two daughters, with a third on the way.
Washington's target customers - African American women throughout the United States - are part of a culture in which hair "has a lot more of a social significance beyond beauty," said Lori Tharps, assistant professor of journalism at Temple University and author of the book Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America.
"For a very long time, black women were considered unattractive because their hair was not naturally straight," Tharps said. "The weave gave a lot of women the opportunity to experience long, flowing hair."
A great deal of it, though, has been synthetic or natural hair that was heavily processed, Washington said.
At Crystal Palace Unisex Hair Studio on West Girard Avenue near Temple University, owner Sabrina St. Fort said she sells the weaves she buys from Washington for $250 to $450. (Washington said his profit margin was 20 percent to 25 percent.)
"It sounds kind of expensive," St. Fort said, "but in the long run, it's a really good price."
The synthetic weaves sell for about $200, but rarely last two months, she said. The natural extensions can be used six months to a year, if maintained properly.
Some estimates have put annual U.S. retail sales of ethnic hair products at $9 billion, said Temple's Tharps. She had no figures on just sales of virgin weaves from India, but she said the overall weave business is a billion-dollar industry.
Even with what Tharps termed "a huge explosion" of natural-hair products for African American women and a movement to simply sport the hair they were born with, Washington, 29, who also owns Washington Investment Group L.L.C., a real estate acquisition company, said he was confident that getting into hair extensions was a sound business decision.
So does Tharps.
"Everybody who goes into the weave business is pretty much guaranteed to have a steady business as long as they have a good product," even in horrible economic times, she said.
"Even during the recession, the weave industry has continued to be a billion-dollar business," said Tharps, citing research she has done for an update to Hair Story. "From importing to the salon stylists, the weave business did not get hit."
The biggest challenge is "getting good hair," said Vinny Sawhney, Washington's buying agent in India. He said that process involved "a lot of hard work," including travel to temples and factories around India, and many meetings with hair traders.
This is Sawhney's second partnership with Washington. The first was nearly 10 years ago when Washington was a student at West Chester University, majoring in finance.
He decided there was money to be made in selling T-shirts on the Internet. Sawhney, who was in the clothing business in India, became his supplier. Within four months, Washington said he was selling nearly 300 shirts a day, netting $10,000 in a good month - and picking up the pizza tab for his roommates. He made at least $200,000 over the year-and-a-half he kept the business going.
He was in his senior year when he shut it down and started reading all he could about real estate. He graduated from West Chester in December 2004 and had purchased his first house in May 2005 after plastering the region with "we buy houses" signs. His aim has been to convert physically and financially distressed properties into homes that are no longer eyesores and tax-delinquent.
It was that business that got Washington recognized at the White House last month as one of the Empact100, a group of entrepreneurs under the age of 30, each of whom had reported revenue of more than $100,000 in either of the last two years.
Empact, a for-profit organization that promotes young entrepreneurship through education, elicits from each Empact100 honoree a commitment to help further the cause. It is a pledge that Washington eagerly made.
Having grown up in a single-parent household in West Philadelphia and East Germantown and with no male business role models, Washington, who is also a minister at Chosen Generation Worship Center Church in Hunting Park, said he considered it his obligation to "help other youth to achieve their goals and achieve their dreams."
Steven Washington of I Love Remy Hair Inc. talks about his salon and about being honored at the White House at www.philly.com/businessEndText