One Perspective on Switching Careers and Letting Go of Fear

How an engineering student pivoted to become a successful hairstylist.

Posted Dec 05, 2018

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As part of this series on new perspectives on women’s leadership, I share not just research but also real women’s stories. Each interview is structured around a similar set of questions to allow for the emergence of some comparisons and commonalities. However, each woman’s perspective will be different. 

Well, we already know hairstylists give great advice and practically serve as de-facto “community-based life coaches”. So I figured, why not get into the mind of one. In this interview, Amy Wareham, a hairstylist with Salon Blu in Raleigh, North Carolina, shares her story of walking away from her engineering degree when she realized it was not a good fit with her interests and switching to a career in hairstyling. Her path was fairly atypical for a hair stylist and she has risen quickly to higher levels of experience and opportunities to train others over her 15 years in the industry. 

The theme that emerged as most salient for her was self-empowerment through education and self-sufficiency. She now supports other women in the industry (as well as her own clients) in thinking about how to push past fear and focus on self-empowerment.

Tell me a little about your experience making this career switch.

I started with hair styling when I was 20 after 3 years of engineering at North Carolina State University. Most hair stylists start right out come out of high school, or it’s a second career for them so they either start out very young (age 17 or 18) or around late 20’s and 30’s. For those of us starting out later, it’s not the norm because we’re more financially independent than someone coming right out of high school. The motivation is different, the work ethic is different. We’ve gotten past learning how to show up on time, paying bills independently rather than relying on parents, etc. And I moved up faster as a result. I’m a financial motivated person because I learned early to become self-reliant. As a woman, you must decide whether you will go down a more traditional path and depend on other person for your financial stability (like a spouse) or to rely on yourself for that financial stability. Normally women don’t think about this at that young age right out of high school. But for me, the financial motivation was huge – I had insurance to pay, bought my own car, living in apartment without roommates and looking to get house, etc. The combination of having a bit more experience, living more independently, and having other younger stylists looking to me for guidance gave me a picture of a career path. 

And in this profession, you get to pick how much money you get – it’s not like corporation where you hope to get promoted or recognized. How hard you work and how many clients you get and your financial success is completely up to you, creating a huge incentive to get what you want. This is not something women are always exposed to in other work situations or fields.

What is your definition of leadership and how did you get to this? 

Setting a good example, treating people kindly, and being mindful of everything around you. I got to this from watching others treat each other poorly and recognizing that’s not the way I was raised. To set a good example is to teach, show, help other people do the same. That means potentially training your future competitors, but that’s why education is so important in this field. Education is always evolving. People who stay at the top keep up with this ever-evolving education. In this state, I only need 8 hours to maintain my license, but norm of more productive hair stylists is closer to seeking 40-60- hours a year of continuing education to keep up. If you stay on top of your education, nobody can surpass you. It’s similar to any industry: you need to know the newest and greatest. And that includes running business, customer service, technical skills, marketing, time management, social media. So, you also learn leadership skills while learning how to run a business.

Did you ever aspire to become a leader in your current or other field? 

No. When I grew up, my sister was the leader – and there was only room for one. But later I started realized I loved seeing others succeed and have self-confidence. Traditionally women are competitive, especially in this industry, but we really need to support each other instead of fight against each other. So many women lack self-confidence. So, I wanted to help contribute to improving that. In this industry, personality will also make a difference with your clientele. You can have two stylists with same skill set but the customer won’t stay if they don’t like the experience. So, when you see someone failing due to lack of customer service skills or technical skill it makes a difference. It’s heartbreaking to watch - for the stylist and the customer. So, I’ve realized over time that I could make a real contribution by helping and training others to improve their self-confidence and their interpersonal skills to be more successful and to provide better service. I don’t see it as a competition – it makes me feel good that this is a strength I have that I can offer to others.

What things in your cultural background or upbringing help you and what things get in your way in how you see leadership?

I come from a family of very strong women – my grandmother was the director of Social Service for 35 yrs, for example. Also, my dad had his own business. So, I was lucky to have very strong, smart people to show me what it is like to work hard, succeed, and be a leader. And through own life leaving college after 3 years, I had to learn that I could either fall down or get back up. After getting divorced at 27, I again had to learn that I could either fall down or get back up. Everything gets in your way – and women who are divorced after having children must learn how to do more - run the household on their own, pay all the bills, learn how to be a single parent. But that’s just life. Everything gets in your way. For me it’s important to fight for what you want. I don’t think I ever made an explicit choice to become a leader, but when you fight for what you want, it makes you stand out from other people because not everyone does that. I was raised to “go and get."

You listen and talk with women from all sects of life - What do you think holds women back from seeking leadership opportunities at work or in their communities?

Confidence, complacency, and approval-seeking from others. Fear of judgment of others, not being enough, not doing it right, they do it better, they’re going to think I’m stupid, looking bad. 

I had to fight through some of that too in last 10 years. You need to do it for you and not for family, boss, etc. That opens a lot of doors when you stop worrying about what others do.

What skills, experiences, and knowledge you think you need to be successful in a leadership role? Do you have these? How will you or did you acquire them? 

What changed my life in this industry were these two amazing motivation speakers. I attended their classes several times and it’s about leadership – they teach you how to dig through your own stuff to help others, push past your own fear to encourage others to do the same, be brave if you are going to ask others to do the same. Basically, if you are going to be a great leader, you need to practice what you preach and that means work through your own stuff first.

How can organizations, companies, and communities make sure more women get those skills, experiences, and knowledge? 

Make coaching and leadership seminars more readily available. I work with others who didn’t have that opportunity in their organizations and not encouraged to be leaders – it’s like night and day. Learning how to address fear, confidence and push past to see the other side. I think if I can do it, so can everyone else if given the right tools. But everyone needs a different level of support around this.

How do we get more women to experience challenging jobs where leadership is part of that challenges, success and failure is possible, etc. 

Stay-at-home dads. Men who help. Women can’t do all this, especially if they are also almost solely responsible for their children’s needs. They need to have the support system and time to do it. Women’s plates are so full so restructuring traditional family roles would help a lot.

Any final advice?

Put yourself first – diet, exercise, health, wellbeing. You’re not good to anyone else if you’re not okay yourself. Also, most women are fearful of other women as far as judgment or not giving/receiving support. But these days women are more supportive – if they found the right place: class, gym, neighborhood, you can find a lot more like-minded women than you think and you need that type of support outside of your family structure in addition to family.