WASHINGTON — LaMont Russell didn’t need much convincing once he found out about an opportunity to run a barbershop that provides free haircuts in the old dorm building where he used to live at his alma mater, Howard University.
It wasn’t about the money. Russell could easily make more at Best Cuts, a nearby barbershop where he works on Georgia Avenue.
Rather, for Russell, 29, who hails from Chicago, it was about the historic nature of becoming the first on-campus barber — at least in recent history — to provide services at the historically Black institution from which he earned a business management degree in 2011.
It was also about being able to mentor current Howard students who may aspire to obtain their barber’s license in addition to whatever degree they might earn, as Russell decided to do. And, finally, it was about carrying on a certain Howard tradition — one in which leadership and caring for one another are considered paramount, Russell said.
Thus far, student feedback has been “positive,” Russell told a recent visitor to the shop on the ground floor of Drew Hall — a dorm building where he used to live just across the street from the football field. But you don’t have to take his word for it. You can see the authentic appreciation for the service that Russell provides in the smiles that appear on young patrons’ faces when Russell breaks out the mirror so they can inspect his handiwork. And you can hear it in the testimony of students such as Jaylan Theus, 18, a nursing major from Nashville, Tenn., who estimates he’d probably have to spend $20 to $25 on haircuts every other weekend if it weren’t for the new on-campus barbershop.
“Funds are tight at times,” Theus said of himself and his fellow college students. “It’s very good to get a free cut. It’s very convenient.”
An added bonus is knowing that the barber is a Howard alumnus.
“It makes college students feel welcome coming here,” agreed Chima Anyanwu, a freshman supply chain management major from New Jersey, said, adding that the free haircuts for residents of Drew and Cook halls help himself and his family.
“So I’m grateful,” Anyanwu said.
Anyanwu said the barbershop may not be the most popular yet but that’s due to skepticism over whether there’s a “real” barber in the shop — skepticism he believes will erode once word spreads that Russell is the real deal.
“Everybody who’s come here has gotten good haircuts,” Anyanwu said. “And they’re happy with the haircuts.”
The barbershop at Drew Hall is the brainchild of Corvias, a privately-owned company headquartered in East Greenwich, RI, that partners with higher education and government institutions nationwide to “solve their most essential systemic problems and create long-term, sustainable value” through partnerships, according to the company.
The barbershop was born through a partnership with Rob’s Barbershop Community Foundation, or RBCF, a nonprofit based in Anne Arundel County, Maryland, that seeks to increase access to grooming for populations in need. The organization works with homeless shelters, social service agencies, public schools and, now, Howard University.
While institutional investors funded the $25,000 installation of the barbershop as part of the university’s partnership with Corvias, RBCF provided additional funding.
“We discovered that accessibility to ongoing grooming services has been a long-standing concern for students who live on campus,” said Robert Cradle, managing director and founder of RBCF. “Addressing grooming-related barriers in our communities is a part of our mission and we are very proud to play a role in providing this service to the student residents at Howard University.”
Evan Allen, community management director with Corvias, said the installation of the barbershop at Howard “goes beyond providing haircuts and grooming services to students.”
“Historically, barbershops have played an essential role in promoting unity and tradition in our communities, all characteristics that we want to continue to uphold with the residents in Drew and Cook Hall,” Allen said.
On a recent Friday, a visitor found Theus, Anyanwu and another student waiting in one of a dozen chairs for a cut as Russell plied his trade. Several other students peered inside the shop and decided to come back later as not to wait. The shop is open three hours a day during weekdays in the morning.
A framed poster on the wall is of the lyrics to a poem called “One Barber,” which was inspired by “One Mic” — a song by the legendary rapper Nas. Russell lightens the mood by playing a series of snippets from contemporary Black comedians. He moves along at a fast and steady clip, so to speak, having cut four patrons’ hair within about an hour.
Patrons in the past have included Howard’s university president Dr. Wayne A.I. Frederick.
“Howard University remains committed to providing exceptional services and experiences to its students,” Frederick said. “This barbershop is an excellent amenity and we appreciate the work Corvias has done to meet our expectations.”
Russell said he looks forward to sharing his insights as an entrepreneur with current Howard students. Among other things, he helps run a grooming products line — called Greauxph — pronounced “grofe” — and a marketing and events company called The Social Group.
For Russell, running the shop is not just a way to give back to the college that set him up to be an entrepreneur but to put his campus connections to use and show others how to network the same way.
“Howard opens a lot of doors for you to be in spaces with other people creatively,” Russell said. “. . . Overall just having contact with people and having a rapport, it helps in the business world because you can parlay that friendship into business relationships.”
Jamaal Abdul-Alim can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or you can follow him on Twitter @dcwriter360.