Stir It Up: The Social Club Grooming Company integrates Detroit and develops community one head at a time

A hair-brained idea

Nov 26, 2014 at 1:00 am

When I was a kid, my father would sometimes take me with him when he got a haircut. There was a place in the neighborhood where a guy cut hair on his wide, enclosed back porch, and surreptitiously sold shots of moonshine to his customers. The men would while away the afternoon solving the world's problems and drinking while heads were being cut. It was kind of a social community type of thing.

I haven't had a haircut in 22 years, but I'm pretty sure there aren't any barbershops like that one anymore. Still there's something about the hair salon that evokes community and intimacy. You're allowing someone to lay sharp instruments onto a part of your body and create the visage that you present to the world. It helps if you feel that you can trust that person. Maybe the hair shops are a universal experience, as sooner or later all of us have to get our hair cut or fried or laid to the side.

The young family of Sebastian and Gabrielle Jackson tap into that universal need with their Social Club Grooming Company, located on Third Street on the campus of Wayne State University. The name says it all.

"I started with the purpose to connect people together so they can create some kind of change," Sebastian says. "People come here wanting to connect with people. The barbershop has always been a community hub, a meeting place."

However, this Social Club is a different kind of head-cutting place. For one thing, it's not segregated, which is unusual. All across America, hair cutting is as segregated as Sunday morning church. African-Americans take their curly, textured hair to black shops, and people with different textured hair go to other shops. And traditionally, when it comes to hair styling, that's when women and men go their separate ways, too. However, Sebastian serves clientele of all kinds, and he has the diverse staff with varied experience that can handle whoever walks in the door — male or female, black or white or anything else.

And the talk counts. I doubt there was ever a successful barber who couldn't chat up a customer. It's those chats that Sebastian has dealt into the changed atmosphere of his shop. In addition to the networking that naturally happens when people talk to each other, the Social Club hosts a series of Shop Talks. These are when specific community leaders are scheduled for a hair job. The shop advertises it, and Sebastian moderates a discussion between the client and an audience while the haircut is being done. Singer and music producer Dwele has done shop talk at the Social Club.

It's spreading. Last week the Social Club created a pop-up barber shop for Shop Talk at the G.R. N'Namdi Center. George N'Namdi, Sarah Cox (of Write a House) and Tommey Walker (of Detroit Vs. Everybody) got cuts in the gallery and discussed issues with the audience. This was another of those unusual pairings that Sebastian envisions and enacts. But then maybe it's not so unusual. The Social Club also functions as an art gallery, with a current exhibit of paintings by Michael Horner hanging on the walls.

Sebastian talks about seeking the triple bottom line that so many young Detroit entrepreneurs seek — good for the community, the environment, and finances. As he made his way through the difficulties of starting and developing his business, those principles connected with his natural sensibilities.

Sebastian was attracted to the business after cutting his own hair as a youth. While a student at Wayne State, he worked at Salon X in the same space where his own shop is now. He would joke with the owner about buying the place. The salon didn't make it, and the owner walked away from his business. In the meantime, Sebastian was developing his business plan. He wrote four of them before WSU decided to give him a chance.

"Their question was 'If the guy before you failed, why are you going to succeed?'" Sebastian says. "I believed that it's the jockey not the horse. ... I think we're social beings, and I wanted to create an environment that supports these natural laws."

As he was getting started, Sebastian pitched his idea to Detroit Soup, an organization that gives micro grants to developing businesses. His idea didn't win, but Soup's Amy Kaherl stayed in contact with him. She hooked Sebastian up with Casey Gerald, cofounder of MBAs across America, an organization that sends teams of MBAs to cities across the country each summer. In 2013, a team worked with the fledgling Social Club. Along with Sebastian, they developed an incentive system to attract great hairstylists, a way to turn customers into evangelists for the shop. They also came up with technical innovations for communication. The space was in need of renovation, and they got it done for half what it might've cost by helping to tear down an abandoned house in Corktown and recycling the materials.

As a result, the Social Club tripled its monthly revenue.

When you enter the shop, the only thing that really looks like a haircutting place is the chairs. Gabrielle, who left her job as a quality control and tooling engineer to work with her husband, sits at a station near the door working the phone and greeting customers.

"I'm a natural problem solver," she says, but regarding her engineering work she admits, "I wasn't very passionate."

There is passion within the Social Club. The place looks more like a library with its bare wood cases and bound volumes lining the walls. Their back wall is bare and serves as a projection screen, where Sebastian uploads images and information to make his points. And paintings hang pretty much everywhere else.

The place is squeaky clean. One aspect of the business is that hair is swept up and taken to the Green Garage, an enterprise supporting local sustainable businesses, for composting. Sebastian discusses a dream of having a chain of Social Clubs and gathering enough hair to start working with Pashon Murray and her Detroit Dirt composting operation.

It's that kind of dream that keeps the Jacksons going. Their story is getting pumped up these days by their inclusion in a six-week television series called Growing America: A Journey to Success on the HLN cable network Sundays at 9 p.m. It started Nov. 16, but there are still four more episodes of the series to come.

That came about as another aspect of the networking web. MBAs caught the attention of Holiday Inn, which began partnering with them. Holiday Inn in turn made the connection with HLN to present the stories of businesses working with MBAs.

"We're quite proud to have supported, through MBAs, Sebastian's story, which is a testament to the mission of not giving up on your local community to find what is inspirational about the location of what you're doing," says Maurice Cooper, a vice president of Americas Holiday Inn.

That would be Detroit. Where a little shop on Third Avenue dares to be a place where people come to share ideas, network with others, get haircuts, and tap into the community.