“I was on the verge of closing down,” she confessed. “Stylists were leaving and taking their clients with them. I held on for two or three years. I even hired a stylist who was also a stripper at the Hustler’s Club, but she was faithful and for a while was the only stylist.” Feeling overwhelmed and desperate, she commiserated with a good friend and salon business colleague, who told her, “If they haven’t burned you, they’ve blessed you. Decide why you want to be in the salon business.”
With those words Cindy Tawiah, founder of Diva by Cindy, a company that sells natural, alcohol-free hair care products and author of “Metamorphosis” (2015), her candid memoir and inspirational guide to self-healing, reached the turning point that put her on the path to self-actualized success.
Tawiah was born in the west African nation of Ghana to a family of diplomats. Education and professional achievement were highly valued by her family. To satisfy the minimum requirements of her parents’ expectations, Tawiah enrolled in a nursing program and earned a Bachelor of Science degree.
Her life has not been without obstacles. At high school in Ghana, she struggled with chemistry, a gateway course that would help determine her acceptance into a university-level nursing program.
Luckily, her chemistry instructor came to the rescue with an out-of-the-box lesson plan. Tawiah laughed as she recalled, “My high school chemistry teacher taught me how to make nail polish!” The lesson was significant not only because it ignited her understanding of the subject and helped her to pass the course, but also because it signaled Tawiah’s affinity for beauty salon products. But more about that later.
Following graduation, Tawiah was recruited to become a nurse at Bon Secours Hospital in Baltimore, MD. She emigrated to America and for 13 years, floated to medical, surgical and post-partum obstetrics floors. She also married and gave birth to two sons and a daughter.
A few years into her nursing career, Tawiah became deeply disillusioned. “I was crying in the car while on the way to work. I began cutting back on my work hours,” she said. One day during her commute, she heard a speaker on the radio who said, ‘Change your focus and you’ll change your future.’ On a gut level, Tawiah understood how that statement applied to her. “I didn’t want to be a nurse. I wanted to be in the beauty business.”
In short order, she gave two weeks notice to Bon Secours and quit nursing forever. “I felt like Diana Ross singing ‘I’m Coming Out,’ she said. But Tawiah would soon learn that going into business was no dance party.
Plan A was to buy an existing salon, but it did not pan out. Plan B was to rent commercial space and build a business by renting chairs to licensed hair stylists who would bring clients into the salon. Obtaining financing for either format was a challenge. “The banks did not consider me to be creditworthy. I was just a nurse with no business experience,” she said. “ ‘You are going to fail’ they told me. I had to sign a 5-year personal guarantee loan.”
Nevertheless, Plan B came to pass and Tawiah considered it to be a sign of divine intervention, the stuff of miracles. “I found a space, a former salon, that had been vacant for 12 years, like it was waiting for me.” She continued, “The realtor gave me the alarm code and the numbers matched my birthday—-month, day and year!”
Fortune continued to smile and she negotiated three months of free rent. She struck gold again when two enterprising hair stylists arrived unexpectedly, looking to rent chairs and bring in their customers. Outreach to local cosmetology schools brought in still more stylists and gave her a renewable source of employees as the current crop would eventually move on to greener pastures.
Yet after a few years, her business model ran out of gas. Tawiah faced a do-or-die crisis. One might agree that another flash of divine intervention guided her to heed her wise friend’s advice and look inward to recognize and acknowledge why she was drawn to the beauty salon business. “It’s the products,” she discovered and that is no doubt true because although she owned and operated a salon that was intermittently profitable, Tawiah was not a licensed stylist.
Her high school chemistry teacher’s nail polish formula was an intriguing clue to her future. Tawiah was about to embark upon the Divine Inspired Virtuous Anointed journey personified in her brand, Diva by Cindy. Divine timing, as she called it, would give her an assist.
Shortly before the lease ran out on her faltering salon, Baltimore -Washington International airport scheduled an open call to invite local small business owners to compete for a handful of concession stands. Tawiah found out at the last minute. Only four businesses would be invited to receive an airport concourse kiosk, potentially a highly lucrative opportunity.
Tawiah decided that the moment was ripe to honor what she loved most about the beauty business and propose to offer not hair styling services but rather healthy hair care products that emphasize nourishment and detangling.
She would offer shampoos, conditioners and related in-demand hair care products.
Sixty hopeful small business owners showed up to give their pitch, hoping to become a kiosk recipient. When she ducked into the ladies room while waiting for her meeting, Tawiah noticed four pennies on the floor and that discovery gave her confidence a boost. Maybe she would be one of the anointed four?
It was meant to be and Tawiah was ecstatic. Her Diva by Cindy kiosk opened in 2017 and business was good. But again obstacles appeared; she lost her airport concession to cosmetics heavyweight MAC. Broken-hearted, she let go of staff and left BWI.
However, divine intervention stepped in to show her the way, this time inspiring her with the concept of vending machines, which would be a revolutionary, disruptive strategy for the sale of hair care products. “Maybe I can work smarter and not harder,” she said. Tawiah found a company to custom build vending units for her products and returned to the BWI door.
The concession managers bought into the vending machine idea and gave her a small space. Once again, Tawiah saw divine intervention help her to overcome challenges and achieve her dreams. Diva by Cindy earned a coveted storefront at BWI that opened in July 2019. A second vending machine location is at BWI and a franchised kiosk is located at Arundel Mills Mall (MD).
Tawiah concluded, “I’m glad MAC took my spot (at BWI). Every misfortune can be a blessing if we let ourselves see what is now possible.”
Diva by Cindy is currently available at Giant, Giant Eagle, Tops and Walmart.com, Divabycindy.com and in automated vending machines at Arundel Mills Mall, BWI and is soon to be launching in Sally Beauty Supply.