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When Tiara Calhoun-Smith can’t find what she needs, she has no problem creating it. A case in point: Her esthetician training school, SSL Skin Institute in Dallas, Texas, which was a natural add-on to her esthetician practice, Sugar Suite Lounge.
Calhoun-Smith wasn’t always an esthetician. Her original training was in nursing. She worked as a pediatric oncology nurse for seven years before taking a career break and starting a family with former NFL player Shaun Smith. But ultimately, she wanted to do something that would offer fulfillment and build a future for her kids.
So Calhoun-Smith retrained as an esthetician, though she ended up going in a completely different direction once her training was complete. Starting with eyelash extensions, Calhoun-Smith soon moved onto facials, and that’s when she tapped into the market that set her business on the path for future growth.
“I became popular because I specialized in skincare for men and women of color,” she explains. “People started to become very attracted to taking care of their skin, and I was able to educate them on that,” she says, adding that she knew exactly what to do to help with skin discoloration, cystic acne, acne scars and other issues that affect the Black community.
A Family Oriented Beauty School
Soon, beauty education became a major component of Calhoun-Smith’s business, leading to the launch of SSL Institute. “A lot of people started to gravitate towards me asking what school I went to,” she recounts. “I didn’t want to send them to that school because I didn’t feel it would give them what they needed, and so I created a school right next door.”
While Calhoun-Smith could easily fill classes at her popular location many times over, she says, “I pride myself on keeping it small, intimate and family oriented.”
And it really is a family enterprise, with her mom working as director of admissions.
The training school also works seamlessly with the esthetician services she offers via Sugar Suite Lounge. Graduates of SSL Institute can apply for Calhoun-Smith’s paid apprenticeship program, which lets three people benefit from on-the-job training each year. That also means she has staff to help her continue to grow the esthetician practice.
Building a Successful Beauty Business
Calhoun-Smith is clear that there’s no such thing as an overnight success in business, and that you have to accept that there’ll be some sleepless nights and keep going. “You have to be very hands-on,” she encourages. “You have to hustle and grind. You have to be willing to stand the test of time. You cannot give up at all.”
She says her husband’s support has also been crucial, adding, “You have to have a strong support system. It is so important that those by your side believe in your dreams and your visions just as much as you could.”
Calhoun-Smith concedes it took two years from starting her esthetician business to making a regular profit, though she was able to cover her costs within just seven months. One early lesson she learned was to always get deposits from clients so they would value her time and not cancel appointments at the last minute.
She’s also been happy to do her own research and not go along with the norm. That’s resulted in valuable partnerships, like one with skincare line PCA. She has also traveled widely to observe what’s happening in the industry, stay ahead of the trends and build relationships.
Relationships also matter within her esthetician practice. Calhoun-Smith ultimately attributes her success with clients to being relatable, personable and, above all, truthful. “I’m very honest and transparent, from the beginning,” she says. “I’m not there to sell you on a product line. I’m there to help you create healthy skin.”
In doing so, Calhoun-Smith feels like she affirms that there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to skin care. Or as she puts it, “I don’t follow protocols, I create my own protocols.” To wit, she’s created a Vitamin C serum and is currently meeting with chemists to begin creating a complete line of skincare products.
Calhoun-Smith remains motivated by the transformations she can help her clients achieve, as with the the 21-year-old who had third-degree burns on her face and is now virtually unblemished. But, she says, the biggest effect of those outer transformations is on the inside: “I’ve seen people cry because they’re depressed about how their skin is, and what I do actually helps them and motivates them and creates this whole self confidence that’s absolutely beautiful.”
While her business endured a four-month shutdown during the pandemic, her customers were desperate to come back. Since esthetician services are delivered one-on-one, she believes that kept people comfortable, and her business has been able to thrive.
Planning for the Future
Calhoun-Smith isn’t anywhere near done. She believes in lifelong learning and is going back to school, first to get her qualifications as a physician’s assistant, and then to qualify as an MD, meaning she’ll be able to extend her esthetician practice by prescribing medication for conditions such as cystic acne.
But her overall motivation remains the same as when she first started her training. “I come from a single parent household,” she reminds. “I feel I have to leave something for my girls. It’s not the norm for Black Americans to have that growing up. I feel like it’s very important for the school, as well as the spa, to be left for my girls, because the beauty industry is never going anywhere. It’s something that they could continue to do, or have later on in life, or pass down from generation to generation.”