Chrystal L. Graves of Liquid Hair Institute

How a Missouri Hair Stylist Went from Salon Owner to Tech Founder

Successfully starting, growing and transforming a business is a journey filled with hurdles, triumphs and lessons learned—especially when it comes to leveraging your brick-and-mortar experience to create a tech startup.

Chrystal L. Graves has plenty of experience chasing and achieving her entrepreneurial dreams, from building a roster of clients as an independent hair stylist to owning and selling a thriving salon in Columbia, Missouri. Now, she’s taking on another challenge as the CEO and founder of Liquid Hair Institute, an online community and e-learning platform that delivers training, tools and support to salon owners who want to run a more profitable and sustainable business and prepare for a comfortable retirement.

“I felt something was missing in the beauty space, and I wanted to make that thing,” Chrystal says of her early-stage tech startup.

Going into tech

Liquid Hair Institute is the next step in Chrystal’s long-held goal of uplifting current and aspiring beauty professionals. In 2019, she started All Hair Academy, a mastermind program aimed at helping stylists attract a diverse clientele to achieve optimal profitability. Through private consulting and group workshops, she guided more than 300 stylists and built a community of over 10,000 in two-and-a-half years.

“As a woman of color, I think it’s very important to be a beacon for women who look like me to understand what’s possible in the beauty industry,” Chrystal says.

To better connect with her target audience and more clearly articulate the vision and mission of her business, Chrystal embarked on a rebrand in 2023 from All Hair Academy to Liquid Hair Institute. She partnered with Hoot Design Company and Intero Digital to help with market research, brand identity, messaging and public relations.

“With the name All Hair Academy, women of color thought I was teaching white women how to do Black women’s hair,” Chrystal says. “In reality, our main focus was business education and increasing understanding around diversity, equity, inclusion, access and belonging. People have been receptive to the new name. It’s timeless and translatable around the entire beauty industry. I’ve learned your brand and your marketing is not about you. It’s about the people you’re serving, how you make them feel and the problem you’re helping them solve. Everything you do should be about your customers.”

Where it all started

Chrystal became an entrepreneur at age 27 when she rented a salon booth to style hair. In 2011, she opened her own salon in Columbia, and in 2017 she was honored with the Missourian Progress Award in entrepreneurship. She is also the co-founder of Bold Academy, a nonprofit that fosters leadership skills for Black and Brown girls ages 11-17. She says she learned how to run a successful enterprise from working for a variety of organizations before breaking out on her own.

“I was in corporate spaces as well as small to mid-level businesses, so I learned a lot about having systems in place,” Chrystal says. “When I came into entrepreneurship, my first 10 years were very successful. I was able to lean on my network and community in Columbia.”

Funding and growth from the community

One of the biggest barriers for entrepreneurs is finding funding. Chrystal, who currently has four independent contractors working for her, says a combination of venture capital and bootstrapping is sustaining Liquid Hair Institute.

“For every business I’ve had, the funding has come from having a well-thought-out idea for a viable product or service or having a great plan, vision and system to be able to go to a bank for a line of credit,” she says. “You have to do your research. A lot of people have great ideas but if you’re not educated about the market you don’t know what’s already been done. Know your competitors and your potential partners and the problems your product or service could solve.”

Chrystal says a supportive entrepreneurship ecosystem has been critical to her growth and evolution in business. Throughout her career, Chrystal has tapped into local business resources, such as the Missouri Women’s Business Center, Regional Economic Development, Inc., Women’s Investment Network for Entrepreneurs and Venture Cafe.

“Networking and building community is so important,” she says. “You have to be willing to share and collaborate with other people because two minds, or 20 minds, are always better than one. When I dove into the tech space, my friends who have tech backgrounds were eager to help me because they know the kind of person and entrepreneur I am and they believed in my idea.”

In March 2023, Chrystal participated in Missouri Startup Week with the encouragement of her friend and fellow Missouri-based founder Wendy Moore. The three-day event serves as a pitch fest and networking opportunity for tech entrepreneurs. Chrystal and her team bested 100 other competitors to win first place and the $7,500 prize. The victory also helped her secure a spot in the fourth cohort of Redbud VC (formerly Scale VC), a Columbia-based accelerator fund and venture studio that invests monetary and social capital in early-stage tech founders.

New company, new challenges

Despite her 15 years of entrepreneurial success, Chrystal says transitioning into the tech space brings new challenges.

“I’m experiencing now what I think most entrepreneurs experience at the beginning of their careers,” Chrystal says. “Stepping into this venture in an industry that’s new to me is harder. I’m used to immediate success, being in control of every aspect of the business and being an expert.”

Chrystal is also navigating the difficulties associated with the underrepresentation of minority women in tech.

“As a Black woman in the beauty industry I never felt like I was treated as less than anyone else,” Chrystal says. “In the tech space, I feel completely different. It’s a white male-dominated area, and a lot of people don’t realize they have unconscious biases. On the other hand, many people want to see more inclusion and diversity in tech, and those people have bent over backward to help me.”

To tackle the obstacles, Chrystal says she is leaning heavily on her advisory board, which is made up of people she met through years of networking within the Columbia and St. Louis business communities. She is also planning to hire a chief technology officer soon. Chrystal believes creating systems is another key to a solid business foundation. She recommends the book “Traction: Get a Grip on Your Business” by Gino Wickman as an insightful source on this topic.

“I am a creative, but I also need structure,” she says. “I’m a systems person because, like a lot of entrepreneurs, my brain is chaotic. The more systems you can put in at the beginning, the more likely you are to get things right the first time and not have to repeat something because you moved too fast. It’s better to move slowly and efficiently.”

As she continues to develop Liquid Hair Institute, Chrystal is also juggling being a mom of three, working part-time as a hair stylist to supplement her startup income and preparing to present her first TED Talk in February.

“I don’t think work/life balance exists,” Chrystal says. “At every point in our lives, something is going to get more attention than the other and we just have to learn to be OK with that. Going through this transformation of my business is helping me realize entrepreneurship is an ebb and flow. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach. I’ve had to go through a metamorphosis.

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