Monday, May 20, 2024

Hard as nails: Emy Saldana’s journey into the beauty business

Dressed in a black suit, Emy Saldana walks briskly toward the bank; she’s been working there for almost 12 months, but today will be one of the busiest days of the year, and she’s their No. 1 seller. In three months, she’ll be the branch’s youngest-ever manager.

Saldana arrives and quickly makes a coffee before exchanging pleasantries with her colleagues seated behind a glass barrier. 

Matamoros, where Emy Saldana grew up, has seen increased violence since the early 2000’s. (Wikimedia Commons)

The coffee’s not gone cold before she hears the first crash. The glass-paneled door shatters into the entrance hall as masked men beat the doorframe down with hammers. 

Screams mix dissonantly with the shrill of security alarms, and Saldana freezes. Her vision blurs and her hands go numb. The assailants bark orders from behind their masks, telling the crowd to lie face down on the floor, which now shimmers with pieces of broken glass. 

Saldana makes for the side door, but she’s cut off by one of the men, who kicks her to the ground before one pushes the cold barrel of a pistol hard into her forehead.  

This is Matamoros, Tamaulipas, in the early 2000s, the scene of one of two bank robberies Saldana witnessed while she worked as a teller in northern Mexico.

Glow Beauty
Glow Beauty Bar has locations in the Reforma and San Felipe neighborhoods of Oaxaca city. Find the salon on Instagram at @glowbeautybar.oax.

The same city made headlines in March this year as the setting of the kidnapping of 4 Americans, two of whom were killed. It remains on a U.S. government list of seven “do not visit” states in Mexico.

“There were tough times when I was starting out, but I needed to experience them to become stronger,” Saldana says. “I used to take things really personally, and after the bank robbery, it really felt like the world was against me. With [some] perspective now, I can see it actually taught me to take more control of things within my reach and be more fearless in business and my personal life.”

Saldana tells me this story as we sit across from each other at her first salon, Glow Beauty Bar, in Oaxaca city. 

It’s 7:30 a.m. in the bustling and convivial Reforma neighborhood, and the May morning sun bathes the airy salon in golden light. Elegant hardwood stations, wall panels and pastel colors create a warm atmosphere. Reed grass in retro glass vases sway in the breeze as the door opens and store manager Daniela arrives with several bottles of sparkling wine. 

It’s Glow Beauty Bar’s first anniversary today.

Running her own business had always been Saldana’s dream, but the road to learning the necessary skills was not without challenges. 

Saldana was inspired by the fun she had chatting with nail technicians in Shanghai and Texas.

Going to college, for example, was never in the cards. Saldana’s destiny, according to her father, was to meet a man and get pregnant at 16. Shunning this, she got a marketing degree to support her own ambition. She sold raffle tickets outside her church every Christmas to fund her tuition herself. Working day jobs and studying into the early hours of the morning became her routine. 

While studying, Saldana met her husband, Hector, and after graduating, they moved to China, where Shanghai became home for two years.

“As a woman growing up in northern Mexico, I’d become used to being pigeonholed into traditional female roles. As a teenager, this was perpetuated by the men in my life. From the moment I met Hector, though, he was always encouraging me to think big, [to] be braver and trust in myself.”

Both Saldana and her husband eventually left China for Houston, and subsequently Austin, Texas. She founded an insurance business there, and the couple led a happy, comfortable life.

I ask exactly what brought her back to Mexico.

“Mexico is more than just my childhood home,” she says. “It’s where everything began with Hector and me, and it’s where the fire inside me to succeed was first lit. I’ve never shaken my goal of running a business here.”

Emy Saldana (center) says the women she works with are her greatest motivation to succeed.

The two of them found Oaxaca after a “week-long chance visit” in early 2021. By September of that year, they had packed up their things and found an apartment north of the city. 

“In both China and the U.S., I’d always loved to visit nail salons. I practiced my English with nail technicians in Shanghai, and I loved the social side of chatting with people in Texas. In Oaxaca, I fell in love with the people, the atmosphere — and the fun I had during my nail appointments was best of all.”

Six months after relocating to Oaxaca, Saldana sat down to have her fortnightly manicure with a young 17-year-old named Daniela, who had become a friend after several months of regular appointments. 

“She was talented and kind in equal measure,” she says. “When she told me she was leaving to work at another salon, I saw an opportunity to take her under my wing. We discussed working together over her lunch break, and her eagerness to learn was obvious. I remember rushing home to plan the idea for what became Glow Beauty Bar. I would find, acquire and design the space, and Daniela would run the salon as her own.”

Months of intensive planning, site visits and sleepless nights followed, and in May 2022, Saldana was ready to launch the salon.

“Friends and family filled our booking sheet in the first weeks,” she says with a wry smile. “Then it really was up to us to push the business to new audiences. I gave everything to promoting Glow to locals, tourists, and expats, and very quickly we saw a big uptick in bookings.”

Hardwood accents give Glow Beauty Bar an inviting and intimate feel.

Three months after launch, bookings increased month-by-month by an average of 45%. Clients are treated with kindness, offered coffee, cold drinks and even a complimentary cookie hand made by a local chef. The salon experience is as important as the final product, Saldana tells me. 

“We train staff intensively to ensure a consistently excellent experience. Our profit went straight back into the business to buy the best equipment and we held staff meetings every night to discuss specific client feedback,” she says. “If one of the girls received a particularly positive review for a hand massage, for example, I asked them to teach everyone exactly how they did it that same evening.”

The second Glow Beauty Bar in San Felipe, Oaxaca opened in April this year and is managed by Saldana’s third-ever hire, Monse. No additional investment was required to open and hire a new team to work at the latest salon. Saldana now employs a total of 11 women, and expansion plans are in motion. 

I ask Saldana what motivates her to succeed in the beauty industry; she turns away from me and looks at the three young women getting ready to welcome their clients through the glass door.

“I want to be the mentor I never had to younger women in Oaxaca,” she says. “I see part of myself in everyone working here and helping them to grow has been the proudest achievement of my life.”

Gordon Cole-Schmidt is a public relations specialist and freelance journalist, advising and writing on companies and issues across multi-national communication programs.

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