Watch: "With stability, business ownership becomes the dream" | 4:42
While @groomingproject is proving it can break the poverty cycle for mothers, it’s also upping the ante, giving graduates a path to not only work at a dog grooming salon, but own one.
For parents seeking a way out of the poverty cycle, a steady, well-paying job may seem like an impossible dream. The Grooming Project, which through a combination of training and services helps single parents who have faced homelessness and other challenges like addiction and incomplete education, provides a path to that dream: More than 70% of program graduates have rewarding jobs as dog groomers.
For some especially tenacious graduates, an even loftier dream is to truly take control of their futures, and their families’ futures, by learning the skills needed to start their own businesses. Now, The Grooming Project is providing that path, also.
This spring, the organization opened The Salon, which offers grooming services in an upscale shopping center in Kansas City suburb Lee’s Summit. Two experienced graduates of The Grooming Project, Christine Banks and Lindsey Massoth, were brought in as pet stylists and management interns, taking a year to be immersed in the business side of the operation, so they can be prepared to go off and start their own services.
"It will train our graduate students that are coming from the top of their classes, but they want to start their own businesses. They've been out there grooming for a while. They've really proven themselves. They showed that they can work through hardship and they're still going to stick it out. They're not going to quit," said Natasha Kirsch, the founder and executive director of The Grooming Project. "But they have these dreams to run their own businesses someday. They just don't necessarily have the tools to do that."
Natasha Kirsch, founder of The Grooming Project, shares advice for folks wanting to start their own businesses: Just take it one step at a time.
As well as providing business training for experienced graduates, The Salon will also provide a friendly first step for recent graduates needing a little more time and practice before entering the job market.
As co-managers of The Salon, Banks and Massoth have been learning everything from ordering supplies, doing marketing and social media, business accounting, customer service, to supervising employees.
"I do think that one of the most difficult things in starting a business is that you have to learn how to manage employees. It's something that people take for granted, but they're not coming from a past where they have that experience. I think that the best way to teach somebody how to do that is really just diving in and doing it," Kirsch said.
As the first two managers in this role, Banks and Massoth had the unique opportunity to help launch the new business.
"We were part of opening this place and getting it set up, and ordering supplies and cleaning it up. It was just really stressful, so I'm just glad that I went through that because that will prepare me for when I open my own shop," Massoth said.
That full immersion into managing the salon has already provided invaluable experience.
"We're a little bit of everything here. We're the groomer, we're the bather, we're the cleaner, we're the front desk person. We make the calls and we kind of just bounce around all over and that's part of managing this place, is you have to know everything," Massoth said.
For Banks, a self-described sensitive person, dog grooming represented the perfect combination for her background and inclinations. Like several of the women in her family, she’d trained in cosmetology, and she’d also had experience working as a nursing assistant in a home for the elderly. But, cosmetology wasn’t rewarding and working in a nursing home made her sad.
"Yeah, I just have a big heart," she said. "My heart is big and I am willing to share with everybody, and I feel like me doing it with the animals, it's like, I'm giving them my heart and letting them know that they're okay. I love them, and I'm taking care of them, and it's like... it's very important for me."
Banks has learned to be more outgoing, because she knows that good communication with pet owners means she can do a better job caring for their dogs. While she still finds dealing with unhappy (human) clients her biggest challenge, learning the customer service side of running a business has helped mitigate that.
"I want all my clients to be happy, you know? I want them to feel like this is a safe environment and what you're asking for, I am willing to give it to you. Running your own business, being a manager, it is tough, you know? And it's a lot of things you have to juggle, but sometimes you have to just remember that this is what you need to do and it'll go by so smooth," she said.
For Banks, learning dog grooming and the business of running a salon has led to a vision of the business she’d ultimately like to start herself: a mobile grooming van.
"I like to give back to my elderly clients, and also being able to help their elderly pets. I care a lot for people and their pets now, it's just so I can go to the house and take care of them. They don't have to come to the groomer, even older pets sometimes... can't move around very much, so it's like, why not go help them? Dogs don't like to ride in cars a lot, you know, why not go to their house?" Banks said.
For Massoth, the opportunity to learn dog grooming and to manage a salon was a welcome new path to pursue. She was making slightly more than minimum wage doing customer support by telephone and not enjoying it. She was attracted right away to the idea of training at The Grooming Project and loved her two years working as a salon employee after graduating.
"It feels good to know that I wake up and do something that I love doing and I'm passionate about instead of just waking up and going to some job that is just dead end," she said.
Opening The Salon is just one of the changes in strategy that Kirsch has instigated after launching The Grooming Project in 2016. Her constant quest is to make the program more effective and to make it available to more students.
For example, while gaining highly marketable skills as a pet groomer is certainly beneficial to her clientele, those skills alone may not be enough to ensure success in life.
"Going into this, I thought that the six-month training program was going to be enough," she said. But, this has not proven to be the case. "If you think about it, it only makes sense because you've got somebody who maybe has grown up in poverty – maybe for generations – and now, you're turning the world upside down. It's a lot of change in a really short period of time. We've had to adapt to make sure that we can do that the right way for the family that we're doing it for," Kirsch said.
That has entailed adding additional support and training directly through The Grooming Project, but also partnering with other agencies to make sure students can stabilize their lives while launching their new careers. Beyond the initial six-month training program, graduates are now supported through an 18-month bridging program, which provides help with job coaching and placement and transitioning off welfare.
"They learned how to groom dogs. But now they're getting out, and they're making good money and now they get to pick 'where do I live, where does my kid go to school, how do I buy a car?' And so, when we were talking about that in the program, it was very much theory – and now it's actually happening," Kirsch said.
Other realities graduates can get assistance with: a partnership with 30 area dentists helps with neglected dental work; and, Kirsch is exploring a similar model with lawyers, as many of her students have compiled seemingly insurmountable stacks of legal issues that keep compounding.
The biggest partnership, however, is with a community housing initiative of Catholic Charities called Neighborhoods of Hope. About 66% of students entering The Grooming Project are homeless, or are living in unstable conditions. Even after leaving the program, and earning enough to pay rent, many of the graduates can’t pass a background check because of criminal records or evictions.
Through new construction resulting from the partnership, students will eventually have access to a dormitory – each family having private living space along with a shared kitchen, living areas, office area, and playrooms. In addition, Neighborhoods of Hope has already completed the first single family home, in which a recent graduate and her family are living.
Kirsch’s other main challenge is scaling The Grooming Project to accommodate more students in the Kansas City area, as well as potentially in other cities.
"We've gotten calls from at least a dozen other cities around the country that want the dog grooming piece in their city. We've met with the regional directors for both Petco and PetSmart. Both said 'throw a dart anywhere on the map. We need you everywhere.' I really think that the market demand is there for pet grooming – we... have not even made a dent in yet," Kirsch said.
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First, however, Kirsch needs to make sure the model represented by The Salon works. A recent grant from the Kauffman Foundation, through the Inclusion Open initiative, will provide marketing support to build clientele for the business, as well as training for Banks, Massoth, and the other nascent entrepreneurs who manage The Salon. Building up to being able to serve more dogs per day will move The Salon toward not only being self-sufficient, but putting money back into the overall program.
Ultimately, however, the success of the program will be told through the stories of graduates who were able pursue a dream and improve the lives of themselves and their families.
"In the very beginning of The Grooming Project, Natasha showed us this video by Steve Harvey, ... and he was saying like everyone has a gift and that you'll never succeed in life if you don't jump. So, this is me jumping. Believe in a job that I love, to come and do this, to try and get somewhere, get something more in life," Massoth said.