The Road to Recovery and Redemption
An Unexpected Illness, the Generosity of Others and the Show that Changed a Woman’s Life
Do you believe in serendipity? That the experiences we have are already planned by some greater power unbeknownst to us, and it’s simply how we adjust and make the most out of these situations that define who we are. That moment of destiny, fulfillment and wonder came to Erin Elliot, owner of Alter Ego Haircolor and Design Studio in Frederick, MD when she received an email late one evening. This email—that could have wound up in her spam folder, been sent to another person, or ended up in a draft folder instead—showed up in Erin’s inbox and it asked one simple question, “What’s Your Plan for Growing Your Business?” Erin knew immediately what this meant: “The universe sent this to me personally.”
A Succession of Lows
Erin has been a stylist for 21 years, and has owned Alter Ego for 13. She jumped into salon ownership with no prior business owning experience. But for her, persistence paid off. When she first opened her salon, she had no way to finance it—even though she had perfect credit. So, she maxed out two credit cards at $100,000 to open her doors. With hard work, she was able to build a successful salon and, within 10 years, had paid off her debt. For the majority of that decade, though, Erin rarely brought a paycheck home. It all went to her stylists, her debt and reinvestment in her salon. Additionally, her business model was based on trial and error. Concepts like profit and loss statements, cost of labor and breaking down your tickets were exchanged for the idea “When things don’t work, it costs a lot of money, but when things do work, life is amazing.”
By summer 2014, tension was brewing among Erin’s senior staff over their business model and, in particular, necessary expenditures that pushed the salon into the red. In July, this disagreement rapidly degraded into a fight. “I had my three top stylists quit on me and I basically went numb. I felt defeated, burnt out and hopeless. The next day I contacted a realtor and listed my salon for sale. I met with three potential buyers, but I knew I was not ready to let go of my dream,” says Erin. The salon sold. A week later, Erin was putting down a deposit on a booth suite, when two of her former top stylists visited her at the new space. “All of us shared our issues, our frustrations and angers and we cleared the air. I realized where I had failed as a leader and the ripple effect it had on our team. So we made a decision to move forward as a team once again,” explains Erin.
It was a Monday morning in August when Erin woke up feeling nauseous. Her main symptom was a runny nose. By Wednesday, Erin’s condition worsened and she couldn’t leave her bed. On Friday, her mom rushed her to the hospital—thinking Erin was having a stroke—but she was treated and released. On Sunday, Erin returned to the ER, this time at John Hopkins. There, she finally received a diagnosis. For seven days, Erin was experiencing a Cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) leak. The runny nose was caused by a blood clot at the base of her brain resulting in spinal fluid dripping through her sinuses. She was put into immediate critical monitoring and received a spinal tap. After a week, the blood clot dissolved on its own and Erin did not have to receive emergency surgery.
Still, she remained in critical care monitoring for a week after. When she was released, she was slow of speech and could not work, but she was alive when she genuinely believed she could have died. Erin craved to be back in the salon again, but physically she wasn’t up to it. She spent the next three months expending the entirety of her savings to keep her salon up and running. As she lay in recovery, Erin frequently checked in with her staff via email. She was checking in one evening when that email about growing her business popped up. It was for John Paul Mitchell Systems Business rEvolution and Erin knew she had to attend.
The Kindness of Friends & Strangers
Erin returned to work more determined than ever. “I was going over every possible way I could afford to attend this educational experience, but I could not find a solution,” says Erin. “I went back to working six days a week, 10-hour days but that wasn’t enough.” On top of her medical bills, the salon’s washer and dryer broke and the computer was on the fritz. So Erin, hoping for positive energy, decided to launch a GoFundMe page. She reached out to Paul Mitchell to help raise awareness, but unbeknownst to her, Alter Ego’s staff beat her to it and had already spread the word.
“In seven hours, I raised $2,500. I had more than 200 donations that fulfilled my $2,000 wish and I had exactly $500 left,” says Erin. Not only did she raise enough money for herself and another member of her team to attend JPMS rEvolution, but she also had $500 left over to fund a stranger’s trip to the show. “My spirit knew this was no random number. Someone else, like me, needs help getting to this event and it was my duty to pay it forward,” says Erin.
Becoming a rEvolutionary
Erin and her stylist, Tammy Hargett, arrived at JPMS Business rEvolution in Las Vegas eager to pay it forward. She approached registration to get her badge and told them her story. She wanted them to take her $500 to give to someone in need. “No one knew what to do with it,” laughs Erin. “They gave me suggestions to reinvest in my salon, but I knew I couldn’t do that. I set my intention specifically to this so I really need to help another salon owner just like me get some amazing education.” However, they couldn’t help her at registration, so Erin had to return back to the drawing board. But first, she had classes to attend.
“It was incredible. Sitting in that auditorium learning from the best educators in the industry, being able to network with other passionate professionals was unbelievable,” gushes Erin. “For me, as a career hairdresser, I never invested in learning the business side of what we do and rEvolution really gave me some solid information in the format of a basic business class. Each educator broke things down in a simplistic way—not to dumb down the content—but to just make sense.”
One night, Erin went to a presentation by Paul Mitchell Global Artistic Director, Robert Cromeans. “It struck me when I heard Robert Cromeans, who everybody knows and is so successful, that he had challenges with some of his salons being profitable and keeping them open. It was neat to see that people you look up to have faced the same challenges you do and it just made it very humbling and real,” says Erin. Afterwards, Tammy—who used to work for Paul Mitchell—spotted John Paul Mitchell Systems co-founder, John Paul DeJoria, offstage. “She grabbed my hand and said ‘You have got to meet him!’ Honestly, I was starstruck.” At this point, Erin’s eyes swelled with tears as she asked John Paul for a hug. “I told him ‘This time last year, I was sitting in a hospital bed at what felt like the end of my life. Within this past year, my staff and the people at JPMS have helped me come back to life again. By next year at this time, you are going to know who I am and you’re going to be so proud of where I’m at,’” says Erin. “It was a very special moment.”
The End of One Chapter & the Start of a New Journey
Erin returned to her salon with a brand new outlook on her business. “I need to restructure everything,” laughs Erin. “After this weekend, I decided that I need to become a focus salon and Tammy and I have come back as powerhouses ready to make these changes.” Erin is also becoming a JPMS-oriented salon. “I love JPMS because of their energy and culture but I also feel like these are my people—like I’ve been separated from this tribe and now I’m getting reunited with them. The systems they have are proven to help you become a successful business. Why would I not go someplace where I have the potential to grow?” says Erin.
Although Erin was not able to pay it forward for a struggling salon owner at rEvolution, she hasn’t spent that $500. She’s adamantly against saving it for herself and she intends to use it to finance someone’s trip to the next JPMS event. “Kindness, compassion and love generate a very special, positive energy that can brighten even the darkest of rooms. We all hold the power to reach out and light another person’s candle and I believe that is the key to making our world shine bright, full of love and light,” says Erin. “I just hope to inspire someone who has hit a hard point in their life and I will make sure that this is where the money is going.”