If you “Google” the name Bobbie Dunn, you will see a top listing for Bobbie Dunn the comedic actor responsible for generating laughs in several Laurel and Hardy comedies and another listing for an award-winning interior designer. This is one of those serendipitous things since the Bobbie Dunn I interviewed – the owner of Alpha Omega Hair Design in downtown Knoxville – confessed that she both liked to make people laugh and would have loved to be an interior designer. But her true calling is cutting hair, and being around people is her forte. Her clients often become her friends and she is glad to count Pat Summitt among those special people. Read about Bobbie’s journey from a small town in Appalachia to finding success as a Knoxville entrepreneur.
Oana Harrison: Do you feel that you found your calling? Can there be more than one? What was your path?
Bobbie Dunn: I grew up in the Appalachian region of West Virginia, a very poor section of the country. I grew up tough. We didn’t have a bathroom in the house until I was in the 8th grade. I grew up on a farm and I worked out the fields like the boys did; well, I was a little more protected than the boys were because I was my granddaddy’s baby girl. But I put up hay, I shucked corn, I dug potatoes, I did everything that had to be done. And I knew right then that that wasn’t the life I wanted to live. I had a very strict stepfather. I was pretty popular in high school but I wasn’t allowed to date, I couldn’t do many of the things that the normal kids did, I couldn’t stay out later, I couldn’t go to the ball games, I couldn’t do any of that. And I resented it. So, I started out rough and when I turned 18 I decided I was going to run off, get married and get away from all that. I married a guy who was two years older than me. He was in his last year of college and I worked in a sewing factory to pay for his tuition. Then we moved to the town where he went to college and I worked in a place like a Burger King – it was called the Burger Boy Food-O-Rama. It was miserable and then I turned out pregnant. I got pregnant three months after I got married, then I got fired because I got pregnant because I was anemic and I kept passing out. The manager was afraid that I was going to pass out, lose the baby and sue him. Back then, they could fire you for being pregnant.
OH: Is that when you moved to Tennessee?
BD: When my husband finished college, he became an engineer and we moved to Tennessee. He went to work with TVA. We moved here in June and gave birth in July. I was going to pretty much stay at home and raise the baby. However, a manager position opening came up for our apartment complex. They went through three managers over six months… I was nineteen but I figured I’d apply. The manager told me I was too young, so I told him, “well, you don’t have anybody now and you don’t seem to have a problem getting rid of employees. What have you got to lose?” He scratched his head and said: “Well, you have a point.” So, I managed the apartment complex we lived in for two years and I saved enough money to put towards buying a house. When I turned in my notice, the manager said I was the best manager he’d ever had.
OH: After you finally became a proud homeowner, what was your next step?
BD: When we moved into the new house, I was going to stay at home, be a good little wife and a good mother… and I was bored out of my board!… I went to work for Kelly Girls, a temp agency. I would work here two days then three days there, and then take some time off. It was just a fly-by-night operation, there were no guarantees. But I had some of the most interesting jobs that you can imagine working for them. That was fun.
OH: What are some of the more interesting gigs you had through Kelly Girls?
BD: I did the survey in the neighborhood to bring cable to Knoxville. Got dog-bit during that event by a yappy poodle – that was hysterical. Also, way before GPS existed, I rode around town with a guy from Toledo, Ohio and showed him where different places were in the area for him to go ask for donations to start St. Jude’s Hospital. I look back on that now and think – wow! At the time, we didn’t know what St. Jude’s was but now, I think, I had a hand in that! It makes me proud.
Those were the two most interesting jobs I had. The others were working in a bank or an office; switchboard operator, filing, odds and ends jobs.
OH: How did you get into the hair industry?
BD: My marriage started falling apart and I got a divorce. I didn’t have a job but I had made so many contacts through the Kelly Girls that it wasn’t hard for me to find another job. I worked for an insurance company for a while but I hated it…I absolutely hated it. Being confined to a desk and typing… I wasn’t good at it. It wasn’t my thing. I hated getting up in the morning and going to that job. I would take the “girls” into the restroom on our lunch break and cut their hair. One day one of the guys who was working in the building reached and grabbed my arm. And I thought “uh-oh, I’m in trouble.” He said “listen, you are wasting your talent. You need to go to school, get a license, and cut hair.” “I can’t afford it,” I said. He said “You can’t afford not to. The guy who runs the barber school lives across the street from me. I’ll put in a good word for you.” So, I called and made an appointment to talk to the guy.
But I still had to come up with the money for the program. When I was 24, I had broken a vertebra and the doctor told me I had to get off my butt and onto my feet. He also told me that he would help me get a rehabilitation loan. I went back to him to ask about it: “I decided what I want to do. I want to be a barber.” He laughed at me. I said: “Do I not look like a barber?” He said, “Frankly, no you don’t.” But he signed me up and I went to school. My daughter was 8 years old at the time and I thought we were going to starve to death. We lived on about $230/month and, while the loan paid for my school, I had to stretch the $230 a loooong way. But we did it.
OH: How was barber school?
BD: It was a 9-month stint. The first day I walked in the school I thought “I do not belong here.” I didn’t fit in. I had been in barber school all but three months and the guy who owned the barber school also owned a hair styling salon told me “I want you to come work for me when you graduate.” So, I knew I had a job getting out, which is something that most people had to struggle to get. I have been blessed because I have been able to either talk my way into a job or a job landed in my lap. I was blessed with that and I’ve never looked back. Of course, it takes a while to build a business and one of the first things we learned in school was that only one in ten people make it in the hair industry. It’s a tough business to stay in and I’ve been in it since 1998. That is where I find myself successful: is being able to stay in it.
OH: How did owning your own business come about from that?
BD: I stayed in the first shop where I went to work for two years before it burned down. After that, the guy across the street called me to go work for him. I worked there for 18 years while my daughter grew up and went to high school. I knew I wanted to move on and do my own thing, so in 2000 I took the leap to open my own shop. I started out on a budget, very small, and I’ve been at it ever since.
OH: How was the transition from working for someone else to having your own business, hiring and managing people, and all that it entails?
BD: That wasn’t fun – laughed Bobbie. That was the hard part because not everybody has your work ethic. You have to go through a few to get to the ones that have the same work ethic and the same goals as you. You can find out probably in the first month. When I hire someone, I give them a three-month trial period and see whether they are going to make it or not.
It’s very difficult to find those people who are hungry; you gotta be hungry. The kids coming out of school today are very entitled and they think that everything ought to fall in their lap. It doesn’t work that way. You gotta work for it. They don’t seem to have the fortitude to go out there and beat the streets to get the clientele like I had to when I started.
OH: What would you say that the most important contributor to your overall success was?
BD: Determination and a sense of humor.
OH: What are some lessons you learned along the way or some advice you’d like to give to others?
BD: There are always going to be setbacks but you can’t let them keep you down. You gotta get back up and keep punching. It’s not about what someone’s going to hand you; it’s about what you’re going to work for.
OH: What do you feel like the most fulfilling aspect of your life is – business or otherwise?
BD: For me, it’s the friendships I make through my job; people don’t just become my customers, they become my friends. And it’s not a client-stylist relationship as much as it is family and I love that closeness. I’ll tell you a little story. I went to a hair show one time and they had a psychologist going to a class. He told us: “You have more influence on people than I do. You have a license to touch people and this creates a bond between you. You’re in their space, so people have to trust you.” He told us about a client who he had been counseling for a year. She had a crush on a guy whom she had met over happy hour in a bar. She wanted to go out with him. The doctor advised her to ask him out instead of waiting for his move. He finally talked her into doing it, she was all excited about it, and he couldn’t wait for the next time he saw her and find out how it went. She came into his office, he asked her how it went. She told him she didn’t ask. Why not? – he asked surprised. We had already talked about it, you decided how you were going to do it and all. What happened? Well, I went and got my hair done after I talked to you, she confessed, and my hairdresser thought it was the dumbest thing I could do, so I didn’t do it. So, you see, you have more influence over people than me…,” the psychologist concluded. I thought it was hysterical – confessed Bobbie.
OH: Speaking of receiving advice… Everybody needs to have a support system around them – some more than others. How did you fare?
BD: When you’re 300 miles away from home it’s hard to have a support system. I was quite honestly here alone, with my daughter – she was all I had family-wise. But I had made some very good friends and I still have them today. They have been my biggest support system.
OH: What kept you going?
BD: Laughing – I didn’t want to starve to death…
OH: You had your business for almost seventeen years. What’s next?
BD: Well, I’m 65, retirement should be next… Really, I don’t want to retire. My recent and new back injury (I fractured a vertebra – again – moving furniture by myself…) made me realize even more that I can’t sit and look at four walls. Most people can go through their entire lives without fracturing a vertebra – and I’ve done it twice! But I intend to stay up and running.
I’m a people-person, I like to be around people, I love people! I actually like being behind the chair working on somebody. So, I might want to cut back a little but I’m afraid that if I stop cutting hair, I would have no more incentive to get out of bed. I have to have a reason to get up and get out of the house – and I need to be around people because they make my world go around.
OH: What words of wisdom do you have for others?
BD: You are exactly right that success for one person may not be the same for another. I think you’re successful as long as you are doing something that makes you happy. That to me is the key to success – being happy. Because like I told you, I was miserable at my first job, I hated it. It was not my calling. I was 27-28 when I found mine and I never looked back. I never wanted to do something else. I think that the only other thing that I would have been interested in would have been interior design – not that I’m that good at it but I just like furniture. But I don’t think that I would have had that much fun because I wouldn’t have been around that many people. And for me, it’s that social interaction that makes me happy. I’m kind of an entertainer sometimes when I’m dealing with people. I like to make them laugh, make their day a little better.
When I worked at the insurance company, I hated it. I was terrible at typing and I don’t know why they kept me. But I found something enjoyable in it – I cut hair during my breaks… That did my heart good and it led to something better, something that I wanted to do. So, find the good in a bad situation. Stick with it and don’t give up on your dreams!