We had the good fortune of connecting with Jessie Santiago and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Jessie, is there something you believe many others might not?
There are two pieces of conventional advice I disagree with: 1. Don’t get too friendly with your employees. This feels completely backwards to me. I feel like without a personal and loving relationship with your employees, you open yourself up to an atmosphere that stunts creativity and flow. People are people. We need to feel connected. Most people who choose to do hair have a love for humanity, so being kind and compassionate comes with the package. We, as stylists, want our clients to feel comfortable and safe in in our chairs, right? So why would that be any different when it comes to employer/employee relationships? As a salon owner, I feel as though I have two sets of people I work for, one is the client coming in to get their hair done and the other is the artist working behind the chair. I believe my biggest job as a leader is to create and foster a comfortable environment that is fertile for growth. One that feels safe for people to be treated like human beings, rather than machines behind the chair. When my employees feel comfortable talking to me about themselves, I can help pave a way for their success and happiness. To me, that’s a friendship. A true pal. 2. Be whatever/whoever your client wants you to be. Wrong! I spent too much of my career trying to be someone I am NOT. Trying to be palatable. Don’t be too Puerto Rican or too queer. Don’t talk about politics or spirituality or else you might piss someone off. That’s flat out, not me. I was selling myself short the whole time! I was attracting people I didn’t enjoy spending time with. People I didn’t understand, that didn’t understand me or anything about my life. I was just “getting money”. To be fair, it didn’t always feel like a choice to me. Having bosses or salon owners who treated their employees like machines, made it difficult to even ask myself the question, “am I even enjoying this?” Now that I have my own salon, I am able to be ME! I feel like I am collaborating with my clients now. As if we’re creating a piece of art that happens to be on their heads. I feel as though I am able to identify and attract folks that I enjoy spending time with and that allow me to truly create. I feel happier at the salon and my work is better than ever! Be yourself because everyone else is already taken.
Can you open up a bit about your work and career? We’re big fans and we’d love for our community to learn more about your work.
Our work at Benders focuses on queer/ trans community and issues. We like to say we’re “straight friendly.” We are trans and POC owned and operated. We are long beach locals that saw a need and made it happen. We believe that queer folks have long been told that they don’t deserve anything nice and the longer we believe that, the longer it remains true for us all. We have been walking in a world that wasn’t created for us. We have been on the fringes of society for as far back as history goes and finally, once and for all, I wanted a space that put us first. We’re a social justice movement in the form of a hair salon. If that statement vibes with you – you’ll enjoy your time with us. You don’t need to be queer to get your hair done here, you just need to know that our mission is our passion and we never stray from that. If you’re kind, you’re welcome. One of the hardest things about owning this kind of business is that there’s so little representation. There are very few places like ours so it’s hard to find a mentor, coach or even a friend that truly understands the inner-workings of owning a queer centered hair salon. It’s almost like I just have to figure it out as I go. Also, the pressure. WOAH. To be clear, no one “puts” this pressure on me, it’s just something I feel almost all of the time. I want to get it right and make sure I am doing the best job for the best people in the world. It means that I need to put my mindful cap on and be honest with myself more than ever. I need to listen to my body and the people around me to make sure I’m also taking care of myself. I have been a hairdresser for 20 years and we were never taught to care for ourselves, only others. I am trying to change that industry standard, at least in my salon. My team and myself are committed to reminding one another to take breaks, eat lunch, hydrate and sit down for a while. This extends to our clients and community, they feel our love for ourselves and each other and in turn, they trust that we have capacity to care for them. It truly takes a whole community to make this work happen and we do our best to let them know how much we love them.
Let’s say your best friend was visiting the area and you wanted to show them the best time ever. Where would you take them? Give us a little itinerary – say it was a week long trip, where would you eat, drink, visit, hang out, etc.
I love this city. Some of it is becoming a little more commercial than I’d like but here are some cool spots that make my heart sing. RETRO ROW: Salud Juice, WeOp, The Art theater, Hip Pea, Moxi Skate Shop, Que Sera for Queer Monday’s. The many local Farmers Markets, Yoga on the Bluff, Movies on the beach (summer time). Oh yeah, let’s take the bike path on the beach and go down to shoreline drive. We can get funnel cake and try on a bunch of silly hats. For an epic dive bar experience, we can visit FANGTASIA aka Alex’s bar, Sweet Water saloon, The Britt or the Mineshaft on Broadway. We can get breakfast at the many amazing Diners: Part Pantry, Starling, Coffee Cup Cafe, Pot Holder. We could go down to Bixby Knolls for FIRST FRIDAY’S art gatherings and eat ramen at Hiro Nori or get some amazing desserts at Bake and Broil. OH! The Hangar! We MUST go to Pop Bar and Amorcito for an epic taco salad, then we can go across the street and get a piece of SUZIE CAKES!
Shoutout is all about shouting out others who you feel deserve additional recognition and exposure. Who would you like to shoutout?
OH MY GODDESS! Where do I even begin… I give a huge shout to the women in my life. Especially the other muchachas who own businesses. My pal Angela Almaguer who owns Salud Juice. My pals Kat and Angie who own Wide Eyes Open Palms. My homie Jamuna who Owns Kleur. Ya’ll have been constant supporters and I can’t thank you enough. You have had my back from the start and I love you all. The LGBTQIA+ community. My people, you have supported this business thrigh thick and thin and truly none of this would exist without you ALL. I love you from the bottom of my heart. My partners, my loves. Yep, I have two. Kinuyo, you have been my right hand, my right leg and sometimes even my head. You have fed me when I haven’t been strong enough to feed myself. You have let me completely fall apart when I needed to. I will cherish you forever and ever. Thank you. Cal… Oh boy, how our love has been challenged by this big baby, Benders. We created something bigger than we expected, didn’t we? We have weathered storms, put out fires, fought battles and wars, celebrated the sweet moments, laughed, cried and so much more. I can’t think of anyone else I’d rather do this with. Thank you for every single thing. Big, small and unspoken. To my sister, my biggest fan. Your constant love for me never wavers. When I forget how powerful I am, you’re always there at the perfect time to remind me. I love you. I am truly blessed to have you. MOM- you gave me life, showed me how to persevere, how to fight for my place in this world. Your womanly empowerment has guided me my whole life and still does. Thank you. Joshua Gilliam- My best pal, my brother. I don’t have enough words to express how much I love you but something tells me, I don’t even need to find them. May our giggles carry us through to the ends of these lives and beyond. Lastly, my ancestors, the spirit within me and to the creator of all things. Thank you for this life.