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Afroflare Journeys: Hair Confessions with L'Oreal's Mezei Jefferson

Presented by Delia Midamba, Mezei Jefferson
Originally aired on 

Join Afroflare's Delia Midamba as she discusses all things Hair with L'Oreal's Asst VP of Education Development, Mezei Jefferson.

Black History Month

Transcript (Beta)

Hello, everyone.

Thank you for joining us today. My name is Delia Midamba and I am Head of Corporate Security here at Cloudflare.

And joining me today is Mezei Jefferson, Assistant Vice President of Education Development at L'Oréal.

Welcome, Mezei. Thank you for joining us today.

Thank you. Thanks for having me. Absolutely. So today we're going to be discussing all things hair, hair and identity.

So tell us a little bit about yourself, your background, what got you into the hair industry.

Tell us, tell us that story. Okay. First off, thanks for having me. So excited to be here today.

So my name is Mezei Jefferson. I am Assistant Vice President of Development Education at L 'Oréal.

First off, people always ask me, well, what does development education do?

And I tell everybody, I'm duct tape for L 'Oréal.

Because you know how duct tape works on everything and it does a bunch of different jobs.

That's kind of what development does. How I got started in the industry, I come from a hair background.

My grandparents had a salon. So I was one of those kids coming home from school, sweeping hair.

And I just remember saying, once I get old enough to get out of here, I will never, ever be around hair again.

Obviously, never say never.

Never say never. But got into the industry, really not because of my family.

Well, I guess it was because of my family in the long run. But I wanted to be a rock star.

And you know, I had that conversation with my dad, who was a lawyer.

And he said, so you're a senior in high school, what's your plan? And I said, oh, I'm going to be a rock star.

And he's like, well, do you play any instruments?

I was like, no. He's like, well, can you sing? I was like, eh, you know, just a little bit.

Who knew today I could have been a pop star. But back then, you know.

Autotune, right. So he's like, well, you need to figure out what you're going to do.

So there was a hair school literally down the street from where we lived.

And I said, all right, I will do that.

It'll be something easy. Get him off my back. And it really opened up a passion for me.

And I loved being in the salon. But what really got me is when I discovered education.

I went to a hair show. And I saw this team on stage. And you know, they had the models.

And it was like a volcano. And the volcano turned around.

The models were sitting inside. And the music. And I said, that's what I want to do.

Because that's going to be the closest thing that I can see myself doing to be a rock star.

So that's kind of where my passion for education kicked off. And in turn helped me in the salon.

So I've done stage work, platform work, magazines, TV, you know, celebrities, all of that.

But even though those are fun, my real passion is education.

One time I was reading an article. And they said the average hairdresser makes like $30,000 a year.

And in my mind, I was thinking, you know, how do people support their families and do all of these things that you want to do in life with that amount of money?

So I was like, I need to make it my mission to help people have a better life so they can, or excuse me, have a better career.

So in turn, they can have a better life. So that's kind of always been my passion.

And when I see people that have come to my class, or come to one of my shows, and later on, they're like, Oh, my God, I did what she said.

And, you know, this and my client started coming back, I got all your referrals.

That to me is that feeling that I guess like Beyonce feels when she's on the stage and everyone's screaming her name.

Yes, I am a member of the beehive. So Beyonce will be spread throughout this interview.

But I just imagine that's the that's kind of that joy that brings her that brings it to me when people are doing better, or they're buying their first house or car or going on a trip, whatever it is, you know, that is in their wheelhouse.

Yeah, so that's kind of my backstory.

I've been in the industry. Oh, my God, almost 40 years now.

Well, 30 some years now. And still here still enjoy it. And it still brings me that passion now just doing it on a corporate level, which surprisingly, even brings it out in me more.

I love seeing the team grow. I love seeing people that were in the salon, and not knowing what they're going to do next to be able to come into the corporate world and really strive, and especially people of color, you know, I feel like someone saved the seat at the table with me.

So I need to pay that forward.

Yeah, as you were making this decision, which you've seemed to have made kind of on a whim, did anybody in your life or in your family say, Hmm, that's not, that's not wise, you're not gonna be able to support yourself to being a hairdresser, like, go do something else.

You know, it's funny. So I would say 98% of my family was super supportive.

I come from one of those families where, as long as you're doing something, everybody's happy.

You know what I mean? Everybody's happy.

Except for being a rockstar. Except for being a rockstar, yes. I think thankfully, my dad saw the error in my ways with that one.

But I had one person in the family that said, Well, this is great.

You know, and it's great to have something that you're going to do, but you're going to use this to pay for college, or you're going to use this to go on to just as a stepping stone, and didn't realize it, but it really offended me.

Because if you go to Europe, hairdressers are looked at like doctors, lawyers, rock stars, then you come here and you get a lot of those questions.

Oh, well, what else do you do? Or what are you going to do next?

And they don't realize all of the possibilities that are there. And actually, a lot of stylists don't realize all the possibilities that are there for them.

So I feel like that's another mission to let stylists know, you don't always have to be behind the chair.

And if you want to be, that's fine. But there's other options out there too, that you just need to work towards and kind of give them the, I won't say a roadmap, because I think a roadmap is kind of the tried and true path, where my roadmap was like, Oh, well, that didn't work.

Okay, well, that working.

Okay, well, you know what I mean? It was kind of all over the place until I really got to a point where I can be strategic about what I want.

And learning to ask for what I want, you know, that's kind of hard to when you come into a corporate setting.

And you're just like, Well, I'm just happy to be here. And then you start to realize, Oh, I have a voice, like, let me ask for the things that I need.

So it's a learning process. Absolutely. So the haircare industry over the past few years has seen a shift, and kind of more attention on natural black hair, right?

More black women, black people embracing their natural hair and their natural hair in the workplace.

At the same time, there's conversations around the effects of this, particularly on black women, you know, changing product formulations, and making sure that there are products on the shelves that can support natural black hair.

Do you think that this is more of a positive or a negative for the black community?

What are your thoughts on kind of embracing the natural, you know, hair?

Definitely a positive, for a lot of reasons.

One, just, I won't say the ease, but taking away that chemical aspect of it, I feel like was very freeing to a lot of women.

Also, I think a lot of black women wanted color, like they would see a lot of the general market with these blondes or these caramels, and they were like, Oh, I want that, but my hair is relaxed.

So I kind of have to pick and choose what I do.

So also, I think it opened up a new color market for the black women to be able to express herself in all of these different shades and hues, and not have to worry about breakage or timing it perfect between the relaxer.

Also, I see it as a super positive because people now want to understand texture, and they want to learn more about curls, and we can provide that for them.

So it's kind of like, okay, this is our moment.

We've it's like when you're on JV team in high school, and you're sitting on the bench, and you've just been waiting for the coach to put you in.

It's like, okay, we're in. This is our time. And I feel like in most settings, it is looked at as a positive, and it's not looked at as, Oh, this is just a fashion fad.

They understand that this is who we are. We're able to express ourselves.

And most people are genuinely enthusiastic. And sometimes, when people come up and say those stupid things to you about your hair, it used to annoy me.

But now I take it as a teachable moment.

And in my mind, I try to look at it as okay, so you're reaching out because you want to understand us.

So let me help you understand this and what not to say what not to do.

Like, as we were talking earlier, you know, I had locks.

And it was just annoying for people to come up and grab my locks, or touch my locks.

And I'm like, that's a no, no, we don't do that, you know, or at least ask, you know, because if yes, more than likely, I would say yes, but just don't come up and grab me like, you know, that's assault.

That's a fact.

Yeah, that's a fact. So yes, all of that put together, overall, I see that it's great.

And the thing that I love most now is seeing companies embrace it, but embrace it in the right way.

Um, one of my biggest fears was after George Floyd, I said, Okay, what's going to happen, all of the companies are going to take a dark skinned black woman, color her blonde, put her on a box and go, Look, we're diverse.

And I said, That's not the way that we want to go about it.

And luckily, with my brand, have some very good leaders that sat down and said, Hey, we don't know all of this, we don't understand all this.

So we're looking to you for guidance of what to do.

And I said, Well, let's start off with the things that we're not going to do, you know, and that was kind of one of them.

And they understood. And then seeing it from other brands.

They were like, Oh, okay, we get it. Now we can see exactly what you're talking about.

Um, so yeah, so that, that's kind of my, my viewpoint on it.

Sorry, went up on a tangent, pace with the shift towards natural hair, do you feel or do you feel like they're kind of lagging behind?

You know, it's a little bit of both.

A little bit of both. I think a lot of companies now are really, I don't want to say taking it serious, but taking it serious, and are giving long term plans for it.

But then, of course, there are those companies and people that are resistant to it.

And that shift is happening, but it's probably not happening as widespread or as quickly as we would like it to.

Yeah, that's fair. Shifting gears a little bit. The Crown Act is a law that bids discrimination based on hair texture and hairstyles.

It stands for create a respectful and open workplace for natural hair.

And it first went into effect in California in July of 2019.

What are your thoughts about the states that have resisted to implement the Crown Act?

Well, let me give you my PC version of that.

I don't understand the pushback on it.

Because if it's not applying to you, and if it's not hurting you or someone else, then why can't you just pass it?

And I think we all kind of understand the reasons why some states haven't adopted it.

But we're working on that. I think the more that we talk to our representatives, the more that natural hair is out there in the forefront, they will come around.

I have hope they will come around.

I'm a glass half full kind of guy. So I always want to think, one day you'll wake up and you'll look in the mirror and go, I've been a, you know what, let me change my ways.

Yeah, I mean, it's just mind boggling that people don't want to embrace natural hair, right?

I mean, if you tell somebody, you have to wear your hair curly, like imagine, you know, somebody straight being told, you better wake up every day and make sure your hair is curly going to work.

For us, it's the opposite. You better make sure your hair is straight going to work.

Or blondes, can you imagine going to work and they're like, well, I don't really think blonde is for you.

Let's change that or we're probably going to have to let you go.

Your mind would be blown because something so simple is causing such a pushback, regardless of your work experience, regardless of how well you do at work.

That's the reason why they don't want you there.

Doesn't make sense. Okay.

So looking back over your career, what were the biggest challenges that you had to overcome on your path to success?

Um, biggest challenges. Well, while we're speaking of the natural hair, you know, some of the positions that I were put in early in my career, I knew I was only there because I was the only person that could do that type of hair.

Or positions where, like I used to do a lot of fashion week.

And I know some, some shows I was only there because they had, you know, that one or two black models and nobody knew what to do.

Um, it was a negative thing.

And you kind of, you know, why you're there because people are treating you different, you know, but like I said, being a glass half full type of guy, I took that as, okay, well, let me show them what I can do.

And hopefully this is going to get other people involved or make them see how more people need to be able to do this type of hair.

Um, so that was one of the things, um, you feel before you move on, do you feel that that happened?

Do you feel that, you know, you, you getting the seat at the table because you were the only person that knew how to do that type of really did open the door for them saying, okay, well, he's talented, you know, let's, let's have them not just do that type of hair, but other types of hair or bringing in more people that knew how to do black hair.

Uh, I would like to think so.

I would like to think so. Yes. And there has been times where I got a call back and then when I came in, there wasn't a black model.

So I definitely think it lets people see it because a lot of times in their mind, well, we don't do black hair.

So that means they don't do white hair. You know what I mean? So I feel like that ship came when they started to see, cause people would say to me, you know, not so much recently, this was kind of years ago when I first started, they were like, you know, oh, well, do you do white hair?

And I would say, of course I do white hair.

I do black hair. I do red hair. Whatever color hair you want to be. I do it just so they could hear it of how stupid that sounded.

Like I'm not doing it because of the color of your skin or the color of your hair.

I'm doing it because I'm a stylist and I can do everything.

Um, and I find it so strange that even if you didn't learn it in school, which I agree school should teach it.

But if you didn't seeing the money that you're missing out on, you would think it would make people want to go and learn about textured hair on their own.

So they can just increase their, their clientele and their stylists.

And, you know, I've worked with a lot of stylists that do amazing hair on textured hair and you would never know that they're not African-American.

Yeah. Yeah. Okay. Sorry. I interrupted you. Keep going. What other challenges?

No, no, no. You're fine. Uh, sorry. Uh, what other challenges? Uh, I think the other challenge is just not being prepared for the difference of what being on set brings or being on a movie set.

Um, you know, there's kind of, I learned by trial and error.

My first shoot didn't know what to expect. I was assisting someone.

I got on set just as that person was being let go. And the director looked at me and said, well, who are you?

And I was like, well, I'm his assistant.

And he's like, well, he's fired. So now it's your job. And yeah, I had no idea what I was doing.

And, you know, so I was thinking in terms of what I would do in the salon, finish the look.

I was so proud, turn it around. It's on set. And the director goes, what's this?

And I said, oh, you know, it's my model. And he's like, I can't, can't shoot that.

And I didn't understand. Cause you know, it was like, remember when we were wearing like the big spiral curls and I was like, but it's beautiful.

And he's like, yeah, but I can't shoot that. And so, you know, went outside, sat on the curb, had my little mini meltdown, you know, dry my eyes, got back up and I was like, okay.

And so one of the other stylists came over and said, those curls beautiful in person, but think of it when you're on a set and it's a white background, the camera's just going to see all of that negative space in there.

It's not going to read the way you think it's going to read. And she's taught me how to look into the camera and see what the camera's going to see.

Talked about, you know, light and dark, negative space, positive space and how hair on set and hair for camera and film is not the same as what you're going to do in the salon because it doesn't read the same.

The techniques translate, but that in look, you have to know what it's for.

So that was kind of a big challenge was just learning the camera side of it.

And, you know, I went and took some photography classes, things like that, because then if you think like the photographer, it will help you over on.

So that's a hot tip for anybody out there wishing to get on set. We've touched on this a little bit, but I'm going to ask the question more directly.

How do you feel about diversity and inclusion in the hair industry today? Do you feel like it's come a long way, still work to do?

Like, what are your thoughts on that?

It's come a long way, but we still have a long way to go. I feel like we're just getting to the point where people are understanding the widespread problem.

And especially when you're on set or at fashion week or in movies to have a wide variety of team that can handle anything.

But most importantly, going back to what I said earlier, those stylists that want to do that need to be able to do everything that comes their way and not just pick and choose the things that they want to do.

And you can tell, especially nowadays, it's more obvious when you see that commercial and there's a Black actress or actor on there and you can just look at the hair and go, there was nobody on set that looked like them that could help them out.

You know what I mean? So I just feel like a lot of times we want to blame the schools for not teaching it.

And yes, I feel like they get some of that blame, but then also as an artist, if you know you're weak in something, then that's what you need to focus on for six months to a year to make sure that you have it down pat.

Also, I think there's been so much of people that look like us not being invited to sets or on films or, you know, fashion week that there needs to be more of that.

So I think it's a three-prong approach. We need to be invited more. The people that are already there need to be better skilled, and then schools need to do a better job of giving a well-rounded education.

Yeah. How can tech companies like us, like Laflair, better enable growth and development for minority entrepreneurs in your industry?

You know, any time we can catch someone when they're young, when they're impressionable, and go to them when they're still high school before they get to college, or even in colleges, and show them, one, that these opportunities are out there, two, have programs maybe to bring them in and educate, or mentorship programs, things like that, where they can see.

Because a lot of times, we don't know all of the things that we could do because we don't see it.

You know, sometimes the only thing you see is, I can be a rapper, I can be a sports figure, or, you know, I can start my own business.

But all of those little nuances like tech and STEM projects and hair, all of that, we don't know where all those things can lead.

So we need to see more visibility of people that look like us, as well as hear from people that look like us and come from areas that we come from, so they can better understand.

And, you know, people always say, oh, get out of your box. I don't necessarily think you have to get out of your box.

You just need to expand your box, you know, and to expand your box so you can see those things.

And that way, you can push more for those opportunities, or you'll go after those opportunities.

Because I know for me, in my past, there's been opportunities that I probably should have went after, and I probably would have got, but I kept saying, well, they're not looking for somebody like me, or I'm not qualified, or, you know, that imposter syndrome shows up, and you're like, oh, yeah, I can't be in there.

And you're like, no, no, let me just take a step back.

So all of that, sorry, I know I was just rambling there.

But it's a lot that I feel like we need to do, but mainly just being seen to let others realize this is a possibility.

Right, right. What advice do you have for aspiring hairstylists and professionals and people wanting to get into the industry?

So I would definitely say, take as many classes as you want, and invest in yourself.

Because really school is teaching you how to get your license. It can't teach you how to do hair, you have to, A, have the passion, have the drive and some talent, but foster that talent.

If you want to work with a company, go to shows, go up to someone at the show and like, hey, how can I help out?

You might have to do some free shampooing with ice cold water for a couple shows, but it pays off.

Build a relationship with products that you like, build a relationship with that company.

Now, we have the luxury of social media, which I didn't have back when I was growing up.

If you're doing videos and using products, tag the company, tag your favorite stylist, ask the photographer that you know, hey, can we do some trade and do the hair or do the makeup for that?

It's really about putting yourself out there and getting yourself seen.

I tell everybody being a hairstylist, there's so many talented people out there, you have to make your dog and pony show a little bit better than the next person.

If the people in your neighborhood are having the ponies jump through hoops, then you set your hoop on fire and have your ponies jump through that.

Because that's what it is nowadays, you're branding yourself, you are a business, regardless if you think that way or not.

And if you're not, you need to start thinking that way.

Also take some accounting classes, take some photography classes, make sure you're well rounded.

So when these opportunities come to you or you're going out there and you get those opportunities, you can show off as your best self and get asked back.

Accounting, that's an interesting class to recommend.

What aspects of the hair industry leads to the accounting knowledge?

A lot of people now are shying away from those big salons, they're going more with the salon suites.

So if you're doing that, you're running your own business.

And a lot of times we think, oh, I'm doing X amount of dollars with my clients, I can turn this into my own space, which you can, I'm not saying don't do it, but you need to understand every aspect of the business, not just how to do beautiful hair.

Like I said, your dog and pony show, expand that box, set the hoops on fire, have your ponies doing backflips through it, all of that, whatever it takes, you need to be prepared for it.

And that's why so many businesses, especially salons fail, because the stylist didn't know the business side of it.

So I say take business classes, take accounting, marketing, you need to know how you market yourself, not just through social media, I feel like a lot of, and don't get me wrong, social media is great for marketing.

But in order to do it perfect, you need to understand how real marketers market products and how they look at everything as this is a business, this is my clientele, this is how I'm going to push it to them.

Understanding all that, then whatever medium you use, you're going to be successful.

Awesome. Well, we are at time. So thank you, Mazzeh, for joining us today to talk about hair and the hair industry.

It was a pleasure speaking with you.

Thank you. Thank you for having me and take care. Have a great day.

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