At a young age, Stephen Greene knew that there was more to life than the chaos that surrounded his youth and was uprooted from one tumultuous environment to another. Stephen, owner of BeUnique, a professional grooming lounge located in Little Rock, Arkansas recounts growing up in Oakland, California, “it was tough already, being eight years old, seeing people run in the house getting shot…waking up, looking outside your window seeing dead bodies.” Stephen’s yearning for more set him on a wayward path to entrepreneurship.
When asked about the steps he took to becoming a successful business owner, Stephen gives context to his journey, explaining how it “stems from a person that graduated resource. A person that was labeled uneducated. Didn’t fit in. Couldn’t even write a complete sentence or read a paragraph. I taught myself all these things.”
Despite his setbacks, Stephen took the initiative to bring his ideas to life and applied for a business license prior to starting barber school. His advice to up-and-coming entrepreneurs: “Mindsets are meant to be broken. So if we break our mindset and we know that we are unique we can create and do anything.”
Share a little bit about your background—where you grew up and anything else that comes to mind.
I grew up in Oakland, California until I was ten years old and we moved to Little Rock, Arkansas. The reason we moved to Little Rock was because my dad was addicted to heroin and my mom was struggling by herself. She’s from Arkansas so she decided to move here. Throughout that transition I was the oldest sibling out of four, and I felt like I had to take on that responsibility to display what a lifestyle is supposed to look like for not only my siblings but for my mother as well. When we moved here I became that alpha male—on that long train ride I became that alpha male.
We moved here and it was a struggle for the whole time. We grew up in Oakland so it was tough already. Being eight years old, seeing people run in the house getting shot by your—your teacher. Like, it’s crazy. It’s mind blowing—waking up, looking outside your window seeing dead bodies. Like, I know I’m in this situation but this is not a normal life. I’m going to go get that life that I know for a fact can be lived.
So, fast forward after a lot of fights. After going to jail a couple of times—I was seventeen years old and I was working at Taco Bell and there was this Black gentleman—he was probably about twenty-three years old—he rode through and he had a Range Rover. And I’m like, how’d you get that Range Rover? He was like, it’s definitely not working here at Taco Bell and he drove off. I was seventeen and I’m thirty-three now and that stuck with me forever. The next day I quit and I joined the military.
As for the military, I loved it. I was on my own taking care of my responsibilities. Taking care of my family at home, sending them money and showing them what life could be if you just believe in yourself. I was doing that for a long time. I enjoyed it and I just picked up a pair of clippers. I was in New York at the time. They weren’t cutting to that quality for the amount that they were charging, so I was like okay, I’m just going to pick up some clippers on YouTube. First thing [buzzing sound] messed up! All bad! I threw the clippers away. Two weeks later, I bought some more and I just kept doing it and I started lining my hair up. Before I knew it I had people asking me, “who cut your hair?” and I started cutting their hair and I’m jacking up everybody six months straight. What’s surprising to me is that they continued to come back for that jacked up haircut. So I’m like, ‘it has to be more than just the haircut for them. They want my energy.’ That’s me thinking—I’m young. ‘They want my energy,’ so I kept cutting and as I continued to cut I got better.
At that time I had gotten injured in the military when I was in Iraq and I had just found out I was having a son. When I came back, I was in a depressed state of mind because all my friends were in Iraq. They had to take over my responsibilities and I’m the type of person that if this is my responsibility I’m going to do it, and when I got back like I said, I was depressed. My wife at the time and I were going through stuff and she had just found out she was pregnant and I was lost, so I filled that emptiness with being addicted to Hydros (Hydrocodone) and Percocets. It was so bad to where I’m sniffing them—just doing crazy things and not knowing my true value. I had a wreck, and this is right before my son was born, and I almost killed somebody. By the grace of God, I was blessed with another opportunity. At that time I just prayed and I’m like well, God just show me my purpose, show me what I’m supposed to do in life. And he kept revealing a barbershop to me, over and over in my mind when I was sleep. I bought a book and started writing stuff down and I looked back after six months of writing things down and I knew I had a business plan and I’m like whoa—I love being a barber and I love cutting hair, let me just do this. After that, I decided that I didn’t want to be in the military anymore after twelve years. I retired and became a barber and everything that I wrote down in that book started to happen. But that’s not including all the downfalls and all the people that let me down throughout this journey.
Whenever you moved to Little Rock was the environment anything like what it was in Oakland?
Yes, it was because it was like we went from hood to hood. We went from being just five people in the house to being eleven people in the house. We moved here and we stayed with my auntie who had five or six kids including her and her husband and on top of my mom and her responsibilities. So, it was a struggle within that and you have somebody who doesn’t know themself—they came from tragedy—still trying to protect and take care of their family on top of still going to another environment that’s already packed. So, it was a struggle and I isolated myself a lot—my mindset. Back then people used to call it crazy because you’re not fitting in with society, but now me looking back I knew that was the best thing for me because my thoughts are different than other people’s. That’s how you become a creator. You have to have that meditation and isolation. It was challenging, which is why I turned to violence. I used to fight a lot, steal, start stuff—only because I was lost. I didn’t know who I was.
So, something sparked inside of you to understand, ‘I have a different way of thinking and I want better for myself.’ Do you remember what sparked that shift in mindset? Was it being in that environment, because people grow up in certain environments all their life and they do the same thing every day? How were you able to have self-control and actually invested the effort to change?
I was about ten when I really knew that the life that was presented to me was not the life that I was willing to accept. And I say that because I had a best friend named Cody—I used to go to his house all the time. His mom and dad were there, they lived in a lavish house—my siblings never did that. They never went to their friend’s house. I was always the rebellious one, like, I want to go over there. I used to always ask the question “why?”, “why not?” Back then it was “because I said so.” For me that wasn’t enough. I’m going to do it regardless. My mom recognized that so she let me be freer than everybody else and at that time I just knew—life is different. What was presented to me was my house, my foundation, and it was all hood. I couldn’t recognize something different until I got off the porch and walked across the street to see how these people were living. Just channeling my thoughts—growing up for a long time I just heard that I was weird. I always heard that I was different and growing up in a society where you don’t have answers to a question it’s troubling for somebody who knows they’re here for a better calling.
You said that you started writing things down and that was pretty much your business plan. So, what steps did you take from that point to really bring your brand and vision to life?
This stems from a person that graduated resource. A person that was labeled uneducated. Didn’t fit in. Couldn’t even write a complete sentence or read a paragraph. I taught myself all these things—YouTube, Instagram, social media, just learning how other people interact with people and learning to read people.
From my thoughts to the book, and the book to action was me saying I can do this. Before I knew it, I applied for a business license before I even started barber school. I’m like well, if I say for a fact I’m going to do this then I have to do it. When I took that step, I knew I had to have some substance included with that business license, so I started doing that about a year before I got out of the military.
Okay and is that what started BeUnique? Or did you come up with something prior to what you currently have?
Yeah, I had like eighteen different names; New Image, Spitting Image—had so many different names! BeUnique stuck with me because I was the odd ball in a room full of people. I’m different and I know I’m different and other people call it weird but everybody loves my awkwardness. That’s just being different and the only way I can be that is to be unique. I looked it up and I’m like, this is it. It stuck with me and I put it on paper. My biggest battle out of my whole life, despite everything I went through was me—knowing the person that I see in the mirror.
I hear you keep saying people thought you were weird, but I feel like a lot of that just stems from unfamiliarity. They’re not used to seeing things they don’t see every day. To them, you were weird or awkward. With BeUnique, have you always been in the same location?
Yep, we’ve been in the same location. Before I opened the shop, I was just sight-seeing. I would sit there for hours to see how much traffic was going through and to see the diversity that was coming through. I went to two other places and it was the traffic that I was looking for. I asked them like twice if I could rent from them and it was a thousand excuses as to why I couldn’t. It almost made me want to give up, like this shit ain’t it, I’ll go back to the military, but I just kept going. The last person that I encountered believed in my vision and they allowed me to rent a spot from here and four years later we’ve got two different locations and we’re actually expanding.
Whenever you first started out, were you the only master barber or did you already have a team of people that were going to come in and do different services?
Probably like a couple of weeks before we opened it was nobody. I’m like well shoot, I’ll make this work regardless—and I say that to this day—even if I have nobody in the salon or the barber shop, I’ll make it to where they still stay open. I had that mindset and me just knowing that I could do it by myself, I think that encouraged other people to come to the shop. When I opened, I had two master barbers that have been in the industry for more than ten years and I still have one on my team who has been in for twenty years plus and he’s my manager now. It was three of us!
What other services are offered in your shops?
The thing that we actually promote is grooming services, so not only do you get the haircut, but we also offer shampoos, hot towels, neck massages, head massages, bald head therapy, feet massages—all of this is included at the barber shop and then we do the same thing for the salon as well.
How has being located in Arkansas’ capital city impacted your business?
For a long time, I kept thinking like, man it’s so much more money out there. I could take this idea and run with it to Texas or Oklahoma or New York and be a millionaire, but something about Arkansas is still holding me back. Arkansas is missing a lot of the essential things— the better living. We can go to Los Angeles or North Dakota and see people living a high standard of life. Here in Arkansas we don’t have that and I say that because a lot of people with these great ideas move to places that already have great ideas established. So, I told myself I’ll create that for Arkansas. I’ll be the change for Arkansas, my team will be the change and we’re going to show people what good quality feels like. That’s why I’m still in Arkansas, something continues to tie me back here.
Even with the types of services that you’re offering, I know a lot of—or maybe even a few years ago—a lot of barbershops were not offering bald head treatments or facial massages, nothing really grooming related other than ‘give me a bald fade’ or something other than that. So, the things that you’re doing now is definitely an upgrade from not only what the barbering industry is used to in the south, but Arkansas specifically. So, that’s good. What are some misconceptions that people have of your field and how do you combat that?
I think the reason why it took me so long to become a barber is because people had this stipulation on barbers saying that they don’t make a lot of money, they’re hood, they’re not professional, all barbershops are in the hood area and that’s all they do—it’s not a real career. That’s what I kept hearing before I actually ended a career that I already had established and I knew for a fact I could complete.
So, by me coming into it while I was writing my ideas down, I looked up the most that a barbershop owner makes and a stylist. I said, well how can I do that plus more. How can I create a different standard— and I’m twenty-two at the time just thinking about these things not knowing that I could complete them. I just knew what I wanted when somebody provides a service. So, having to battle stipulations or that standard that most people were used to living and creating something different to say this is a profession. We can make six figures easily. We can have an organized life and be looked at as if we’re professionals because we went to school and got educated for these things. I was just focused on setting new standards— setting new boundaries. Also, not only for me, but for my team that I impact the most.
I also think that with those misconceptions with your field—it’s one of those if you were incarcerated, oh let me go be a barber. So, I feel it’s a stigma that’s attached to it because it offered felons an opportunity to learn a trade. So that may also be a reason why people think “they’re all thugs”.
Yep! But that’s not the case because I know a lot of felons that are barbers that are doing excellent in life. Just because you made a mistake in your past doesn’t mean that you can’t be in a profession to where you’re successful. Right now to this day they’re still trying to isolate felons from becoming barbers and I disagree with that because a lot of people— this is their last opportunity to be something great. If we eliminate that opportunity, it’ll make it harder for a felon to live a regular life.
Yeah, it’s already hard for them anyway. So, I think it’s great that they can go into professions like these and boss up, personally.
Yeah, facts. For real!
I notice that you bring a lot of fun and your personality to your workspace. What do you enjoy the most about what you do and how do you keep such a positive spirit?
Alright, so let me go with the negative first. How do I keep such a positive spirit? I do that because I go through so much stuff throughout one day that if I just focus on all my negatives I would cry—I’d break down. I wouldn’t be the person who I am today. So, when I smile, it’s not for other people—it’s for myself. Saying, despite what’s going on, you can still find a positive out of any situation that arises because situations are coming. It’s up to you to dictate if it’s a positive thing or a negative thing.
The thing that continues to allow me to go on with a smile is me being able to put a smile on not just the client’s faces, but my employees’ faces. They go through their life struggles, but every day they’re able to create an atmosphere that’s warming and welcoming, saying that you can let everything go and be happy here in this one good moment for forty-five minutes—if I can create that then I know I’m changing the world. These “crazy” thoughts allow me to wear a smile and it’s not a mask. It’s not protecting none of my hurt, it’s not protecting none of my pain—it’s just me showing this is how much energy I have inside myself. Forget all the negative, once I focus on the positive, I become a better person.
Do you have any other creative interests or outlets?
I do. I want to be in real estate and my vision with real estate is to be able to create a community and everybody in this community enjoys life. It’s so hard for people to smile and actually enjoy their day in society now, so that’s my biggest thing. And then, I want to be a philanthropist. I want to write a book. Despite where I’m at right now, I want to travel and be a motivational speaker. Coming into this industry I didn’t know it was going to be a gateway to something else.
What little bit that I heard of your story at the beginning I feel like people can definitely take that and be motivated. Not only are you a successful barber and business owner, you’re also a father. What impact do you feel that you’re making on your sons and other youth who may look up to you?
I know I’m making a huge impact on society. I adopted my two brothers and in the midst of me adopting them, my grandmother had kidney failure and she was taking care of them. So, I became her caregiver. I moved all of them from Oakland and they’ve been with me for seven years. My biggest thing I’ll tell my kids is if you’re going to stay in this house you’re going to be great every day. It’s a choice, and everything you can do you may not be the best, but you’re going to try your hardest. By me doing that, I can see them—not only with the educational level or with jobs or careers—I see them trying to be a better person every single day. That’s my motivation.
At any point in your career did you have moments of doubt about your path, and how did you persevere?
Oh yeah! Starting off with the military, I knew I had to have a waiver to get into the military because I scored low on my ASVAB (Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery). My eyes were jacked up, everything was going against me, and I just kept saying ‘I’m going to get into it.’
So starting there, I already knew that I was behind. I got through that little hump, and then when I started as a barber, my mentor—I was telling him all my plans—knew that I was adopting my brothers and taking care of my grandmother. At this time, I had a child and was about to have another baby, so there’s a lot of stuff going on—trying to buy a house, open a barber shop. I told him all these things, and he’s like, “Yeah man. I got you. I’m going to take care of you.” The next day I got fired while in the process of adopting my brothers. At that time, I’m like, ‘well, life’s not going as planned—I’ll just go back to the military. I know it’s solid. I can do ten more years and I’ll be retired’, but something in me kept saying no, keep going.
I took a step back, but when I took a step back, I started running. Since then a lot of things have been happening. I work better when I can manage my feelings through a tragedy—through hard times. So I encourage the hard times to come because it makes me develop a better mindset. It makes me a better person and it makes me know that I can accomplish this. When it’s too easy, I become complacent.
If this were my last conversation with anybody, I would want people to know their true power within themselves. Just know who you are, and not just the good stuff, the image, your body, or your physique. It’s the bad stuff that you can recognize inside yourself, and confronting that and making that a part of you. It’s people in your life that want to change who you are, but people that really love you don’t judge you for who you are. They accept you for who you are. As long as you can accept yourself, that’s when you’ll find true happiness or true love—and I’m not talking about with someone else, but with yourself.
That’s a really great way to look at it. Like you said, you need those hard times to help shape you into who you are because a lot of us—we’re scared of hard times and figuring out how to maneuver through them. But there’s definitely beauty in the struggle and I see that from talking to you. You have a lot of beauty within the the things that you’ve been through. What are some of your proudest moments?
My proudest moment was when I was overseas and I found out that my wife at the time was pregnant. She cheated on me when I was overseas, she spent all my money, I got hurt in combat, I had to go to Germany depressed, but when I found out I was having a son, that gave me a little spark. That spark fueled my fire. I felt proud when I had both of my kids and I adopted my brothers at age twenty-five. I was able to take care of somebody who used to take care of me when I was crying because my dad wasn’t there since he was addicted to heroin, you see what I’m saying? That’s my proudest moments.
It’s not about opening the shop because—oh, I’ll say that, too. Another proud moment for me is the process of creating something. During that time, I’m very creative. I’m moving more. I’m more energetic. Whenever it comes I’m like whoa, I did that.
Alright, next thing. It’s not that I want to be the person that says “I own this. I own this. I own this.” I want to be the person to say “I worked to open this and create this idea.” The creation process is the most beautiful feeling of all.
What advice do you have for those looking to enter into your profession and for those who want to own something?
Be unique. That’s for anybody who wants to do anything in life. Nobody can ever tell you that you cannot do it. You don’t have to have the mindset of somebody that’s already gone through this journey. You don’t have to have the business credentials of someone who went through the same journey. They created their own path, and have their own rules and regulations. Rules are meant to be broken. Regulations are meant to be broken. Mindsets are meant to be broken. So if we break our mindset and we know that we are unique, we can create and do anything.
I’m into real estate now. Never been to school for real estate. I’m a business owner. I’m a businessman. Never been to school for business. Never been to college! I’m a salesman now. I own my own product line. Never been to school for any of that.
I self-taught myself. Thank you, YouTube. All this stuff was self-taught and it all started from me knowing that no one can dictate who I am—nobody. I don’t care who you are. I want new entrepreneurs to break rules. Break your mindset. Break everything that you’ve been taught. Know that you’re unique. Know that you’re different and you have to let the world see that. Famous people don’t become famous by following the trend, they become famous because they set the trend. So, set your own trends. Create your own legacy. Create your own destiny. Create your own life.
So, that pretty much sums up our interview unless you want to go over anything that we didn’t cover. Is there anything that comes to mind?
Alright, so here in Arkansas—like I said, we’re setting a standard. A lot of men aren’t used to being able to go to a spot, to an environment where they can be pampered. A lot of times, when we drive around to our nearest nail salon we see a lot of women being pampered with pedicures, manicures, facial massages. My thought process was I like to be pampered—so why can’t I create that for men and show them that it’s okay for a hard-working man to get his feet done? It’s okay for a hard-working man to take care of his nails, get a massage, or a facial. We’re creating an environment where it’s okay for a man to take care of himself, and that’s what we’re working on now. Stay tuned! We’re creating a new world.
I like that—men accepting ‘we can be pampered, too’. Have you had any men who still aren’t comfortable with the idea of getting a facial or getting their feet done? Because that’s like that toxic masculinity or you know, those double standards. What are your thoughts?
When I first started, I was in the hood in north Little Rock—I put a hot towel on somebody’s face, massaged it, and he said, ‘aw what the hell you doin’?’ He wasn’t used to it and I was the only one in there. I’m talking about, over and over and over again, having to rub the back of their neck. They didn’t like it, but now over time if I miss that step, using a hot towel, a facial, or a neck massage, my clients feel like I’m cheating them for what they know that the standard is. So, I don’t have those issues anymore, but in the beginning it was tough. I was the only one listening to different types of music in the shop. I’m throwing off the energies. I say, ‘okay, well if this doesn’t work here I know if I create my own spot I can make it happen’. So, I’m creating the atmosphere.
So you have stylists in your shop as well, right?
Because you know with barbershops—they’re very male dominated and you don’t see women. They don’t usually have stylists in there. I remember going to the barber shop with my brother—it’s a male dominated environment. I think it’s interesting that you created an atmosphere that’s inclusive.
Thank you. It started off with respect. Respecting yourself and respecting other people. We change the music on a constant basis. Sometimes you’ll hear a little hip-hop depending on the crowd that’s in there, but majority of the time we keep it real subtle. We have a lot of attorneys, judges, police officers, lawyers—they come in here and I wanted to be able to create that environment for predominantly African Americans that are actually living the life they want to life, but they don’t have to go to a hood spot because they don’t feel comfortable. So, when I hand selected my clients, I designed my atmosphere around them.
Also—that just made me think of something else. With the diversity, why is it important for you to be able to cut and style different types of hair? I’m sure you don’t only have Black male clients. A variety of textures. A variety of cultures. So, what’s the importance of being versatile in that way?
I could never ask a barber in my salon to cut straight hair if I don’t know how to cut straight hair. I can’t tell you to clean the toilet if I don’t clean the toilet. I have to be the example, I can’t just say it, but I have to be on that forefront to show you what the standard is. Once again, creating that standard.
How can we stay connected with you?
BeUnique and then Smooth The Barber. My full name is Stephen Greene. I used to hide from Stephen Greene because I didn’t know who Stephen Greene was, so I created a person by the name Smooth The Barber in the mirror. I practiced on that everyday until I became smooth and I practiced on that every day until I became a barber. Now I’m in my phase where I’m going back to Stephen Greene because I’m comfortable with Stephen Greene now.