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Braiding twines a way to success

Published Aug. 23, 2006

Ernisa Barnwell wants to help others learn the things she's learned, but she wants them to learn an easier way.

Barnwell opened BARDA Enterprises International as a school to teach hair braiding, but the curriculum also includes substance abuse counseling, accounting, home ownership, as well as job placement and business building.

As the business of hair braiding booms, Barnwell said, she wants to help others join but also make sure they can manage their lives and create a future. "I grew up in a salon," she said of the time she spent with her cousin, Louis Reedy, in his business, Hair Experts. "I learned things you have to go through to learn."

Reedy was brutally slain in his salon in January 2005, something Barnwell attributes to "bad associations" she witnessed. She said she went to Reedy for hairstyles but later learned hair braiding and worked with him at his Fourth Street salon. She said she watched and learned about hair and business, but also about how human frailties can lead to trouble. She wants others to profit from her experience.

"You have to come in here knowing what you want," said Barnwell, 29, who grew up with her parents in New York City, where she learned braiding.

Later, she attended Gibbs High School in St. Petersburg after her parents divorced and sent her to live with her grandparents. "We can't give you faith. We can't give you a good work ethic. But once you have all that, we can assist you."

Barnwell starts with the basics, offering a simple two-day course to help students pass a state licensing exam for hair braiding. She also teaches the more developed five-day course in specific hair-braiding techniques, including, she said, cutting-edge methods fast becoming the rage. Students can also study how to start their own salon but Barnwell throws in the other disparate life skills so her graduates can create a career and sustain it along with a healthy lifestyle.

BARDA is actually an acronym for her philosophy: beauty, art, resource, distinction and achievement.

"You're a sole contractor as a hair braider," said Barnwell, who also worked in other salons, from home and has taught privately for three years. "Advertising, marketing, taxes, you have to figure out how to do all that."

It's worth the effort, Barnwell said. She said braiding is rapidly becoming very popular, particularly the "interweaving" techniques to sew in hair extensions.

She said celebrities often use extensions to create a new look without having to grow their hair, but the allure of ideal hair is making some braiding techniques very lucrative for those few who know them.

"The money's here, the market's here," said Barnwell, who said some procedures can net a hair braider thousands of dollars for a few hours work. "Everybody wants to be more perfect. There's a huge demand, especially in Caucasian salons."

One of Barnwell's students, Tiffanye Simmons, uses braiding as a means to make ends meet while going to school at the University of South Florida.

The women's studies major has also joined Barnwell to manage an affiliated salon because she likes the way Barnwell approaches the business.

"I get where she's coming from," said Simmons, 24, who said she too has seen bright, talented people go astray for lack of skills and training. "I think it's great to see a young woman, a young black woman, offering all the tools someone could need to get through life."

Barnwell operates out of a small storefront at 3631 Central Ave., which is also home to International Hair Braiders, the salon Simmons manages. Barnwell is the daughter of a teacher as well, though she said her mother died earlier this year.

BARDA's business is still building slowly, Barnwell said, but she has graduated four students in two months of operations and is entertaining interest from many others. Though the braiding class itself costs more than $2,000, she said it can repay that investment quickly and she helps students with financial aid as well. The simple techniques she teaches can help her students find opportunity the same way Barnwell did, she said, by working and saving and believing.

"It can be a home-based business," she said. "It can be whatever you want it to be."

Paul Swider can be reached at 892-2271 or or by participating in