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What drives you? We asked Bay Area Black business owners to share their origin stories

Fritz Clay poses for a portrait in San Francisco on Feb. 14, 2023. Fritz is the owner of Hair Play Salon. | Justin Katigbak for The Standard

As Black History Month continues, Black entrepreneurs in the Bay Area emphasize the importance of self-care as a meaningful way to celebrate.

We spoke to a handful of new and legacy Bay Area Black business owners focused on self-care about what inspired them to open. Each business owner had wisdom to share, and though they are located in different parts of the Bay Area, a common thread of struggle, perseverance and compassion for others unites them. 

Donna Orviss sits underneath the dryer hood during her appointment at Hair Play Salon, owned by Fritz Clay, in San Francisco on Feb. 14, 2023. | Justin Katigbak for The Standard

Hair Play Salon

His why: “History has conditioned Black women to believe that they are not beautiful when they wear natural hairstyles, and I have been here to empower and make change.”—Fritz Clay

For Fritz Clay of Hair Play Salon, self-esteem starts at the crown. Clay’s been doing hair for 40 years, but opened his shop 30 years ago in the La Lengua, specializing in Black women’s hair, but open to everyone. Inclusivity is one of Hair Play’s operating principles, as Clay grew up in the foster care system and knows firsthand what it’s like to feel excluded. Through his organization Lion Mane Foundation, he makes an effort to connect with parents of foster youth who struggle with doing their child’s hair—particularly if it’s a child of color—by hosting workshops on how to do their hair.

What his shop offers: Hair Play is a full-service hair salon with various beauticians who offer coloring services, cuts, extensions and natural hair care for men and women

📍 695 San Jose Ave., SF

Nurjehan De Leon, aka Gigi the Alchemist, poses in front of her holistic products. | Courtesy Hella Spiritual

Hella Spiritual

Her why: “I needed to strengthen my spiritual relationship with myself and my daughter.” —Gigi the Alchemist

“Health Is Wealth,” as the adage goes. Nurjehan De Leon—aka “Gigi the Alchemist”— the owner of Hella Spiritual, is a shining example of this. While most people were trying to figure out how to adjust to sheltering-in-place and becoming more internet-savvy when the pandemic struck, De Leon was trying to adjust to new motherhood and find work-life balance while working for Alameda County. She had always been into meditation and tapped into her spiritual wellness, but the practice took a backseat once she took on a civil service job, so she decided to take a step back, step out on faith and turn her hobby into a career. 

What her shop offers: You can order a range of anointing oils, herbal teas, meditation guides and dream enhancers. 

📍 66 Franklin St., Suite 300, Oakland

An exterior shot of Punkin's 1 Stop Beauty Bar. | Courtesy Sandra McNeil

Punkin’s 1 Stop Beauty Bar 

Her why: “I did it for my daughter who was killed on the Golden Gate Bridge. The healing process has been hard at times, but I keep my head up.” —Sandra McNeil

Sandra McNeil identifies as a “Jacqueline-of-all-trades.” She has worked as a receptionist and medical assistant over the years, but it wasn’t until she entered the construction industry that her diligence paid off. It only took her a year to build Punkin’s 1 Stop Beauty Bar, which has a hot pink and black storefront and a dollhouse-like interior. Her passion for the endeavor stems from her daughter, Lenties White—aka “Punkin”—who had always desired to own a salon in the Bayview District. White was killed by a drunk driver on the Golden Gate Bridge in 2000, so she was never able to realize this ambition. In Punkin’s honor, McNeil is now actively seeking out and hiring local beauticians who share her daughter’s aspirations. 

What her shop offers: Punkin’s salon offers hairstyling, cuts and braiding. You can also get a full set of manicures and pedicures, as well as massages.  

📍4734 Third St., SF

Sshane Thomas of Happy Soul Candles poses in front her products at an event in Eastmont. | Courtesy Sshane Thomas

Happy Soul Candles

Her why: “My mother loved burning scented candles, but lost her sense of smell when she was diagnosed with cancer.”—Sshane Thomas

After stomach cancer claimed her mother’s life, Sshane Thomas decided to open Happy Soul Candles in her honor, so she spent months in a workspace located in Oakland perfecting her candle-making craft. Thomas vends for various outdoor events like the popular Akoma Market in Oakland, and also offers her products online. She also regularly donates part of her revenue to various organizations that do stomach cancer research. Her hope is to one day also open a nonprofit that helps cancer patients get to and from their chemo appointments.

What she offers: A variety of candles made from soy wax with accessories like candle wax trimmers and wax dippers. You can also find body oils and fragrance warmers. 

📍 344 Thomas L Berkley Way, Oakland

William Lassiter shows off his wellness products at Jamaica Africa Yay Area. | Courtesy William Lassiter

Jamaica Africa Yay Area

His why: “I am trying to get people in the Black community to learn more about their health to heal because a lot of us are unhealthy and relying on programs that were not built for us.”—Will Lassiter

When a doctor told Will Lassiter that he was 50 pounds overweight, he decided then and there to become a clean eater, never eating meat. Eight years later, having explored veganism, his diet consists of natural foods, supplemented with vitamins, natural herbs and superfoods like sea moss. Lassiter’s experience with health issues, as well as knowing that the Black community in San Francisco suffers from high blood pressure and diabetes at alarming rates, inspired him to establish Jamaica Africa Yay Area. Over the years, he’s been a resource to the Black community, particularly those who sought information about how to adapt to a vegan lifestyle, but the opportunity for him to expand his business came mid-pandemic when vacant storefronts began to appear along Ocean Avenue. He was approached by a landlord about opening his business at a reduced rent, which is now Ingleside’s official natural health store.

What his shop offers: The store offers a wide range of natural healing herbs, oils, powders, vitamins, teas and superfoods. It also offers athletic gear and pan-African fashion accessories.  

📍 1608 Ocean Ave., SF