By Chris Olsen
Katie Steller was a tomboy growing up, but you wouldn’t know it by her obsession with vintage-inspired dresses. While the hair stylist and owner of Steller Hair Company is incredibly passionate about fashion and hair today, she once cared more about sports and Star Wars and didn’t give much thought to her appearance. Everything changed when she was 10 years old and Katie was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis. The disease changed her life in many ways that she never expected.
“Being sick forced me to grow up really quickly,” Katie said. There was no time to be carefree or participate in activities other kids her age were enjoying. Over the next seven years Katie went through several medical procedures and was forced to drop out of school twice. Eventually, the only treatment option was to have her colon removed.
As she was preparing for major surgery, Katie faced another low—she began to lose her hair. “I never cared that much about my hair,” Katie said. “Until it started to fall out.” Seeing how upset she was, Katie’s mom arranged for a special salon day with a hair stylist that was a close family friend. She had never been to a salon and the experience transformed Katie inside and out. “I was cared for in a way I never knew was possible,” she said.
That life-changing salon experience stuck with her and inspired Katie to pursue a career as a hair stylist; she even dreamed of owning a salon one day. In 2008, she began training at the Aveda Institute in Minneapolis. Katie went on to work as a stylist at a Saint Paul salon and then as an instructor at Aveda. It wasn’t long before she decided it was time to pursue her goal of becoming a shop owner. She developed a plan for a salon that offered affordable services in a casual, laid back environment.
Katie launched an online campaign to raise money for salon equipment and quickly met her fundraising goal, but it came at a price. The salon business was competitive and she discovered she would not be able to keep her job as an instructor and pursue her dreams simultaneously. For Katie, leaving her full-time gig meant giving up a steady paycheck, but perhaps more daunting was losing her medical coverage. But she wasn’t about to let it stop her from taking the leap into small business ownership and found a way to get the insurance she needed. With her start-up money in the bank, she set out to find a salon space.
Choosing a business location revealed Katie’s limited knowledge of commercial lease negotiation and zoning regulations. She went to Minneapolis-based economic development agency WomenVenture for answers. Not only did a business consultant address Katie’s questions, she was invested in her success from the get-go. She provided financial management tools for projecting sales, setting goals and creating contingencies critical for building a sustainable business. “WomenVenture helped me understand the financial risks of owning a small business so I could plan accordingly,” Katie said.
And when traditional banks were unable to do so, WomenVenture helped Katie finance her small business. “My consultant didn’t sugar coat anything,” Katie said. “She made it clear that my debt and lack of collateral would make it more difficult to get approved for financing.” Thanks to a lot of hard work on Katie’s part, and a partnership between WomenVenture and the City of Minneapolis, she was able to secure the funding she needed to get their business off the ground. Steller Hair Company opened its doors in June 2013.
Katie is committed to the well-being of her staff and to paying living wages. Katie’s motto: happy stylists equal happy clients. In addition to offering traditional salon services, Steller Hair features special events and partners with local organizations to host community fundraisers.
Today, Steller Hair is exceeding its sales goals and Katie continues to plan for growth. But perhaps equally as important, Katie’s dream has become a reality. “I love being able to care for people the way I was cared for during my first salon experience,” Katie said. “To have that kind of impact in someone’s life, and to do it every day, is so rewarding.”
About the author: Chris Olsen is a radio veteran turned communications consultant, educator and author of “Whyography: Building a Brand Fueled by Purpose”. Through her work as a consultant partnering with startups, Chris realized her WHY—to support women-owned businesses in confidently communicating their purpose and impact, setting them up for entrepreneurial success. She created My Founder Story as a platform for doing so.