We Knew that We Could Start from the Bottom and Build It Up

Melissa and Annette Roche found inspiration in their mother’s African braid salon to build a cutting-edge business.

After spending their early years in several countries in Africa, the Roche family moved to Maryland. That’s where the story of NappStar — an innovative New York City hair salon, and sisters Melissa and Annette Roche’s labor of love — began. Now 10 years in business, Annette runs the salon’s day-to-day operations while Melissa, who lives in Maryland, manages the books and drives NappStar’s growth strategy. Here’s what Melissa told us about coming up with a business idea, turning it into a runaway success, and pushing forward through every challenge with passion and grit.

It started with a mother setting an example for her daughters.

My mom is from the Democratic Republic of Congo and my dad’s American. A couple of years after we moved to the U.S. my dad was involved in a hit-and-run accident and was unable to work — he ended up being in a coma for 14 years. And he was the primary breadwinner of our home.

Our mom used to do braids on her friends’ hair. And now she’s an older woman with three kids and a sick husband. So she started doing braids and eventually opened her salon.

As kids, we saw the drastic change in our lifestyle when my dad was no longer working. We knew we had to help our mom take care of our home. We’d come in and help her take care of stuff, help take care of clients.

It wasn’t just a job; it was something that our mom was building.
Melissa Roche

This created a lot of bonding, but it was also something we knew we had to do to make sure there was a roof over our heads. We were very aware of that. It instilled a strong sense of work ethic in both me and Annette. It’s very personal to us. It wasn’t just a job; it was something that our mom was building. Already at a young age we had a sense of ownership.

Two sisters, two skill sets, one shared vision

I went to school and got a degree in finance, and then started looking for jobs — but I am totally not this person. I did not want to wear a suit, I did not want to wake up at six o’clock in the morning and go into a building and be bored. It’s just not me.

But I do like the numbers. I was thinking about all the people who love what they do, what they’re hugely successful at, and what comes easy to them. And I thought, well, me and my family do this easily. It was easy for us to get into and to excel at it.

So I called Annette. “Annette, I think we should open a shop.” I called a New York cosmetology school and within three weeks I moved there. That’s when we knew: “alright, we’re doin’ this.” That got the ball rolling. There was no turning back. And that was 10 years ago. Annette’s all about the aesthetics of everything, and I’m more about the books and the money. We took references from things that we saw at my mom’s shop — what we liked and what we didn’t like — and incorporated it into our business.

We both came from an entrepreneurial mindset and saw my mom do it — and it wasn’t like she was a millionaire. We knew that we could start from the bottom and built it up.

NappStar developed its distinct value alongside its community

We primarily specialize in locs, dreadlocks. Our process is to do the twisting, freshening up your roots, and doing color. We really wanted to fill in that gap for people who want to be professional but also want to wear their hair in a natural locs style. That’s the angle we pushed: of dreadlocks being professional and edgy.

We don’t do any straightening in our salon. We have a lot of clients from the natural-hair movement — black women and their natural hair, it’s definitely gone through a movement over the last 10 years. And we were one of the people who were in the forefront.

What I love about my clients is their authenticity. Everyone is allowed to be who they are and they let us be who we are.
Melissa Roche

A lot of our clients were working in very corporate positions or for the U.S. government — places with a white man’s standard of what a black woman’s hair should be. Our clients are breaking that mold. Women and men in very high positions who wanted dreadlocks — we made sure that they looked professional at all their meetings. They come to work looking good, but they are able to wear what they feel comfortable in. That was very important to us.

In our group training we talk about how it’s like going to a Beyoncé concert. We want our clients to feel like they are Beyoncé for the day. When you come in everything looks clean, candles are on so that it smells good, and you don’t have to wait. When you are getting your hair done, your stylist is talking to you — you’re having a pleasant conversation. When you walk out you have an amazing style, you’re happy, you feel great inside — and you look great on the outside. You pre-book your next appointment because you want to come back and have this amazing service again.

What I love about my clients is their authenticity. Everyone is allowed to be who they are and they let us be who we are.

Finding motivation, a decade into the journey

My family pushes me. I have two boys and a husband and I want them to be proud of me. I want them to know that their mother and wife is a hardworking woman. My mom and my sister push me: we built this together. It’s something that we all worked so hard for and it keeps getting better and better. We are always reaching for the next level. And there’s also our clientele. They support us so much. The clients that have been there for 10 years, they’re so proud of us as we go through every milestone.

It’s every facet. Our employees, too. Because maybe they started as a shampoo girl and now one of them is a lead stylist or moving into a managerial position — and hopefully within the next five years she’ll be opening her own NappStar. I love the fact that people are able to grow in my business.

Overcoming challenges, one loc at a time

One early challenge we had is us being young black women: I feel like a lot of people didn’t take us as seriously as they should have. “Hey, you can’t do this on our property!” No — this is my business. They needed to respect me and what I’m saying.

But overall I think we’ve been received very positively. If you take the right steps and you do the research, you know what you’re getting yourself into.

It’s funny — our mom was always like, “Melissa, don’t depend on a man. Go to school, get your education, and do what you want to do!” And after I did all that and told her, “mom, we’re gonna open a salon,” her response was “oh my god, no don’t do that, go get a regular job.” I said, “wait, no, you didn’t teach me that — you said to go do what we wanted to do and I want to do something that I love.” Now she’s super proud of us. She loves it.

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