For almost 15 years, Melony Armstrong has owned her own natural hair braiding business, Naturally Speaking, in Tupelo, Miss. Starting from scratch, she now employs 25 people and has trained more than 125 people how to braid.
But becoming a braiding entrepreneur meant Armstrong had to untangle Mississippi’s mess of cosmetology laws. First, she had to spend 300 hours in a “wigology” class that doesn’t teach braiding. Out of Mississippi’s 40 schools, only two taught wigology. Neither was in her hometown of Tupelo but she was able to convince a local cosmetologist to teach that course to her. After she completed the course, Armstrong opened Naturally Speaking in 1999.
When Armstrong wanted to pass on her skills to others, she learned she had to take an additional 3,200 hours to become a licensed cosmetology instructor. Perversely, the state awarded licenses to cosmetology instructors to teach braiding who had no experience braiding, even as it forbade experienced braiders from teaching their craft (unless they sacrificed three years and thousands of dollars to learn unrelated skills to earn the license). So braiding students had no skilled and legal instructors to learn from. In effect, Mississippi outlawed both the teaching and learning of African-style braiding as a business.
With the help of the Institute for Justice, she launched a civil rights lawsuit in August 2004. In response to the case, Mississippi passed a bill freeing braiders from cosmetology licensure. Instead, they need only to pay a $25 registration fee with the Board of Health, post basic health and sanitation guidelines at their places of business and complete a self-test on that information.
The positive impact Armstrong has had on her community was profiled in the Institute for Justice’s report, The Power of One Entrepreneur: Melony Armstrong, African Hairbraider. Most recently, she testified before Congress in March 2014, calling for licensing reform as a way to strengthen entrepreneurship.