Sabrina Fisher Reece (front) poses with her staff in front of Braids by SaBrina as they celebrated 15 years in business. (Photo credit: Fred Carter Photography)
Compton Native’s Story: from Welfare to Successful Business Owner, celebrates 15 years in business and one that both Lawmakers and Single Mothers Can Celebrate
Special to the Sentinel by Jasmyne A. Cannick
SaBrina Fisher Reece, 41, and Braids by SaBrina celebrated 15 years of business Saturday, April 16 with a community open house event. Among those who attended included Councilmembers Jan Perry and Bernard Parks. During the event SaBrina was presented with awards from Congresswoman Karen Bass, the Los Angeles City Council, Assemblymember Isadore Hall III, and the City of Compton.
It’s been nearly two decades SaBrina Fisher Reece, 41, used her sister’s discarded braid extensions to teach herself how to braid. After practicing on herself and dolls, she moved up to braiding the hair of her classmates for $20 at Compton’s Centennial High School to raise extra money.
A Compton native, her grandmother raised her from age of 3 months after her mother, who was addicted to crack, put her in a suitcase and tried to kill her but was stopped by a passerby.
Sadly, her father who was an alcoholic, died when she was just ten.
Having escaped the clutches of Los Angeles County’s Department of Children and Family Services, SaBrina lived a relatively happy childhood growing up in Compton with her grandmother. A student at Centennial High School,
SaBrina was popular and captain of the cheerleading squad. But that all ended the day she witnessed her grandfather murder her grandmother. She was 17.
“That was the most traumatic thing to ever happen to me,” SaBrina remembers. “It’s something that still haunts me to this very day and changed me forever.”
While SaBrina managed to graduate from high school, her life was never the same. For the first time in her life since she was a 3-month-old baby, she was alone in the world to fend for herself. She quickly made the decision to marry her boyfriend as a means of survival.
“I just remember that I was scared to be alone and I really didn’t know what to do.”
It wasn’t soon after she got married that she had her first child at the age of 20, a son she named Justin.
Still braiding, but not solely dependent on it as a means of income because her husband was the breadwinner in the family, SaBrina had built up a steady stream of clients in her home on 126th and Compton Avenue.
But in 1991, just after three years of marriage, she separated from her husband and found herself on welfare and food stamps trying to raise her son, alone.
“A new mom, alone, it’s one thing to be single and alone in the world, but when you have baby that depends on you for everything, it’s up to you to make a way. I was determined to be a better mother than my mother was to me.”
It’s at this point in her life, SaBrina decided to take her love of braiding to another level. She started off with signs made by hand from materials she’d purchased at Thrifty Drugstore. Each sign made with her trademarked capital B in “SaBrina,” she put her signs up all over South Los Angeles.
Shortly after her marketing efforts began, a community tragedy proved to be a lucky coincidence for SaBrina when on April 29, 1992, the four officers accused of beating Rodney King were acquitted and the 1992 Los Angeles uprising resulted in the beating of Reginald Denny, a white construction truck driver on the corner of Normandie and Florence. Every news crew flocked to that now infamous intersection to report live from the scene, and in the background were SaBrina’s signs.
Her phone started ringing off the hook almost immediately with Black women making appointments to get their hair done.
Still working out of her house, SaBrina was now doing three to five clients per day starting as early as 5 a.m. and ending around 1 a.m. As her clientele grew, SaBrina hired a neighborhood girl to work with her at her house.
In March 1996, as she was driving down Normandie, she saw a “for rent” sign on a building at 65th street.
“I remember being scared of failure,” she explains. “It’s so easy to just work out of your house, but to actually step out and start a real business was huge step for me.”
SaBrina rented that building and immediately began marketing to the residents that a braid salon was coming to their neighborhood.
With no formal education in business or marketing, on her first day of business SaBrina had five employees and five customers.
SaBrina stayed on 65th and Normandie for a year and admits that she made a whole lot of mistakes in that time.
“I learned by trial and error,” she says. “I didn’t know what I was doing in the beginning but as my business grew, so did I.”
She eventually made the decision to move due to the high crime in the area and the fact that oftentimes, her and her employees worked late hours causing them to be alone in the shop long after most other businesses had closed for the day.
She found a location on Adams Boulevard just west of Labrea that she rented for $350 a month, increased the number of braiders she employed, and stepped up her advertising to include local Black newspapers.
Because of her background and humble beginnings, SaBrina always took a lot of pride in hiring local neighborhood girls in an effort to help them take the first steps of independence and get off welfare. Over the past 15 years, she’s hired 916 women.
“I hire women with the thought that they will use this job as a stepping stone on their own path. For some of my girls, this is the first job that they have ever had.”
As SaBrina grew and learned, she tried to pass on the same information to her employees, most of whom were high school dropout single mothers on welfare living in South L.A.
“When I learned about mutual funds and opened my first savings accounts at Broadway Federal Bank and TD Waterhouse, I invited my financial advisor to the shop to meet with my employees to teach them about saving for the future and what steps they could take. I wanted to uplift and motivate them and teach them to stop using the excuse that they are the product of crackhead parents, the foster care system, or high school dropouts for failure. So was I, and I didn’t let that stop me from going after my dreams. “
In 1998, SaBrina was the target of an undercover sting by the California State Board of Cosmetology in an effort to tax and govern braid salons in the same manner that barber shops and beauty salons were, and required that hair braiders become licensed as cosmetologists. After a two year court battle, where the state board used confiscated hair clips and hair gel as their evidence, SaBrina along with the American Hairbraiders & Natural Haircare Association (AHNHA) and support from Republican state senator Ray Haynes fought off legislation requiring that hair braiders become licensed as cosmetologists, a story that eventually wound up in the Wall Street Journal.
“At the time, I really didn’t understand the impact all of this would have on the braid industry, but now I understand.”
After that, SaBrina’s business increased dramatically and she went from handmade signs marketing her business to having signs professionally made a move that caught the attention of the bureaucrats down at City Hall who eventually came after her for being in violation of Los Angeles’ Municipal Code prohibiting the posting of signs on the fences of abandoned property.
SaBrina’s tenacity and spunk allowed her to take photos of her signs which were posted next to political candidates running for office-who were not in violation of the same rule. She also hired an attorney. The District Attorney offered SaBrina probation which she refused. She’d never had a criminal record and wasn’t about to agree to one. Eventually the D.A. dropped the case altogether.
As she worked hard to build her business over the past fifteen years, SaBrina had two other children: Joi, 16, and Jayden, 9.
And as her business continued to grow, she put her newly acquired business savvy to good use and purchased her first home in 2000 and enrolled her children in private school ensuring that they’d have a better education than she did. Having never left California or even Los Angeles County, except to go to Sacramento and testify at a senate hearing, SaBrina got her passport and started traveling, including to Hawaii and Belize.
Something SaBrina says that she’ll never forget is purchasing her trademark Hummer H2.
“I went to Penske Hummer in Torrance with $9,000,” she recalls. “I had worked really hard to save up that money to put down on my Hummer. I remember walking in and asking if there were any Black sales reps because I wanted to make sure a Black person got the commission. The Black sales rep either didn’t think I could afford the Hummer or just didn’t want to help me. I just remember her making me feel lower than the dirt on the ground. I was devastated and felt defeated. I ended up getting my Hummer from a white man at another dealership who had my car in 24 hours ready for me.”
While she makes a good living, SaBrina says that she still lives a relatively modest and sheltered life with her main focus being her children and her business.
Throughout the growth and expansion of her business, Braids by SaBrina has serviced over 10,000 clients including singer Natalie Cole, Usher, and Sanford and Son’s Lynn Hamilton. Besides the traditional braid styles often worn by Black women, SaBrina has expanded her services to include twists, loc extensions braid weaves, and loc maintenance–which has brought her customers from as far Thailand, Canada, Hawaii and Costa Rica. Closer to home, SaBrina is responsible for the maintenance and care of former Oakland Raider wide receiver Jerry Porter. While Black women still make up the majority of her clientele, white women and Latino men have also boosted her business profile.
In addition to running Braids by SaBrina, SaBrina is currently working on her autobiography and making time to speak to underprivileged inner city youth and young women as a motivational speaker. She continues to teach others how to braid through the educational component of her business, which since 1998 has taught over 360 students how to braid her properly. Later this year, her trademark style of braiding will be available on DVD as SaBrina extends her wings even further.