Lacquerbar Nail Salon Founder Heli Rodriguez Prilliman Is Taking Steps To Rectify The Broken Beauty School System
When Heli Rodriguez Prilliman enrolled at the now defunct San Francisco School of Cosmetology in January 2017 to become a licensed nail technician in anticipation of launching her overtly feminist nail salon concept Lacquerbar, she was shocked by the state of beauty education.
Students pay large sums – a recent New York Times article reveals for-profit cosmetology schools charge on average $17,000 for tuition, fees and supplies – for substandard training Rodriguez Prilliman argues doesn’t teach them how to turn their licenses into lucrative careers. Once out of school, hairstylists, aestheticians and nail techs are often saddled with debt, earn low wages ($9 an hour is normal), and forced to work second and third jobs to survive.
“These schools are super predatory,” says Rodriguez Prilliman. “They target low-income communities of color. They will go into black and brown neighborhoods and help them take out credit cards for school. They leave not being able to pay back the money.”
For Lacquerbar, which opened in Berkeley shortly after Rodriguez Prilliman finished nail school, she laments faulty beauty curricula that satisfies state requirements, but doesn’t address the realities of being a manicurist, means nail techs come in unprepared to meet the demands of clients and grow their businesses. The nail salon has instituted a 30-hour training program to ready its employees for a service menu featuring nail art and hard gel extensions.
“Every person we hire, we have to start from square one because they hardly learned anything in school. We are having to spend time retraining them on the newest techniques,” says Rodriguez Prilliman. “Clearly, we need to build schools, not necessarily physical schools – that could be in the future, for sure – but at least online programming where it’s affordable to get the skills you need, and you can do it wherever you are.”
“Every person we hire, we have to start from square one because they hardly learned anything in school. We are having to spend time retraining them on the newest techniques.”
Lacquerbar is designing that programming for Lacquerbar U, an upcoming live-streaming beauty education platform designed to address the gaps Rodriguez Prilliman identifies in existing nail courses at cosmetology schools. Although she’s set on spreading Lacquerbar salons while she’s developing Lacquerbar U, Rodriguez Prilliman projects the platform could became the biggest revenue driver for her business due to its potential reach.
“The Lacquerbar salons hit a cap. Every location can make $1 million in revenue with a 25% profit margin, but you might hit a wall [in terms of number of suitable locations],” she says. “There won’t be a Lacquerbar in every single town in the country, but we will be able to educate nail techs everywhere with the content.”
Beginning next week, Lacquerbar U will face its first test with the participation of four manicurists recently brought on to Lacquerbar’s staff. Lacquerbar U’s courses are kicking off with the basics of manicures and pedicures, nail health, treatments and upselling. However, Rodriguez Prilliman envisions its education advancing much further to improve nail techs’ livelihoods. Lacquerbar pricing is subject to adjustment, but she estimates it will range from $200 for basic coursework to $800 for higher-level classes.
“Most nail techs make no money, so they don’t have money to throw around,” says Rodriguez Prilliman, noting Lacquerbar manicurists typically receive $25 to $40 per hour with tips, well above the roughly $13 per hour median salary for nail techs. “We want to partner with programs like Affirm, which helps them with payment plans and, in the future, there could be monthly subscriptions. There will be more content that you can watch on your own.”
“There won’t be a Lacquerbar in every single town in the country, but we will be able to educate nail techs everywhere with the content.”
Later this year, Lacquerbar U is expected to branch out from Lacquerbar employees through a collaboration with Cinta Aveda Institute in the Bay Area. Rodriguez Prilliman reports Lacquerbar is fashioning a nail-specific program for the beauty school. Eventually, she believes upscale salons such as Color Camp and Olive & June in Southern California will be interested in their manicurists attending Lacquerbar U.
“They will never be successful on a larger scale without fixing the education piece. We are fixing it for everyone,” says Rodriguez Prilliman. “We are helping Color Camp, Olive & June and everyone else.” Everyone else includes, of course, Lacquerbar. Rodriguez Prilliman views Lacquerbar U as key to the staffing and, ultimately, expansion of the nail salon enterprise.
“It makes it so we are not spending money on recruiting. Nail techs are going to be coming to the site to learn, and they will want to work at Lacquerbar. We will help you get job placement, and offer ways for you to move into management and become instructors,” she says. “We will monetize our recruiting and training, and it will help our physical location be more successful, and we will grow much faster because of it.”