Success Story: Katie Steller Schultz, Owner of Steller Hair Company

MyTalk 107.1 Entrepreneur of the Month for June

Katie Steller Schultz was a tomboy growing up, but you wouldn't know it by her current 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. Partway through her training, Katie experienced another major medical setback that forced her to take a seven-week leave of absence. During that time, her classmates held fundraisers to help pay for her medical expenses. At one of those events Katie met her future husband Mike, who was also an Aveda student.

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 and Mike shared the desire to work in an environment that put people first. They had already become life partners, and they decided to become partners in business as well. Together they developed a plan for a salon that offered affordable services in a casual, laid back environment.

Katie and Mike launched an online campaign to raise money for salon equipment and quickly met their fundraising goal, but it came at a price. The salon business was competitive and they discovered they would not be able to keep their jobs and pursue their dreams simultaneously. For Katie, leaving her full-time gig meant giving up a steady paycheck, but perhaps more daunting was losing her medical coverage. Yet 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 their start-up money in the bank, she and Mike set out to find a salon space.

Choosing a business location revealed Katie's and Mike's limited knowledge of commercial lease negotiation and zoning regulations. They came to WomenVenture for answers. Not only did their WomenVenture business consultant address their questions, she was invested in their success from the get-go. The consultant provided financial management tools for projecting sales, setting goals and creating contingencies that were 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 and Mike finance their small business. "Our consultant didn't sugar coat anything," Katie said. "She made it clear that our debt and lack of collateral would make it more difficult to get approved for financing." Thanks to a lot of hard work on the couple's part and a partnership between WomenVenture and the City of Minneapolis, Katie and Mike were able to secure the funding they needed to get their business off the ground. Steller Hair Company opened its doors in June 2013.

In addition to offering traditional salon services, Steller Hair features live music events and partners with local organizations to host community fundraisers. Katie and Mike are also committed to the well-being of their staff and to paying living wages. Katie's motto: happy stylists equal happy clients.

Today, Steller Hair has far exceeded its sales goals and Katie and Mike are already planning 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."