Entrepreneurship: “I turned the pantry and bathroom of our small apartment into a makeshift lounge. Today I have my own business”

Testimony of Fabiana Santos de Paula, 38 years old
Hairdresser and mother of Paloma de Paula Monteiro (12)

“My routine is hectic nowadays: I wake up in the morning, take my daughter to school, go to my beauty salon, stop for lunch and to organise everything between 11 and 1 pm, as there is no time limit for client bookings later in the day. On Saturdays, I can attend three at the same time and I’ve had eight in the same day. I do this for love, I don’t know how not to work. Everything was possible because I learned a new profession at Dara, it was all so different before.

The promise of a dream job led to me leaving my family in the countryside of São Paulo and migrate to Rio de Janeiro to live with a friend of my parents. Here, I lived a nightmare. I never got paid for work, I went hungry and she used my name to open bank accounts and make loans. It was my husband who finally helped me out of that nightmare, the man I was dating at the time. We moved in together in 2008, despite my mother, who asked me to come home. But I knew the life I wanted.

Our daughter, Paloma, was born in 2009. Life, which was already difficult — my husband supported the family by himself with part-time jobs — took a turn for the worse when Paloma started having constant bouts of diarrhea, sometimes several times a day. She didn’t gain weight at all and had a lot of allergies. I don’t even know how many appointments I took her to until we arrived at Hospital da Lagoa, in the South Zone of Rio. There, the allergist was right: lactose intolerance, a diagnosis that an examination would later confirm.

For the first time in my life I walked into a market looking at the label on everything and that led to desperation. Soy milk was much more expensive! At the time, my husband paid child support from previous relationships, and we just couldn’t afford it. At the second doctor’s appointment, I had no doubts: I asked for help, and we were referred to the Dara Institute.

I remember receiving a booklet at Dara telling me how the service worked, and exactly how it applied to us. First came the support with soy milk cans, basic food baskets and medicines. The nutritionist then taught me how to prepare recipes with milk substitutes. But the book also said that Dara offered vocational courses. Could it really be true?

In our third month of service, we were offered a cake that had been made in the cooking workshop. That got my husband’s attention. He always dreamed of learning to cook, and I was interested in beauty courses. But who would take Paloma? We were told that Dara had a play area for children. It was perfect.

I took a hairdressing course and my husband took a cooking course. My only experience with beauty had been as a child, when I tried to brush my younger sister’s hair and almost burned her with the hairdryer. For some reason, I always remember that incident. The first module of the course was washing, shampooing, moisturizing and brushing. The students had each other to train on. The teacher also encouraged us to offer the service at home, which would be extra income with a second benefit: being close to the children during their recovery. I excelled in the course and decided to undertake it.

My husband finished the course and sold some cakes. But the apartment we lived in was too small for the two of us to start working there. Cake with client hair and clients with cake in their hair would not be ideal. My husband then got some part-time work, and my life underwent a more profound transformation.

I turned the pantry and bathroom of our small apartment into a makeshift lounge. I bought the cheapest moisturizing cream I could find and started offering the newly learned service for only R$10. I borrowed the hairdryer and straightening iron from Dara — just leaving my name and promising to bring it back the following month to renew the loan.

My first client, who is with me to this day, squatted with me inside the shower at home for me to wash her hair. To this day we laugh about it. An office chair turned into a lounge chair. My husband then bought a used countertop and we improvised a sink. When we had no water, which was quite common, I had to store water in a gallon jug and wash my clients’ hair with a small mug. It wasn’t easy, but I wasn’t going to give up.

As the apartment we lived in was at the back of the block, I couldn’t advertise my service. I got my first customers by word of mouth. I improved my knowledge with other courses at Dara, such as colorimetry, makeup and, finally, hair removal. At the end of each of these modules, we were given kits to start work: a hairdryer, straightening board, hair dyes, makeup bag and a small pan and wax for hair removal.

Dara’s team even encouraged me to write a letter telling my story to ask for a donation of equipment to work at home, but without improvising. My letter was received by a donor from the institution, who gave me a lounge chair and a real sink, all brand new, straight from the store and with receipts. That was a real boost to my new career. I donated the makeshift sink and the office chair to a person who was just starting out.

I keep thinking back to when I first read the leaflet from Dara, as I thought it was just a fairy tale, something that only happened in soap operas. When Paloma’s health improved and I started to invest money in the house and salon, our dreams began to come true.

My husband always wanted to see the Christmas lights at Gramado, in Rio Grande do Sul, up close. I worked all December focusing on this and we managed, without any financial pressure, to spend 20 days traveling in 2019. It was our first trip of this kind. My daughter, now 12 years old, already wants to work, but I don’t let her. A child’s place is at school. She studies at a private school and is doing really well.

We then decided to leave the apartment. A client put it up for sale and, with some scrimping and saving — we even sold our car — we made a down payment and bought a new one and converted it to our specific needs. We live in the back and Paloma has her own room. We joined the old kitchen to the front porch and made a lounge with an separate entrance. Anyway, in 2022, I made a street entrance to my salon, another big dream of mine.

Back in the day, when I was tricked into a job and left with no prospects, I decided with my husband that I would never work for anyone else, never be bullied again. Today, I own my own business. My mother, who fought with me when I didn’t want to go back home to Franca and decided to get married, is proud of me today. Of all her children, I’m the only one who doesn’t have a boss.