Michelle Gill | Color It Forward

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A few months ago Michelle Gill, founder of Color it Forward, reached out on Linkedin to share her story. I found it compelling. I hope you do too. 

I spent my childhood in hair salons. My father co-founded a well-known salon in New Jersey and, in its hey-day, it was THE place to get your hair done.  In fact, a TV show was recently made about the salon…I won’t mention what it’s called…ok, I’ll give you a hint…it ends with “licious.” I learned at a very young age that hair, makeup and appearance is a past-time that many people in society take very seriously, and spend a pretty penny on.

This bothered me.  At 12 years old, it actually angered me, because I saw all these vain, wasteful people, caring and losing sleep over a single split end, a long bang, an inch of grey hair. Clearly this would not be my world. I was embarrassed, and when conversations with friends led to “What does your Dad do?” I would respond that my dad was a realtor.


I went to college 12 hours from home and immersed myself in the grunge scene of the early 90’s, determined never to be involved in that business. Ironically, I was referred to as the “Yankee Barber” because I gave $5 haircuts on Tuesday nights in the common area of my University of Kentucky dorm. I justified it meeting a need, as supply and demand. But the business was in my blood.    

A decade later, married and seeking an exit from the corporate world, I found myself in an adult cosmetology program and, soon after, a licensed hairstylist. Huh?

What I didn’t realize all those years ago is that hair, and appearance, and having a put-together exterior has everything to do with how we carry ourselves, and even think about ourselves. The job of the hairstylist goes beyond split ends and grey hair…it’s allowing a person to put her best-self forward, confidently and beautifully. There is a definite psychology about it, and I couldn’t have realized this without completely immersing myself in the business of beauty, and then looking even deeper.

In 2013, I had a client who was re-entering the workforce after 14 years at home with kids, and she was completely paralyzed with fear, feeling like the furthest thing from a professional working woman. A mom of three, she’d lost all confidence in her abilities and appearance and was consumed with how she was perceived by others. That same year, I had a client ask for an appointment for a blowout the morning before she was to appear in court across from her soon-to-be ex-husband and abuser of 12 years. Faced with enormous stress and anxiety she knew that if she looked good, she could sit up straighter, she could look him in the eye, she would be strong and confident. Though these two women faced different situations, they had needs in common that were met by a hairstylist: connection, dignity, and the power that comes from healthy self-esteem.

Our physical appearance plays a role in how we see ourselves and how we are treated in society. Studies have shown that  in terms of job prospects and the labor market, more attractive people are not only more likely to find employment but they also earn higher incomes. We can go all the way back to our ancient human ancestors, where better looking individuals were more productive, more fecund, and brought home more food.

Color It Forward originated in a lightbulb moment where I realized that I only have two hands, but with 80,000 salons in the U.S., surely I can find other professionals who see our craft as an opportunity to lift women. We’ve created partnerships between social service agencies and beauty industry professionals. We’ve developed a network of salons around NJ that will do hair free-of-charge, and I continue to work behind the chair with clients who have stories to tell.  Women are smiling, and interviewing, getting back in school, getting apartments, sitting tall in court and leading children the way a mother should.  In two years since Color It Forward’s inception as a not-for-profit, we have played a part in over 250 women’s stories of recovery and redemption. These women continue to be the inspiration and the energy behind CIF.

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