How I'm Keeping My Nail Salon Afloat During the Pandemic

Kaitlyn McNab
·12 mins read

Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name. That place is a nail salon in the heart of Brooklyn, ShesPolished, owned by Panamanian immigrant and Flatbush native Angie Aguirre. "I swear to God, everybody knows everybody. Even if that's not your personal client, you know them," says Aguirre.

At ShesPolished, Aguirre and her team have crafted an environment intended to feel like home, where the women they serve can experience a barbershop vibe that encourages relaxation and discussion — about current events, personal lives, or job struggles. "It's like a family. We're nail technicians and therapists. Clients come in crying and leave happy. We have a really close-knit relationship with our clients."

<h1 class="title">ShePolished Nail Salon Shoot</h1><cite class="credit">Dee Williams for <em>Allure</em></cite>

ShePolished Nail Salon Shoot

Dee Williams for Allure

On March 18, two days before New York's Governor Cuomo mandated the closure of all nonessential businesses, Aguirre followed her gut and closed ShesPolished early. She knew some level of closures were coming as the COVID-19 case numbers in New York City continued to rise, but she didn't know that New York City would become the epicenter of the pandemic in America. Now, as the city has settled into Phase 4 of reopening, the ShesPolished team must work harder to sustain the intimate atmosphere of their salon through masks, with face shields, and across social-distancing rules.

Aguirre is no stranger to hard work. At age 13, dissatisfied with messy manicures, she decided to take matters into her own hands. She practiced nail design and nail care for only one year before taking clients in her mother's home and making house calls with her nail kit in tow. She had the kind of natural talent and strong passion for nail care that could propel her into an early career as a nail artist and technician — but her mother had other dreams for her.

<h1 class="title">ShePolished Nail Salon Shoot</h1><cite class="credit">Dee Williams for <em>Allure</em></cite>

ShePolished Nail Salon Shoot

Dee Williams for Allure

"I had to get my degree. I got a degree in criminal justice and psychology," Aguirre says. She spent nearly 10 years as a foster-care manager before her free spirit began to stir; it was time to pursue her own dreams. Aguirre went back to school for beauty, excelled in her specialty of nail design, trained as a nail technician, and co-owned a boutique-style nail salon in Bedford-Stuyvesant, not far from where ShesPolished now operates.

When Aguirre exited her business partnership, she was jaded and unsure about whether she wanted to own another salon. She credits her boyfriend as her main source of motivation at the time. "He was like, 'You gotta do it. This is what you love to do. Just do it!' He cleared out an area of his apartment and made it into a salon for me," shares Aguirre. "I did that for a year, I started saving up money. And then we opened up ShesPolished."

<h1 class="title">ShePolished Nail Salon Shoot</h1><cite class="credit">Dee Williams for <em>Allure</em></cite>

ShePolished Nail Salon Shoot

Dee Williams for Allure

On top of nail care, ShesPolished offers styling for relaxed and natural hair, as well as weave-styling, and at one point, the salon also offered lash services. According to Aguirre, this all-in-one experience is only part of what makes ShesPolished stand out from other salons. The team's dedication to caring for the health of the clients' nails — not just the nails' appearance and design — is what takes precedence for her.

"We recommend that our clients take a break from nail enhancements if we feel like the nails are too weak," Aguirre says. "If we keep filing [like with nail enhancements], you get wear and tear on your fingernails. A lot of salons tell you, 'Yes, we're going to do your nails. Yes, we'll put on acrylics. Yes, we'll do gels,' for the sake of money. At the end of the day, once the client has no more nails to work on — well, what good is that? Other salons don't look at the long-term."

"We're nail technicians and therapists. Clients come in crying and leave happy."

Aguirre takes pride in her team's mindful approach to nail care and nail art, as well as the inclusivity of her salon. "I'm Afro-Latina, so I always want to hire women of color," says Aguirre. "You know, to give them exposure. There are some dope Black and Hispanic nail techs out there that just need a chance." On top of quality manicures, Aguirre prioritizes good vibes in her salon. "Being nice goes a long way," she says.

<h1 class="title">ShePolished Nail Salon Shoot</h1><cite class="credit">Dee Williams for <em>Allure</em></cite>

ShePolished Nail Salon Shoot

Dee Williams for Allure

Aguirre began her entrepreneurial career in her thirties, which, in comparison to the new generation of entrepreneurs who start as early as their teens, may seem a little late in the game. But Aguirre sees her age as an advantage. "I've been around the block. I know how to maneuver [my business] without social media," she says. "I'm very big on building relationships with real, human interactions. People now are very dependent on social media. I was able to grow my following on my own."

Along with her team of six nail technicians, Aguirre has racked up stellar accomplishments, like offering training classes for up-and-coming nail techs, doing nail designs for fashion editorial shoots, hosting a 2018 Noisey interview with Leikeli47, working the 2019 NBA Draft, and doing Janelle Monae's nails for magazine covers, industry events, and the Met Gala

In the salon, each nail technician saw up to seven clients a day, and despite booking up to 30 days in advance, were always fully booked. Aguirre's hardworking nature drove her to work up until the last month of her pregnancy in 2019, until her feet were massively and swollen. "People had appointments booked!" she says.

<h1 class="title">ShePolished Nail Salon Shoot</h1><cite class="credit">Dee Williams for <em>Allure</em></cite>

ShePolished Nail Salon Shoot

Dee Williams for Allure

With momentum like this, it’s worth a reminder that ShesPolished is only two years old — which only emphasizes just how much that the COVID-19 pandemic brought all of that momentum to a screeching halt.

During lockdown, Aguirre went into hustle mode, which is her version of survival mode. At the beginning of April, only a few weeks after she had to close her salon, Aguirre returned to work at a previous job at a local hospital as an operations manager. As an essential worker, Aguirre and her hospital team were responsible for ensuring that the hospital was clean and ready to function for its patients.

"A lot of family and friends thought I was crazy," says Aguirre. "Like, 'What? You're going [to work at the hospital]?' But some of my friends were like, 'One thing we know is that your hustle is serious.' I don't like not knowing where my next dollar is going to come from. My old boss called me, and I was like, I'm there."

<h1 class="title">ShePolished Nail Salon Shoot</h1><cite class="credit">Dee Williams for <em>Allure</em></cite>

ShePolished Nail Salon Shoot

Dee Williams for Allure

Even off the clock, Aguirre was busy caring for her family — she has a 12-year-old daughter and a one-year-old son — and she runs a merch line called Polished Thredz Co. from her home. "People were buying shirts, hats, masks, things like that. [Financially] that helped, too," Aguirre says. "I applied for a loan so that I could continue to pay my staff. I paid them as much as I could, and working [at the hospital] allowed me to pay the rent. I was trying to stay afloat as much as we could."

"There are some dope Black and Hispanic nail techs out there that just need a chance."

After three full months of being closed due to lockdown, ShesPolished reopened only one day shy of its second anniversary, fully booked, and with new booking requirements. All customers and employees are required to wear personal protective equipment, such as face masks, to their appointments. The salon's waiting area has been removed, so customers must arrive at the salon alone and on time. The amount of people that are allowed in the salon at one time has been reduced, and each client must sign a waiver and have their temperature checked before entering the salon.

<h1 class="title">ShePolished Nail Salon Shoot</h1><cite class="credit">Dee Williams for <em>Allure</em></cite>

ShePolished Nail Salon Shoot

Dee Williams for Allure

On top of these precautions, the salon is also cutting back on the nail services offered. Nail art and hard gel manicures are temporarily unavailable, as those services require more time to execute. "We need to get people in and out," says Aguirre. In lieu of nail art, which was the salon’s most in-demand service, customers are finding nail expression in color and length.

"Clients are asking for bright, vibrant colors. With Apres nail extensions, they want more of a stiletto medium or short nail," Aguirre shares. "And everybody’s getting a pedicure. They're like, 'I don't care what you do, just put [my feet] in water!'"

<h1 class="title">ShePolished Nail Salon Shoot</h1><cite class="credit">Dee Williams for <em>Allure</em></cite>

ShePolished Nail Salon Shoot

Dee Williams for Allure

There are no plastic barriers between nail techs and their clients at ShesPolished, but Aguirre offers free face shields for both parties. The ShesPolished owner doesn't seem too fazed by the myriad safety protocols that are mandatory for ethical business operation during the pandemic. "The atmosphere of the salon is getting back [to where it used to be] little by little," Aguirre says. "The dynamic will be impacted, but not much. We'll figure out a new way to communicate."

"I cried every day. I prayed, and then I cried some more. It was a combination of everything."

ShesPolished experienced reopening pains during its first week, suffering blows that Aguirre didn't see coming. "We had a rough first week," shares Aguirre. "I cried every day. I prayed, and then I cried some more. It was a combination of everything. Making sure that everything was running smoothly — ... and then the AC's not running. The HVAC unit went out. It was so hot in there; it was 90 degrees inside. And then we were broken-into. They took cash, they took our iPad, they took a lot of things. But within a week, things were being rebuilt. And that's only because of God. So I can't complain. I feel like when you complain so much, you become ungrateful for what you do have. No one was hurt, and I'm grateful for that."

In the midst of many states' reopening phases, the Black Lives Matter movement reached a new peak after the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery gained national attention. In the wake of month-long protests, an upheaval of systems has commenced, with demands for equity touching nearly every industry. There has been a massive push to support Black businesses during this time, and Aguirre says she’s definitely seen an uptick in her patronage — and an uptick in criticism.

<h1 class="title">ShePolished Nail Salon Shoot</h1><cite class="credit">Dee Williams for <em>Allure</em></cite>

ShePolished Nail Salon Shoot

Dee Williams for Allure

"I've been trying to make an appointment, but I can't get it, and that's why I can't support Black people because of this appointment thing,' or, 'Your price is too high,'" says Aguirre of the complaints she's heard. "I'm like, listen. Just because you just found out that Black is a dope thing to be, does not mean that you can call me and stress me out, because all of a sudden you want to support Black businesses. While we appreciate it, don't come here with the negativity. You are Gucci down from head to toe. I don't negotiate prices with anyone. When you go to Saks Fifth Avenue, you don't negotiate [prices] with them, either."

"[This pandemic] has definitely shown me the strength that I have as a Black woman in business. We make it happen."

Reopening a business in such turbulent times has taught Aguirre hard lessons that assert her resilience across all facets of her life. Aguirre doesn't pay much attention to the obstacles that may stand in her way.

"I'm exhausted, but I'm excited for what's to come," she says. "[This pandemic] has definitely shown me the strength that I have as a Black woman in business. We make it happen. If you want it, you're going to make it happen until you can't anymore. [As a mom], I've learned lots of patience. [As a person], I appreciate what I have more than ever before."

<h1 class="title">ShePolished Nail Salon Shoot</h1><cite class="credit">Dee Williams for <em>Allure</em></cite>

ShePolished Nail Salon Shoot

Dee Williams for Allure

Moving forward, Aguirre wants to center gratitude in her life and learn how to take better care of herself. Her mantra, "Grateful, but never complacent," allows for unlimited possibilities for her and her business to grow. When she envisions the future of her salon, Aguirre sees expansion: a bigger place, more nail technicians, and many more ideas that are still taking shape in her mind. But in the meantime, as her salon rides the waves of reopening, one thing is for sure: Aguirre will make sure ShesPolished still feels like home.

"We appreciate our customers. Without them, there's no salon. I appreciate our relationship, I appreciate the company, all of it," she says. "We've missed each other. We've been gone for so long. We've missed each other."

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Originally Appeared on Allure