Featured Grant The Hustle

“I grew up really fast.” At just 20, University Blendz owner Emilio Granja already has plenty of experience as a barber

Photo by Omar Waheed.

At just 12 years old, Emilio Granja knew he wanted to be a barber. His family supported his vision by building him his own basement shop where he gave haircuts to his classmates. The success of his basement shop grew and so did his skill. Granja soon outgrew the basement and shifted to the garage to give more cuts. After seven years honing his craft, Granja opened up his own shop in Madison at 19. He’s 20 now and is looking at how he can better serve his community.

University Blendz, 2803 University Ave, opened in September 2023 as the culmination of efforts from Granja since a teenager.

Granja’s heart was never in school, and his teachers and family could tell. He was admittedly a troublemaker, until he found his love for cutting hair. He found support from those who noticed his growing interest in being a barber.

“I was a troubled kid. I just felt like I needed to find something to do that was productive. I found barbering, referred by a friend, and just stuck with that,” Granja said. “I grew up really fast. I always took care of myself and wanted to be able to provide for myself.”

Granja’s father made sure he had everything he needed, but was at work most of the time, leaving Granja Had to make sure he fed, clothed and went to school himself. Being on his own gave him a path to get in trouble. Granja frequently skipped school and got into fights, but barbering was something he could do to keep his independence and avoid trouble.

At 14, Granja’s father and uncle helped him start up a barbershop in the basement of his home. It was a practical matter.

“I was upstairs in the room cutting hair and hair would get all over the place upstairs and they would get mad,” Granja said. “They went and bought me this tool chest… and threw a mirror down there and bought me some clippers. That’s when I started taking it seriously, so I started advertising myself on Snapchat and Instagram.”

There wasn’t a lot of trust in a teenager to cut hair, but Granja was always a smooth talker. Students would ask him if he was good and he would oversell his experience.But he was dedicated to learning, and there weren’t many other opportunities for a teenager to learn how to cut hair other than practicing with friends.

He learned on the go, and word of mouth spread throughout his school.

Two years later, at 16, Granja’s father and uncle helped move the basement shop into their garage. They upgraded the space to have a little snack bar and some waiting chairs — it was becoming a real barbershop.

From there, Granja looked at how he could hone his craft further. He later went to Paul Mitchell The School Madison, 7021 Tree Ln., a hair, cosmetology and beauty school. He went on to work for Neat Fades, 1934 S. Stoughton Rd., but noticed that his classmates from Paul Mitchell weren’t getting enough opportunities to work as a barber.

He opened his own shop with the intention of giving the freshly minted barbers in his class an opportunity to cut hair where they could feel valued. He had no doubts in their skill but knew they just needed a chance to shine.

“The main reason why we opened this up was because we all went to school together. And these are all new barbers,” Granja said. “They’re good enough to be in the shop but they’re weren’t the best barbers in Madison so a lot of barber shops would reject them or maybe not let them in right away.”

Granja also has a unique skillset to offer — running his own shop when he was younger. The location on University Avenue was previously a Sprint cell phone store. He hopped on the location quickly and, again with the help of his father and uncle, remodeled the space into his own shop.

“I love being able to come here in the morning when I walk through the door and just look at what I’ve accomplished,” Granja said. ““I see my logo and see me.”

But Granja was nervous about the turn out for his barbershop. He was told that he wasn’t going to be able to pay himself much and there won’t be any left over money. Regardless, Granja pressed on and found a solid following. The weekends are busy and most of the barbers are well booked throughout the day.

“Everyone is always cutting,” Granja said. “I feel like it takes a lot of barbershops at least two years to get fully booked out or have a really busy barbershop.”

Now, [seven months] into it, Granja is looking at how he could better serve the community as one of the few Latino-owned barbershops in Madison. He says it feels good to have another barbershop that has diversity in the city that can meet clients’ needs.

He wants to try more community specials, like around Christmas, to give back to children in Madison. He floated the idea the past December but felt that his following wasn’t strong enough to pull it off. His idea was to have clients bring in a toy for a free haircut. Regardless, he’s still pressed to try later.

In its first week open, to get the word out there, University Blendz gave out free haircuts. It was the first community event he tried, and the following was good, but Granja is waiting to get a little more established before trying more types of events like that.

“I don’t think that the way we live and the way everyone else lives should be okay. It shouldn’t be okay to let the person down the street from you to worry about where their next meal is coming from or how they’re going to get their kids to the hospital or pay for their bills or anything like that,” Granja said. “I feel like if I could give back even just the slightest, it helps make a difference.”

Right now, Granja is working on finding a time where he can get all the barbers at University Blendz for a fundraiser for the Children’s Hospital. His goal is to donate proceeds, clothes, jackets and anything else clients are willing to donate to the community.