Featured The Hustle

Trio of sisters launches Appleton’s first Latina-owned salon

Connie Vargas. Photo supplied.

Connie Vargas always knew she’d be an entrepreneur. It’s in her blood.

“My parents are business owners, my aunts and uncles are business owners. The business owner philosophy is very much ingrained (in me),” she told Blueprint365. “I knew that although I was going to work a corporate job, my main goal was to also have this side hustle, and have something on my own, that I can do on my own and put all my efforts into it and not have to report to anybody.”

Vargas, 29, was born and raised in Appleton, the oldest of five children whose parents own a successful landscaping business. She went to college in UW-Milwaukee to study finance with a minor in marketing, and, she said, “came right back because this is the place I want to be.”

Which is to say, close to family.

“I’m very family oriented, especially being Latina,” she said. “I think that’s a really big part of our culture, who we are, is just family. So that’s what brought me back. Just being in a smaller community, being able to just inspire others within this community. A lot of times professionals leave and never come back and then a lot of our younger generations don’t ever see those people and where they ended up.”

Working full time as a mortgage lender at Prospera Credit Union, Vargas never let the entrepreneurial bug sit idle for too long. She and her sisters, America and Bridget – twins who are now 26 – got to brainstorming soon after she returned from college in 2016. Through social media they identified trends and needs in the market. By 2019, they were ready to launch Barlash – but slowly.

“We started with (eye)lash extensions right from my living room,” serving more or less exclusively family and friends, she said. “It switched over to a spare bedroom, and then eventually I bought a house and it ended up in my basement. And two years ago was when we decided to finally open our first brick and mortar.”

There was a months-long pause during the COVID pandemic, but they were still working full-time jobs at that point, and were able to pick up where they left off when restrictions started to ease near the end of 2020. That’s when they started working from a shared space on Appleton’s north side. Vargas said Barlash is the city’s only Latina-owned brick-and-mortar salon.

“Something that we’ve wanted to do for so long is provide this service to this community that sometimes doesn’t feel like they are suitable for it. These services are usually very expensive,” she said. “Our salon is on more of the affordable side, because that’s our target market. We want to make sure that there’s affordability for these luxury services for everyone.”

Now, America Vargas and Bridget Vargas work in the salon full-time while Connie manages the finances, marketing and other duties as CEO.

Bridget Vargas. Photo supplied.

“I don’t think I don’t think I could have picked any better business partners,” Connie Vargas said. They’re my best friends. We encourage each other and we point out our flaws and how we can make this better.”

She said there are pros and cons to working with family.

“With family you can kind of point out your flaws and get in a fight and then you’re back and you’re fine,” she said. “It’s not like you fought with your business partner and now it’s tense. We act like sisters and we’ll have arguments and discussions around the business and everything is back to normal within the hour. But I think also (in) a family business sometimes you lose that sense of professionalism. If you see something that’s going wrong and you address it, sometimes it doesn’t get addressed right away because it’s like, oh, my sister’s just telling me what to do.”

In the long run, though, it’s a positive.

“Owning a business with your family gives you this sense of pride to know that as a family and together with the love that you have for each other and the passion and love that you have for the things you do, you’re accomplishing it together,” Vargas said.

The five-year plan for the business is to move Barlash into its own space and either rent chairs to other independent estheticians or hire estheticians onto Barlash staff.

So far, the venture has been self-funded, as many minority-owned businesses are. Even when the time comes to expand, Vargas said growth capital will likely come from the other family businesses.

“I saw my father (start a business). I didn’t see him going out to banks to get his first loan to start his business or anything,” Vargas said. “He’s self-funded everything.”

Vargas said working in finance, she’s learned that capital is available, especially through state programs like the Wisconsin Women’s Business Initiative Corporation. But the process can be daunting. 

America Vargas. Photo supplied.

“Most Latino and minority groups are just not prepared enough or they don’t know that it doesn’t take much to go into a company to get capital or find investors. It’s all about being prepared and finding your resources,” she said.

She also noted that the mainstream bank financing or venture capital route isn’t the only way to go about starting and growing a business. And, in fact, trying to work within the established structure can actually hinder innovation.

“So many people get stuck in the business plan finding investors and all that and then they give up. They never actually get to the actual thing,” she said.

In fact, her advice to aspiring entrepreneurs is one word: “Start.”

“It doesn’t matter if you don’t have capital. It doesn’t matter if you feel like you’re not ready,” she said. “You just need to start whether it’s from your basement, from your living room, from your garage, you just need to start.” Barlash can be found on Facebook and Instagram at BarlashOfficial, with bookings available at https://barlash.square.site/