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From Hairdresser to Coiffeuse... an English Expat in France

Sandra started her career as a hair dresser in her native England and then decided she wanted to try her hand in France. There were a few snips and snags along the way but eventually she made her way through the system and opened her very own salon in the west suburbs of Paris. For anyone wishing to consider starting a business abroad, here is her story.

At 16, I worked as an apprentice to an Italian hairdresser in my hometown in the south of England – the international seed was planted early! Hairdressing is an internationally recognized skill so I decided I would take a year off from my job in London to try out work abroad. I had narrowed down my choices to Italy and France, but in the end it came down to a simple math equation; I knew about 20 words of French and only five of Italian (plus a few unrepeatable swear words), so France won!

I managed to get a job at a salon in a touristy area near the Champs Elysees, which seemed like the perfect location – I would be able to attract English-speaking clients and translate for the non-English speaking staff. Unfortunately, I underestimated just what a barrier language would be, given that hairdressing is founded on good communication and social skills. The lack of teamwork was shocking. I felt like an alien suddenly void of personality. To be fair, the staff had all known each other for years; they shared the same culture, language, style of dress, culinary habits, and professional codes.  Then I joined, looking strange, sounding odd, working differently – it was up to me to adapt.

Professionally, my first year was pretty miserable, but things started to pick up shortly thereafter. I had grappled with learning French (every evening after work at the Alliance Français) making it much easier to converse with clients, changed salons to a more harmonious atmosphere, established a good clientele (with only one month of advertising in FUSAC before word of mouth took over), and met the man of my dreams to boot! 

My career was going pretty well up to that point, but being someone who likes a challenge, I set myself to the task of obtaining the BP (Brevet Professionel), necessary for running a hairdressing business. This involved two years of correspondence study in French (written French proved extremely laborious for me), biology, maths, design, accounting, chemistry, and management. At the end I had to pass an exam at the fearful Centre des Examinations, which included an oral exam in English (that was the easy bit. Although I prayed the examiner wouldn't try to prove his English grammar was better than mine!)

After twelve years in Paris, BP in the pocket as they say, I realized that I’d never been a fan of the salon atmosphere – all the noise, heat, and too many women working together had gotten to me. I set out solo as a 'Coiffeuse a domicile' (making house calls). The most terrifying bit was my phobia about driving lacking sense of direction.

I loved the freedom, the aerobic element, and had been transformed into a comfortable driver (oddly enough, the hardest part was where to park and eat something without looking like a burglar casing a house, or a hooker!) But after eight years, the time had come to OPEN A SALON. I'll spare you all the tedious red-tape issues, but I will say that having a French husband and two brothers-in-law who had already set up their own companies certainly eased the process. However, I will allow myself a tiny dig at my beloved adopted country: the business world in France is still very macho.

The salon - of which I'm fiercely proud, is now in its fourth year and supported by a terrific clientele – who exchange useful contacts, exhibit their art on the walls, come along to spring and Christmas fairs, musical evenings, and various fundraising events (the proceeds benefit local charities).

A word of advice to any expat entrepreneur who really believes in his or her project, has done a bit of market research, and likes a challenge: GO FOR IT, the rewards are immense!