Innovation: Installing barbershops/salons
in homeless shelters and public schools
Occupation: Master Barber, CEO of Rob’s Barbershop Community Foundation
Hobbies: Reading, listening to podcasts on
African-American history & culture, hip-hop, boxing
Fun Fact: Prides himself on bookkeeping.
Twitter Handle: @RobsFoundation
Groomed to Perfection
How a little white lie in high school led to a career and a life of serving others.
By Lisa Simeone
Photography by Justin Tsucalas
Robert Cradle was in trouble.
“It was looking really bad,” the 49-year-old says of his time in high school. A guidance counselor met with him one day and asked what he wanted to do with his life.
“I want to cut hair,” Cradle blurted out.
“I was,” he now says, “lying through my teeth.”
The guidance counselor followed up, sending him a brochure about a barber school on Pratt Street.
“I looked at it and thought, why not?” he recalls. “I really fell backwards into this career.”
It turns out Cradle had a knack for the work and eventually went on to open his own barbershop in Odenton. That was 16 years ago. The shop was only a few blocks away from a homeless shelter, and Cradle couldn’t help but notice how bedraggled so many of the people there looked. So he set up a collection box in his shop, asking customers to drop in a few coins or dollars to pay for haircuts for the homeless. Pretty soon, the generosity of his customers added up. Cradle sent a few of his barbers to the shelter to offer their services. And before you knew it, the idea took off.
Cradle has since set up seven fully equipped barbershops and beauty salons in the Maryland/DC area, not only bringing grooming services to underserved people, but also giving those people, in turn, opportunity to groom themselves and others.
“Personal grooming, if you take it out of the equation,” says Cradle, “it changes everything in your life. Of course food, shelter, clothing are important. But they’re not enough. This service is about access. If you’re not well groomed, you don’t have access – to places, to people, to jobs. Even getting housing can be difficult if you don’t look presentable.”
Cradle, along with his volunteer or contracted grooming professionals are aware that they’re offering an intimate service: “What we do is very specialized, very personal. We get in your personal space.”
``We keep more secrets,” he laughs, “than the NSA ever could!``
Getting in that space can also mean comforting people who’ve suffered trauma and abuse. The act of touching someone – of safe human touch – can be profoundly therapeutic. The shops Cradle sets up, not only in homeless shelters but also in schools and rec centers, offer this healing touch to thousands of men, women, and children.
For so-called pop-up shops, Cradle brings everything he and his team need. For permanent venues, he buys all the equipment and products – basins, hair dryers, clippers, etc. – and outfits the location with enough electrical outlets and plumbing infrastructure to keep it up and running.
Cradle says he gets a great sense of satisfaction out of watching people walk in one way and walk out looking totally different – refreshed, confident. He also adheres to the prime principle of hair salons everywhere: discretion.