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Rising Stars: Meet Heather Manto

Today we’d like to introduce you to Heather Manto.

Hi Heather, we’d love for you to start by introducing yourself.
My story is a long and complex one but hopefully will show anyone that with hard work, anything is possible. In 2001, I was living in NJ, putting myself through art school during the day and waiting tables at night. I was living with my ex, we were in the process of a complicated split, so I moved back to NY and was living with my cousin (on her couch in a studio apartment).

I tried to transfer to a New York school but I was already in massive student debt and the school there wanted an extra 20,000 a year which I just couldn’t do. I was looking for work but 9/11 had just happened and there were no jobs anywhere in New York at that time. I was massively depressed and had no idea what I was going to do, no money, and no prospects. One day I was on a chat room on good old AOL dial-up And started chatting with a guy who is in the army in California. I had never considered joining the military, I knew nothing about it, but the thought of actually having health benefits and a way out of NY appealed to me. I went the next morning and took the ASVAB and signed up. I left for basic training at the height of the war on terror in January 2002. In 2007, I got out of the Army and took a job working with the federal government (because it was an easy transition). I figured I would stay there until I finished my college degree (which I started again while overseas) and figured out exactly what I wanted to do next. Unfortunately, as a working single mother, it took me a long time to finish my degree. When I did finish, I took a job with a government contractor that was supposed to become a great permanent job. Budget cuts happened, and my contract was ended before I could become a permanent employee. They offered me another position that was lower-paying, I decided against that and figured I could go back to school full time for my master’s degree, utilizing my GI Bill allowance and unemployment to survive while I finished.

The reason I chose this rather than looking for another job was because I was heavily tattooed and knew that although my resume was impressive, once the interviewers saw my tattoos I would not be chosen as a candidate (as this had already happened so many times before). I figured if I armed myself with more education, I would likely stand a better chance. I completed one semester at Towson University in Baltimore and realized I hated the program and it just wasn’t for me. I did not go back for another semester and had no idea how I was going to continue on because they were only nine months left on unemployment. This is when a friend of mine who was in barber school at the time told me about the program, thinking I would be good at it. I knew that if I hustled, I could finish barber school in nine months and get back to the working world. I utilized my G.I. Bill to pay for the program and put in overtime hours every week so that I could graduate fast and take my licensing exam. At that time, I thought Barbering Would just be temporary until I figured out what was next – but would help me survive in the interim. It just so happens that I turned out to be very good at it, and the skills came to me naturally. I worked at a shop in Baltimore for about a year when my daughter’s father told me he was moving and taking a job in Austin. I knew if I didn’t let him go, if I ever wanted to leave Baltimore he would make sure that I didn’t. So I let him go and spent the next several months really struggling. Trying to work full-time while also having my daughter seven days a week 24 hours a day (outside of school hours), was really taking a toll on me.

All my family was up north, back in NY, so I had no help and felt really alone. This is when I decided to sell my house and use the money to move to Austin. I have never been to Austin and knew nothing about the city but I knew I had to make some moves. When I got to Austin, I had some extra money left over from the sale of the house, which is how we survived until I found a job. We went from a three-story historical row home in the city to a one-bedroom, 700 sq ft apartment. In an effort to shorten this long story a bit- here is a quick synopsis of my eight years in Austin thus far. The first year was HARD. I felt so alone, I had no family nearby and I had no friends. I no longer had a house, and I didn’t feel like I fit in at the shop where I worked. Money was tight, and I struggled. The second year I met my now husband Christopher and things started falling into place a bit. The third year, I seized an opportunity that was a big chance; I walked away from a comfortable job to help someone open a barbershop. He had no industry experience and needed someone to put it together and run it. This turned out to be a big mistake, he was driven only by money, was not a good person, and would never let me do the job he hired me to do. At this point (my fourth year in Austin) I had a little savings and decided to start looking for a space of my own. He found out about it and fired me, and for the next several months, I cut hair out of my kitchen (of the house I had just purchased) and spent evenings building out my new shop.

Two of the people I had hired to work for me at the previous shop wanted out of there too and wanted to partner up, I thought financially this would be a good idea. This would prove later to not be such a good idea. I knew it early on and figured when the lease was up, I would move on to a new career, so I enrolled in grad school again. I didn’t make it until the end of the lease, and after pouring my heart and soul into building the shop, I sold my share a year later to the two partners and moved on. The day I had had a major falling out with my partners and knew I had to walk away (for my health and sanity) I broke down. I had worked so hard to build this business and knew I wouldn’t have enough money to open another. I felt used and betrayed and scared. I felt like no matter how hard I worked or tried, I just couldn’t get ahead. This is where a little bit of luck comes into play, as I did not get nearly enough money from selling my 1/3 of the business to open another shop on my own. Note- while in the middle of a bitter feud, the process of selling my business, I still had to go to work and smile everyday like nothing was wrong.
One morning before leaving for work, I checked my bank account, and there was a large sum of money that had miraculously appeared suddenly. I was n shock, and as it would turn out, a disability claim I had filed with the VA MANY years earlier had finally settled and they had deposited back pay into my account. I couldn’t believe it. I went to work that morning with my head held high and started looking for a new shop space. My husband and I (we got married a week after our official shop opening) spent every spare moment rebuilding the shop space ourselves. The first six months were tough; trying to get the shop name out and finding staff was HARD. The building had issues that I hadn’t seen until a hard rain came and we had a major flood. Then Covid happened and we had to shut our doors for months.

A year after opening, I decided to move to another location that would be more conducive to our business. Six months after moving to our new location, I have a full staff of wonderful people, a great bunch of small business neighbors and we are starting to show growth. I’ll be graduating from grad school this year (yes- I still kept on through everything) and although I’ll likely not use the degree for anything outside my business, it felt like something I just needed to accomplish. I built and maintain our website myself, package and ship items from our Etsy shop and web store, handle our marketing and accounting, order supplies and inventory, and still cut hair four days a week. My daughter is now in high school and doing great, and my husband and I are soon to celebrate our two years wedding anniversary (he has been by my side throughout all these trials and tribulations and has been my rock). We have a beautiful home, three rescue dogs and a ferret. Eight years ago, I came to Austin with virtually nothing and now have so much to be grateful for. I’m glad I took all the chances I have, while some did not work out and there were some times that were hard, each one was a valuable learning experience.

Would you say it’s been a smooth road, and if not what are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced along the way?
Making bad business decisions, working for the wrong people and going into business with the wrong people were def two of the biggest struggles. Covid also hurt quite a bit, as I had only been open a few months and didn’t qualify for any grants.

Can you tell our readers more about what you do and what you think sets you apart from others?
I own a barbershop, we are known for quality service and sharp haircuts and shaves. Our retail shop has a huge selection of grooming products, as well as antiques and oddities.

We’d love to hear about how you think about risk taking?
I’m definitely a risk taker. My whole life has been about taking risks; if you become complacent, you don’t progress.

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