Jane Carter knows what it feels like to be excluded. In 1962, at just six years old, she was the first black student to enroll at the previously all-white Cook School in Plainfield, NJ. Her mother took her by the hand and proudly walked her through a sea of gawking students, parents and photographers. Sitting in the classroom she constantly felt left out. “The teachers and the administration, they didn’t like me. They didn’t like what I represented. People were simply fearful of change,” Carter says. “But it’s painful being on the receiving end of that resentment. And at six, you don’t know how to articulate it. So you internalize it.” During classes teachers would mysteriously run out of treats when they’d reach her desk, students avoided befriending her, and there was an intentional lack of educational and emotional support. “I’d go to school and just try to survive. I did my best to blend into the background.”
Then, at eight years old, Carter faced another event that painfully highlighted the country’s racial divide. On July 11, 1964, her great uncle—Lt. Col. Lemuel Penn, a decorated World War ll veteran—was driving home from Fort Benning, GA. As he passed through Athens, GA, a group of Klansmen—angered by the recently passed Civil Rights Act—noted his race and Washington, D.C. license plate. As the Klansmen’s station wagon sped up alongside Penn’s Chevy, they fired two shots into his car. “Uncle Lem” was killed instantly. The motive, of course, was to keep Athens free of “outsiders.”
In Georgia Superior Court the Klansmen were found “not guilty”—despite one confession and considerable evidence indicating their guilt—by an all-white, all-male jury. But, because Penn was a war veteran, the federal government reopened the case and successfully prosecuted some of the killers, who were sentenced to 10 years in prison. They served six.
“All these experiences shaped me and actually gave me a bigger purpose in the beauty industry,” says Carter, who opened Breezin Hair Salon in Cranford, NJ, in 1982 with a commitment to serving every woman or man who walked in the door, regardless of their ethnicity. “The truth is, the DNA of most beauty companies is the result of how the creator grew up. Fighting barriers was a part of my history, and my brand was going to reflect that experience.” Industry icon Lina Arrojo (she and husband Nick own Arrojo Studio in New York City) worked for Carter back in the day. “When Lina and I did trainings, we had a saying—if you can’t do anyone’s hair who walks in the door, you’re not doing your job right,” Carter says.
As a salon owner, Carter wanted everything—from her staff and clientele, to the products she stocked on the selves—to be inclusive. But when she couldn’t find the kinds of “all-inclusive” products she had in mind, she started formulating her own. “I studied chemistry for three semesters. I took aromatherapy classes. I joined the Society of Cosmetic Chemists,” she says. “My kids thought everybody had a manufacturing facility in their basement because I had one. I’d do laundry on one side of the basement and make a hair serum on the other. I was just fulfilling a need to supply my own salon.”
Her products were so well received at Breezin that Carter started shopping them to other salons and markets. As she made her sales pitches she immediately found herself breaking down yet another barrier. “It was difficult getting salon owners to understand that these products worked across all demographics—no matter who’s in your chair,” Carter says. To bring her point home, Carter hit them with demographic facts, citing that the fastest growing populations were Hispanic and multiethnic people. “I’d ask them, do you really want to turn down their money? Ignoring large groups of people isn’t just socially irresponsible, it’s fiscally irresponsible.” In 2005 Carter’s hair care line became so successful that she sold her salon and began focusing solely on the growth of Jane Carter Solutions.
When asked what barriers she wants to break down next, her answer comes swiftly: education. “I see it in beauty schools all the time. When a white customer walks in, they assign them to a white student. And when a black customer walks in, they always assign them to the black student,” Carter says. “They don’t understand the residual effect of not giving all the students different types of clients. It’s ludicrous. The world is changing, and so should beauty schools. The cosmetology test should be a hair cut and finishing on multiple textures of hair. If you can’t do that, you’ve got no business graduating.”
Recently, Carter’s daughter, Lexi, returned home from a volunteer program in Honduras. She came back with thousands of photos, but one image caught Carter’s eye. “There were all these school children wearing uniforms, except for one little boy, who was off to the side, alone,” says Carter, who asked Lexi why he wasn’t part of the group. Her daughter explained that Anthony, the little boy in question, had a deformed foot. And, in Honduras, children had to wear shoes to attend school. Because Anthony couldn’t wear shoes, he never went. “At that moment, my childhood came rushing back to me,” says Carter. “I didn’t care what it took, that kid was going to school. He wasn’t going to be the excluded town cripple. Not on my watch.” Carter’s company paid for Anthony to be transported to the hospital for an x-ray. There, he was diagnosed with a clubfoot. A simple surgery changed his life. “Our company financed most of the process, but I wanted Lexi to pay for part of it, too. So that summer, Lexi bussed tables to help Anthony.”
Carter considers herself a link in a long chain of strong women—from her mother confidently walking her to an all-white school, to her daughter volunteering to help children abroad. Carter’s role in the beauty industry, as she sees it, is to stay strong and remain committed to being socially conscious. Georgia Penn, Carter’s great aunt and Lemuel Penn’s wife, tactfully said this about her husband’s murderers: “People commit crimes like this because they are ignorant. They need education.” And with tremendous pride, her great niece is deeply committed to that concept.