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Even during the dark times, like the day she opened her Like the River hair salon in Atlanta with little fanfare and even fewer customers, Najah Aziz (pictured) was convinced success wasn’t far away.

And looking back, Aziz was right: In just five years, Like the River has won local and national plaudits for its unique cuts, swanky décor, and high level of customer service.

It would be hard to even recognize the bustling salon, with its colorful, funky design featuring an indoor waterfall, when compared to the empty, cavernous space Aziz opened with just herself and a single assistant April 8, 2008.

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“I remember thinking, Oh my God what did I do, because we opened the doors and all we had were 11 empty work stations,” Aziz said. “I had a few clients from where I had worked before but not many. I had all this overhead, this huge space, so I said I need to do something different.”

Even as a first-time business owner, Aziz knew that first day that something had to change. Not only did she cash in her 401K savings to create the salon, but she also leaned heavily on loans from family — and she feared it was all going to go down the drain.

That same day, Aziz, 45, hit on an idea – host an open house just two weeks later to attract not only customers but fellow stylists who could help attract new business.

Aziz, however, said she wanted to hold her stylists to a set of standards uncommon in the sometimes lax world of hair shops, professional standards Aziz had adopted as second nature from her years working as an insurance claims adjuster.

“I said that anyone who worked for me was going to have to be on time – every day. You are not going to waste your client’s time; get them in and out as soon as you can and treat them like they are all that matter to you,” Aziz said. “This wasn’t going to be a hair shop. This was going to be a salon.”

To help win over new stylists, Aziz gave her workers 70 percent of the take as opposed to the industry norm of a 50-50 split.

“I didn’t have it down to a science, I just had a dream. I was searching for ways to make it work.”

Did it ever.

The move won over eager and talented stylists from other shops who sought out the higher level of professionalism Like the River was becoming known for in Atlanta and beyond.

Just a year after the opening, Like the River was named the best hair salon in Atlanta by the Atlanta Tribune. A year later, it was named one of the best 100 salons in America by the StyleList, a beauty and fashion website.

The shop also earned goodwill from the community by giving back. Like the River has hosted hair styling events for women in homeless shelters and breast cancer survivors. Aziz has also donated to toy and food drives in the city.

Aziz is convinced her shop would have been a success in any city, but said Atlanta proved to be the perfect home for an emporium devoted to enhancing the beauty of Black women.

“This city is such a center for shows and entertainment for Black people – being in Atlanta was a natural,” Aziz said. “Atlanta has a lot of Black women and for Black women, it’s all about the hair.”

It’s also about the revenue, which has grown impressively over the years, Aziz added.

“We made about $40,000 our opening year and it was $200,000 the next year,” she said. “Then it has basically doubled every year since then. We are at about $800,000 right now. It’s been amazing.”

The next step for Aziz is to bring the Like the River concept hairstyling to new or existing salons outside of Atlanta.

“We get so many customers from New York and Los Angeles who tell me they wish they had a salon like this in their city,” Aziz said. “In the next five years I’d like to make that happen.”