On the wall of barber Darrl Robert Jr.’s barbershop—nestled in the heart of New Orleans, Louisiana—hangs a framed 2017 Proclamation awarded to the entrepreneur by the Jefferson Parish for the work that he’s done in his local community. For Robert’s team and patrons alike, the award is a testament to the impactful change that he’s evoked through his business Team Hairbenders. For Robert, the accolade has a deeper meaning. It serves as a daily full-circle reminder of the hurdles he had to overcome to be in his current position; a role in his business, community, and industry that he doesn’t take lightly.
Robert, a Westwego native, has evolved into a hometown hero. His precise and innovative barbering skills have allowed him to rise to the top of his industry. He’s cut hair for the likes of NFL players Brandin Cooks, Russell Wilson, actor Bryshere Grey and songstress Keyshia Cole. Many people look to him as an example of success in the face of dire circumstances. Behind the followers, likes, recognition and celebrity clientele lies a story of perseverance, persistence and purpose.
Robert discovered his passion for barbering while spending long days in his grandmother’s hair salon as a youngster. While his grandmother initially thought he was using her business as his playground, unbeknownst to her he was shadowing and paying close attention to the work she did daily. At the age of 10 Robert—who had a passion for drawing—decided to transition his canvas from paper to hair. His parents gifted him a set of clippers and he began perfecting his craft on himself and friends from the neighborhood.
During his formative years, he began to make a name for himself as the go-to barber in his neighborhood. However, for Robert—who generated income by cutting hair and working at a local pizza parlor—he was unsatisfied with his two hustles. At the age of 16, he fell through the cracks of his crime-ridden, impoverished community and started selling drugs. “I looked to the environment that I was in and I left everything behind, including cutting hair,” he told NewsOne. The drug game drifted Robert far away from his passion. Nearly three years in, he was caught with a copious amount of cocaine and faced jail time. The months spent behind bars served as a time for deep reflection. It was in prison, when he transferred from the general population side to the trustee group, where he got realigned with barbering. While incarcerated he mastered a technique called “speed-cutting” where he had to cut a certain number of people’s hair in a limited amount of time; a skill that he still utilizes.
Upon his release, Robert was determined to leave the drug game behind and turn a new page, but it was an uphill battle trying to restructure his life. Due to his record, he struggled to gain employment; a common narrative for individuals coming out of prison. According to a report released by the Prison Policy Initiative, the unemployment rate for people who have been incarcerated is nearly five times higher than the rate for the general United States population.
After a slew of job rejections and layoffs Robert, who had joined a barbershop apprentice program and started building his clientele, decided to go all-in with entrepreneurship and began laying the foundation for opening his own barbershop. “I put everything in me into barbering,” he said. “I never looked back. That was the best decision that I’ve ever made. Barbering has taken me to places that I don’t believe any of the jobs I had in the past could take me to.” There was a learning curve when it came to things like the architectural build out and permits and he was barely able to make ends meet financially, but he didn’t let the lack of knowledge or funds deter him from bringing his vision to fruition.
Since opening in 2016, Team Hairbenders has evolved into far more than a place where you can get a cut, it’s grown to become a staple in his neighborhood. Robert has used his business as a vessel to drive community impact. He’s hosted events to spread awareness about issues impacting the local community, offered free barber services to those in need and has organized several back-to-school events for local youth. He’s done work with Westwego Elementary, The Color Gallery, Inc., and Covenant House New Orleans. Robert and his team also focus on mentorship at all levels. They’ve extended their support to children who come from single-parent households and Robert has mentored aspiring entrepreneurs who are interested in opening their own shops. “I can’t even begin to describe how pivotal barbershops can be,” he said. “The barbershop has so many different people from all walks of life that come through. It has become a pulse for the people. They’re not often celebrated on a grand scale, but locally they are very influential.”
Robert—who is inspired by his mentor Rabbi Marvin Willis and the triumphant journey of real estate mogul Zhang Xin—says one of his overarching life goals is to rebuild his community and his barbershop is only one dimension of that. Like many neighborhoods throughout the U.S., his community has been hit by the wrath of gentrification and he is actively taking steps to get involved in the real estate industry to ensure that folks who have been in the neighborhood for decades don’t get pushed out.
Aside from his real estate endeavors Robert plans on releasing a memoir, which is slated to hit shelves in 2021, that chronicles his life experiences. He also hopes that his story will help spread awareness about the importance of initiatives designed to reduce recidivism, especially within the Black community. “Society pretty much shuns you if you are a convicted felon. So what do you do?” he said. “You can’t get a job and when you do find one you can barely get by on it. There’s a stigma due to the bad stories about convicted felons, but when it comes to the ones who are really trying to make a change they are rarely ever talked about. These stories should be highlighted because it can help a whole new wave of people coming out of jail. When somebody goes back to jail nobody looks at what happened in between and why they went back. Until we start addressing these issues it is going to be a revolving door.” He believes entrepreneurship can be instrumental in changing the trajectory of a convicted felon’s life.
All in all, he hopes his journey serves as a source of inspiration for those who come from similar circumstances and wants to empower at a grassroots level. “One of the things that I want to do is rebuild my community because I helped tear it down for years when I was selling drugs,” says Robert. “I want to be an integral part of its restoration.”