She has a claim to fame that few in their careers can boast. Hairstylist and salon owner Yene Damtew is frequently recognized as THE hairstylist for former First Lady of the United States, Michelle Obama. Credited with creating Mrs. Obama’s latest hair glamour for the 'Becoming' book tour and regular media appearances for Elle, Essence, and more, Yene has established herself as a go-getter who stops at nothing to continue sharpening her skills. Her hard work is paying off, and she’s just getting started.
Growing up in Southern California, Yene was the go-to hair braider in her neighborhood. She always knew that she wanted to pursue beauty but didn't know how it would evolve, or even that beauty was sustainable as a full-time career. After graduating from cosmetology school at 21, she met a mentor who would soon invite her to move across the nation and work with the Obamas in Washington D.C.
Although her important role as Mrs. Obama's hairstylist brings her pride and gratitude, Yene's professional focus is on continuing education. She believes that education and well-rounded skills are the keys to becoming a successful stylist and savvy business owner. She’s even built her team culture at Aesthetics Salon around education.
"One of the biggest things I've learned in my career is the importance of education. I went back to school to get my bachelor’s degree in marketing. That was the catalyst of opening my salon and running my business. I experienced a noticeable shift in the approach of beauty as a business." Yene’s approach to beauty is sharp and purposeful. “Doing hair is not just doing hair. Every client is a part of your journey. They add to your success and respect your time. Embracing this is the philosophy of working smarter and harder.”
Yene credits her success to a constant curiosity to learn new techniques and expand her styling comfort zone. One of her school instructors, Jeannie Johnson, encouraged Yene to continue educating herself by assisting in diverse salons, working alongside other stylists who use different techniques, and to understand her own strengths.
“I'm never too good to learn. I've taken classes from ‘celeb stylists’ and it's been interesting because when they realize that there's up and coming talent, they're either threatened or don't want to help you,” she shared. Yene’s teaching philosophy is different. “I teach the way that I do it but understand that my technique might not work for everyone. I'm comfortable with myself and my skill set. I give the foundation, but you’ll find what works for you.”
Part of Yene’s education that helped her become a successful business owner came from her Professional Beauty Association membership. “I really dived into my PBA membership when I opened my salon in 2017. I accessed business foundations like hiring documents, checklists, and magazine subscriptions, shows and discounts. There’s so much to consider when opening a business that people don’t consider, like retirement and 401(k)s, health insurance and business insurance, and I hope that more stylists across the country know that this organization is here to help us.”
To this day, Yene Damtew, stylist and owner of Aesthetics Salon, maintains a humble perspective toward her role as Former First Lady Michelle Obama's White House and touring hairstylist. Rather than react to her opportunity with starstruck awe, or be consumed by celebrity self-importance, Yene’s composure and gratitude speak to her professionalism and dedication to be the best businesswoman and stylist she can be. Much like Mrs. Obama, Yene is a role model for women everywhere.
“I’ve been reflecting on my journey in the hair industry and can’t help but be incredibly grateful for how my path unfolded.”
So, what was it like to actually tour with one of the most recognized and admired women in America’s history?!
Ten years ago, with a clear head and awareness of the special opportunity in front of her (read more about how she was invited to work with the Obama family in Part I), Yene packed up her life in California in just two weeks and soon found herself across the nation in Washington D.C. Yene’s upbringing in Los Angeles prepared her for seeing and interacting with high-profile celebrities and public figures. When she first met the Obama family, Yene says, “Of course, I was nervous, but… my approach was to treat them like any other person. Like all clients, you have to focus on what makes you relatable, rather than what separates you.”
“I’m inspired by her story every day and I’m grateful that the world will get to know the Mrs. Obama I’ve been blessed to work with and get to know over the years.”
Soon, she was traveling across the country for Mrs. Obama’s Becoming book tour. “The tour kicked off in November 2018 and wrapped in May of 2019. I traveled with Mrs. Obama through the tour and it was a memorable experience. We had a schedule outlined and it allowed me to ensure I was there for the experience.”
The Becoming tour covered more than 30 cities in both North America and Europe. Working with a talented team of artists and stylists, including makeup artist Carl Ray and wardrobe stylist Meredith Koop, Yene quickly became an essential element of Mrs. Obama’s tour team. Her styling has been recognized not only by the thousands of attendees at the tour’s live events, but also noted in Allure, Refinery 29, and The Zoe Report.
If you’re inspired by Yene’s story and want to further your beauty education and career, then explore PBA’s Member resources! Find the membership that’s right for you at probeauty.org/join.