When Ashlé Hall arrived from bustling Philadelphia to the small town of Titusville, Pennsylvania, to study physical therapy at Pitt-Titusville, she admits it was a bit like landing on the moon. While there were other Black students on campus, the town with its population of 5,200 was not very diverse.
“It was immediate culture shock. The only place to hang out was at the Wal-Mart,” said Hall, who had just graduated from the predominantly Black West Catholic Preparatory High School. And, much to her dismay, the store did not carry any Black hair or skin products.
She became reliant on weekly care packages shipped from her mother back in Philly, containing the familiar jars of creamy butters and oils Hall needed for her hair. Soon her female classmates were also asking for products and more boxes arrived. Hall began to mix and experiment with some of the ingredients, amid her busy life of classes, studying, and duties as president of the Black Student Union and a residence assistant.
The shift to social work
Two years later, Hall had transferred to the main Pitt campus and had switched her major to social work, inspired by a summer job as camp counselor at the Sarah Heinz House—an organization that provides afterschool and summer programs for kids up to 12 years old.
“Some of the kids were in foster care. They really opened up to me and told me their stories. It was then I thought, ‘I want to do more to help,’” she said.
As a participant in the School of Social Work’s Child Welfare Education for Baccalaureates (CWEB) program, Hall had committed to one year of post-graduation employment as a caseworker at Allegheny County’s Office of Children, Youth and Families (CYF). Helping to place dozens of Black children with white foster families, Hall began to notice a pattern. It wasn’t unusual, as she was leaving the home, for the parent to call out, “Wait, what do I do about their hair?’”
Hall began to offer the moms tips on braiding and caring for Black hair. She recommended products and made an instructional video. Visiting foster homes every 30 days, she saw her suggestions take hold. And, on the side, she began creating her own line of all natural ingredient hair care products.
“In the Black community, sitting on the front porch and getting your hair braided is part of growing up,” said Hall, adding that the state of a child’s natural hair has everything to do with self-esteem and ties to their culture. “Proper education on caring for Black hair will allow foster parents to develop that parent-child bond that supersedes a trip to the salon,” she said.
Help from Pitt experts
By 2018, Hall had secured her bachelor’s degree in social work and was immersed in the school’s master’s program as an Edith M. Baker Integrated Healthcare Fellow. She had connected with the staff at Pitt’s Small Business Development Center (SBDC), who provided her with market research, marketing plans and pricing recommendations for Ashlé Taylor’s Line of hair products.
“Ashlé is thoughtful, creative and wholly invested in the success of her business,” said SBDC Management Consultant Lynne Nincke. “She realized the need for natural hair care products on university campuses … and identified a second need with families who don’t have the knowledge to care for children with natural hair.” The SBDC provided the introduction that eventually landed the creams and conditioners in Pitt’s University Store on Fifth.
The bright display on the store’s main floor, with colorful silk hair bonnets and products like Marshmallow Detangler and Jelly Jello Gel, has been a welcome sight for Pitt’s students of color. The products, all priced below $15, bear an image of a young woman reading a book and a back label called “syllabus.” Her Instagram name is also listed so customers have been reaching out to thank her and ordering online. Her best seller? The Shea Smoothie, applied to hair before it’s braided, and can also be used on the skin.
Hall feels having her products in the University Store provides Black students with “a sense of familiarity and support.”
CYF helped start it all
An internship this year at UPMC Children’s Hospital neonatal intensive care unit made Hall realize she wants to eventually work in a hospital setting.
Right now, she is a milieu therapist on the seventh floor of UPMC Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic, counseling patients with a range of mental illnesses. But she hasn’t forgotten those little ones who are still being placed in loving homes. She has arranged with local nonprofit Beverly’s Birthdays to have her products tucked into gift boxes that arrive at homes for families-in-need all over the country. The organization’s mission is to provide birthday cheer for children experiencing homelessness and with other needs. Hall also provides products to families in the My Best Self program, which provides trips for kids to hair salons.
“There’s a long waiting list. Children need something immediate until they can get to the salon,” said Hall.
Looking back, the young entrepreneur says it was CYF that opened many doors for her. She calls child welfare one of the most challenging areas of social work but feels every regional social worker should experience one or two years at CYF.
Said Hall: “I wouldn’t have done it any other way.”