If you want to make it big, go all-in. Kelly Cardenas, who
started with zip, ought to know.

Choose Beauty: Kelly Cardenas
Cardenas works with the staff of his co-owned Chicago salon two days a month. They patronize businesses like The Four Seasons restaurant, to experience topnotch service.

Kelly Cardenas is a happy, positive
guy. A really happy, positive
guy. And why not? He has a great
family, two namesake salons (Chicago
and Las Vegas), an advanced academy
and a great career. But don’t think: “big
shot.” His mind is on turning his employees
into millionaires and creating an incredible
client experience.


Cardenas grew up in tiny Lompoc,
California, where he, his mom and two
brothers slept on mattresses on the floor
of a one-bedroom apartment. Even as a
child, he had joie de vivre: His favorite
memory is when his mother made a baseball
out of sewn-together socks because
she couldn’t afford to buy one. Back then,
money was so tight, it was either mom’s
“one-finger” hair cut or try clippers
on himself, which got him hooked on
hairdressing at the age of 13.


“I wanted to control my own cool
factor; I was really competitive,” recalls
Cardenas.


Dread Head


Later, at Santa Monica Beauty College,
where he loved socializing but found clinic
clients were “mostly Golden Girls,” his
hair was subjected to more experimentation.
Adding red over bleached hair, then
trying to shampoo it out led to “looking
like a gigantic pumpkin … I don’t know
why I never thought of re-coloring it.”

Choose Beauty: Kelly Cardenas
John Paul Dejoria, CEO of John Paul Mitchell Systems and Kelly Cardenas.


Today, he sports dreadlocks, which
came about when he permed his much-beleaguered
hair with pipe cleaners, and
it locked on its own.


Working and following Jeanne Braa
and then Robert Cromeans, at hair
shows, he’d sit in front and pass Cromeans
his card, which eventually led
to him being hired at Cromeans’ Santa
Monica salon. In barely a year, he was
promoted to director and started doing
platform work. Later, he opened both
Cromeans’ Las Vegas operations.

Kelly’s Surprising Secrets

Favorite Pastime: “Bowling! My highest score is 267.”
Guilty Pleasure: “I used to lock the doors, close the curtains and play Spice World on PlayStation.”
Nickname: In the 4th grade, Cardenas was a break dancer named Baby Fresh. “I was pretty good back in the day.”
Commission or Salary?
Commission. “In no other business can you decide to double your income next week by working harder.”
Bucket List: Open a salon in every state, make my first millionaire stylist, go on the Pro Bowler’s tour, appear on Russell Simmons’ Def Poetry.

After 10 years, the two parted ways
over a management decision, but they
remain close. In fact, once every six
weeks, Cardenas works at Cromeans’
Santa Monica location; he was invited
back for his energy.


Creating a Brand


In his own operations, Cardenas likes
to hire for young minds (not the same
as chronological age). When he needs
inspiration, he gets with his beginners,
who have yet to learn limitations. They
all wear black and need approval for cut
and color changes. Why?


“They have to attract real-life clients,
who may get turned off by aggressive
looks,” says Cardenas. “Once they’re
well-established, they can change their
look or introduce tattoos, which must be
covered until then.”


From home-base Las Vegas, Cardenas
travels to Chicago and San Diego regularly.
His advanced academies are held four
times a year in Chicago, Vegas and two
other “super-cool cities,” like Honolulu.
He’s successful and busy, yet predictably,
he only gets his brag on when he talks
about his staff: How one just bought a
house on a stylist’s income and another,
when stuck out of town with no rental,
went out and bought a car.


“The most satisfying part of my job
is seeing others grow—not just professionally
but as good husbands, wives and
community members,” notes Cardenas.
His advice to struggling stylists is: Go
all in. Too many have distracting second
jobs, he says. Which brings him to
his favorite saying: Commitment eliminates
options.

Choose Beauty: Kelly Cardenas
Cardenas’ dreadlocks became his brand identity.