Sam Villa was only two weeks into beauty school when he began questioning hairdressing as a career. He'd already bailed once: he was a junior attending college on a volleyball scholarship when he informed his parents that he wanted to switch to beauty school. Now he was telling his hairstylist father that he may have made a mistake. It was San Francisco, 1976.
"My dad called me and said, 'I'm taking you to a beauty show,'" Sam recalls. "We watched Vidal Sassoon from the front row, and I announced, 'That's what I want to do! I want to teach.'" As an athlete with some coaching experience, Villa connected with the process of teaching. But his dad scoffed at the notion.
"No, you don't want to do that," the elder Villa told his son. "That's all ego and no money." Sam set out to prove his father wrong on both assumptions. He returned to beauty school with a whole new attitude.
"Suddenly I could hold my scissor properly and do a roller set," he laughs. He was studying under famed educators Peter and Sally Hantz, who let Villa help out at the shows they presented around the country. Villa was working in a salon when he started following the late Paul Mitchell.
"Paul Mitchell was out of the ordinary," Villa marvels. "He didn't care what people thought or said. He just explored what interested him."
In 1980 Villa opened his own salon, Avant Hair Studio in San Mateo, California, and became associated first with a small manufacturer in Dallas and later with two other companies. In the mid-1990s, he was invited to audition for a new Redken cutting team by Teri Donnelly, who at the time was the artistic director. Villa arrived a day late, not realizing the date had been changed. Through a lot of persistence, he arranged for the audition anyway. He gave an over-the-top, theatrical performance, playing not only his own role but acting as announcer and audience questioner as well. And he did a beautiful haircut. Impressed, Donnelly told Villa he was overqualified.
"I'll bring you in," she said, "but you'll start at the bottom. Lead by example, and in six months I'll make you a national artist." She kept her end of the deal, and Villa has been with Redken ever since. Eventually he left his salon and moved to New York City, Redken's headquarters.
learning to teach
As Villa brought his dramatic style to the platform, his father's words of caution were never far from his thoughts. But it wasn't until he spent a week studying learner-based education under motivational speaker Blair Singer that Villa really understood how ego undermines not only earning power for hairdressers but effectiveness for educators.
"I realized it was not about me," Villa says. "It was about the people in my audience. Up until that time, I'd been learning how to teach from trial and error. Blair made me understand how to mentor and really teach. I still pull out the theatrics when I need to, but my focus since then has been as a true educator, trying to help people grow their business."
Pursuing his own growth, Villa and four friends have formed a new company, Allvus (pronouced "all of us") as a strategic partner to Redken. Launching this spring, Allvus will produce hard tools, a website and educational DVDs. Villa also continues to pass along the wisdom he's gained to everyone in the business down to students still in cosmetology school.
"Try to keep your ego in check," Villa tells young professionals, "and embrace what the universe gives you every day."