In 2009, when Leonard Pelzer first visited the Orangeburg Area SBDC, his objective was to open a barber training academy in Orangeburg that would foster the development of its students throughout the entire lifecycle of their education and offer the tools and support necessary for students to reach their full potential.
“At the time, Deshaun and I owned and operated a barber shop in Santee,” said Pelzer, referring to his brother and co-owner Deshaun West. “But our vision, our ambition, was to open a school that provided students an education not only in cutting hair but also how to eventually run a successful business of their own.”
Recognizing he needed assistance in order to realize this dream, Pelzer heeded a recommendation from a Palmetto State Bank employee and visited the SC State Region SBDC where he met business consultant Pamela Free. “Leonard’s most pressing need at the time was obtaining the financing required to open the school,” said Free. “To that end, I worked with him on developing a business plan and preparing financial projections. Since the school had to be accredited in order to qualify for federal financial aid it was important to identify a target market that could afford the training out-of-pocket. These students would sustain the business until the academy received its accreditation,” she added.
Working together, Pelzer and Free identified another means for growing the burgeoning business: forming partnerships with agencies such as Vocational Rehabilitation, Workforce Investment Act (WIA), and Department of Employment Workforce that would support students with continuing education and offer financial assistance. “These partnerships enabled us to open Barber Tech Academy in a 1,400-square-foot facility in the heart of a revitalization center,” Pelzer said. The location had the capacity to accommodate 45 students.
According to Dr. Cornell West, “This school creates a very unique space. It is spiritual, political and it has to do with employment. It is a deep sense of community so badly needed. It is almost an oasis of love that overflows in Orangeburg.”
Barber Tech Academy is the only barbering trade school in Orangeburg. Given its talented and creative instructors, comprehensive curriculum and the academy’s centralized location, it didn’t take long for the school to attract a steady stream of eager students. While signifying the brothers were fulfilling a need of the community, the influx of students strained the capacity of their facility. It would have been a logical step to relocate the school to a much larger space; however, the school was currently pursuing its accreditation and according to federal guidelines, restricted from re-locating until the accreditation process was complete.
While the school pursued its accreditation, consultant Free continued providing assistance. “I worked with Leonard for many years, providing marketing assistance and engaging his business in our Bulldog Consulting Program whereby a team of SC State University business students and their professor not only assessed his current marketing plan and provided recommendations for improvement but also assisted with developing the academy’s website,” Free said.
Free’s far-reaching consulting support included providing the owners extensive operational management advice as well as conducting workshops for academy students on topics such as entrepreneurship and business plan writing. Given the longevity of their partnership with the SC State Region SBDC, the client has received valuable assistance from a total of four business consultants, including Free.
Today, Barber Tech Academy is considered one of the pillars of the Orangeburg community, particularly in the downtown area where many businesses do not survive. Along with many new students, the academy also is attracting notable awards from the Palmetto State Barbers Association. In 2019, Shawn West was recognized as the State Barber of the Year and Dwyane Plezer received the F.L. Ellison Award for promoting the trade of barbering as a profession.
Having finally received its official accreditation, the owners were able to more than double its original 1400-square-foot space by moving in 2019 to a spacious 4200-square-foot building. With help from Free, the owners are in the process of purchasing this facility. Staying true to their original inspiration, the brothers manage to find the time to continue operating their barber shop in Santee.