To continue reading this article and others for free, please sign up for our newsletter.
Sahan Journal publishes deep, reported news for and with immigrants and communities of color—the kind of stories you won’t find anywhere else.
Unlock our in-depth reporting by signing up for our free newsletter.
When Akeem Akway was a reserve guard for the then-undefeated Fridley High School varsity basketball squad in 2009, The Star Tribune ran a story about his unusual role as the team’s de facto team barber.
At the time, Akway regarded his routine of cutting his pals’ hair as little more than a fun hobby, a good way to contribute to team chemistry, and a means to earn pocket change. He usually charged $5 per cut.
But some people who read the story about the talented amateur teen barber had a different take: Akway ought to turn pro. He took the suggestion to heart.
“That’s when I started dreaming,” Akway recalled. “I thought if I go to barber school and save my money, I could open my own barbershop. I could make a decent amount of money.”
Not long afterward, Akway enrolled in a nine-month course at Moler Barber School, got his license, and landed steady work at a friend’s mall-based barbershop in the St. Paul suburb of Maplewood.
Flash forward a dozen years and Akway is a certified master barber, with a celebrity client list that includes most of the roster of the Minnesota Timberwolves (including Karl-Anthony Towns, Anthony Edwards, and D’Angelo Russell), several other NBA stars, a bunch of former and current Minnesota Vikings, and even the late rapper Mac Miller. He also owns three shops.
About “Making It in Minnesota”: This ongoing Sahan Journal series will highlight the experiences, challenges, and successes of immigrant business owners—in their own words. We’d like to share your business story, too.
If you’re an immigrant business owner or entrepreneur, please get in touch with us at email@example.com. (Feel free to suggest a favorite business we should write about, too.) Please use the subject line “Making It in Minnesota.”
Akway opened the original incarnation of Akway’s Sports Barbershop in the north metro suburb of Spring Lake Park in 2015. Two years later, he moved to a bigger location in nearby Mounds View. With 15 chairs, that establishment remains the largest barbershop in the state, according to Akway.
He then opened an appointment-only, five-chair studio in Minneapolis’ Uptown neighborhood. Last fall, he set up an eight-chair shop at an outlet mall in Eagan.
Along the way, Akway’s cuts have gone viral. In 2013, a video of Akway sculpting an impressive likeness of basketball great Allen Iverson on the back of a client’s head racked up over 100,000 hits on his social media feed. After the Iverson video blew up, so did Akway’s phone. It has scarcely stopped ringing.
Akway’s unlikely journey to barbering fame began in Gambella, Ethiopia, where he lived until he was about 10 years old. Following in the footsteps of his older brother, the family—“looking for a better life,” Akway said—moved to the United States.
“When we came here, first we lived over in north Minneapolis. Coming from Africa to the Northside, that was a big jump,” he said. The family soon moved to Fridley, where Akway attended middle and high school.
Akway, 31, talked with Sahan Journal about what he’s learned from his rapid rise in the hairstyling world, beginning with why he’s happy he got sacked from his first barbering job.
Getting fired from your first job isn’t necessarily a bad thing: “I worked for my friend Dominic at Maplewood Mall for about four months. I was only 18 or 19. I didn’t know the structure of the barber world. I thought you could just show up whenever you feel like it. So, I would go out with my friends on Friday night and show up late on Saturday morning.
Saturdays are the busiest days at a barbershop. After I showed up late one Saturday, Dominic fired me. It was a big wake-up call: You have to start to take this serious. Getting fired was one of the best things that ever happened to me.”
As a new business owner, gird yourself for a grind: “When I opened the shop in Spring Lake Park, I remember working 60 days straight. I didn’t have enough barbers. It was just me and two other barbers. I knew if I’m not here and one of my barbers quits, I might not make enough for the shop rent and light bill.”
A celebrity client can do wonders for your rep: “[Former Minnesota Viking] Jerick McKinnon was the first professional athlete I cut. I gave him a nice, unique, crispy edge-up. I always knew if one of those guys gave me a chance, it would open doors.
Next day, my phone started buzzing. He gave my number to [Viking linebacker] Anthony Barr. From there, I started cutting Tyus Jones, who was with the Timberwolves at the time.
It’s been amazing. I’ve built a lot of friendships. Me and [Timberwolves star] Karl-Anthony Towns have been friends since his second year. I’m basically the team barber.”
If business is good, don’t forget to raise your prices: “Don’t sell yourself short. When I started cutting, I was charging $15 to $20. But you have to recognize the demand. When I raised my prices, it was only because I was booked out three months.
I got tired of going up $5 or $10 every year. I thought, why don’t I take a big leap?
Now I charge $100 and I’m only booked out a week. As long as somebody is in the chair, that’s all that matters.”
Prepare for the unexpected: “Covid was an eye opener for everybody in the world. We had to still pay rent when the whole world was shut down for three months. So, save your money because you never know what comes next. We survived and we’re doing pretty good now.”