Esther’s Beauty Salon: A Story of Growth and Perseverance

Entrepreneurship can be a hard and lonely journey if you let it. Like with many things in life, however, it is all about perspective and one's personal outlook along the way. This is what we learned from Esther Santiago, proud of owner of Esther's Beauty Salon located in Elkhart, IN.

 For the past 40 years, Esther has been committed to bettering and growing within her craft of cosmetology. The journey has not been easy, but it has been beautiful and incredibly rewarding according to Santiago. 

"You have to love what you do in order to be able to work extremely hard and have that drive to always keep learning"

During the time we spent speaking with Esther, it became evident to us why her business has been successful and has been able to keep its doors open to the public for 10 and a half years. From the moment that Esther entered the room, she gave a sense of genuine love, care, and respect. As our talk with her developed, we learned that these three attributes are driving forces in Esther’s personal and professional life. 

A native of Mexico City, Mexico, Santiago comes from very humble beginnings. After completing what here in the United States is known as elementary school, Esther’s mother let her know that they did not have the financial resources to enroll Esther into junior high school. This was when the journey began. Although Esther would not be able to enroll in traditional junior high school, her mother knew about workshop classes that were being offered to young adults in their community and these classes were free of charge. Not discouraged by not being able to continue pursuing a traditional education, Esther decided that she would check out what workshops classes were being offered and see if there was anything she would be interested in. 

“Growing up, I thought I wanted to be a secretary. Whenever my mom and I would visit public work offices, the secretaries always looked so pretty and I always thought to myself, ‘I want to look that pretty when I grow up, I want to be a secretary.’"

With the idea that she wanted to become a secretary, Esther decided she wanted to enroll in computer skills workshop classes. As if being a beauty cultivator was already written in her destiny, it turned out that there were no instructors for the classes that Esther wanted to enroll in and thus Esther was encouraged to pick different classes. Going down the list of other options, nothing else seemed to catch Esther’s attention until she came across the cosmetology classes. At the time, a cosmetologist was known as a “cultora de belleza” (beauty cultivator) and thus, Esther began getting trained to become a cultivator of beauty. Little did she know that her journey would lead her to become a cultivator or much more than just beauty but also a cultivator of life, relationships, and community. 

Financial hardship played a big role in the young life of Esther and it was the financial hardships that taught her the beauty of hard work and perseverance. Once enrolled into cosmetology classes, there were certain necessary tools that Esther needed and could not afford but this did not stop her. Through the generosity of classmates who let Esther borrow their equipment from time to time, Esther was able to quickly learn and practice her newly discovered calling. 

Close to the trade school that Esther was attending, a new beauty salon had opened its doors to the public. “I decided to go to the salon and ask for an opportunity to practice my craft, it didn’t matter whether they could pay me or not, I just wanted to practice” said Esther. At this time, Esther was 13 only years old. Seeing determination and courage in the young girl, the salon owner allowed her to work at the salon but due to Esther’s lack of experience, she let her know that she would not be able to pay her just yet. 

“Financial compensation is not what I was after, I just wanted to get better at something that I had fallen in love with."

It is commonly said that when you truly love what you do, you would do it even without financial compensation, this was no different for Esther. Though she was not collecting a salary, she was able to keep the tips from her clients and this motivated Esther even more. Though Esther loved the art of cosmetology, her family still needed financial support and thus being able to collect some sort of money made Esther work even harder. “It filled me with so much joy when my mom needed to buy something and I could say ‘I got it mom’, the feeling of helping out my mother is something I can’t really put into words”, Esther said. 

Opportunity comes to those who put themselves in its way and for Esther, a tremendous opportunity came shortly after she began working at the salon. “One day, the little daughter of the salon owner got really sick and needed to be admitted to the hospital. The salon owner said she was going to be closing the salon for a couple days because she wouldn’t be there. I saw this as a tremendous opportunity to prove myself and told her I could run the salon in her absence. She agreed and this was yet another big step for my career even though I did not realize it at the time.” 

At now 14 years old, Esther ran the salon for two days completely on her own. And though she did not realize it at the moment, this was a tremendous moment for her career as she realized not only was she talented enough to be a professional cosmetologist but she also had the passion and drive to be a business owner. Having seen the results produced by Esther in two days of working alone, the salon owner decided that Esther would start earning a weekly salary. “I did not get paid much but I was a young girl making money of her own, doing something she loved, and being able to help out my mother, it could not get any better."

“If my journey were to be starting all over again, I would not change a thing. We learn every single day, and everything I have been through has taught me a lesson." 

40+ years later, Esther is still going strong, continuously learning and improving on her craft. “My hands are full of calluses, I have carpal tunnel on my right wrist, but it is all worth it.” One of the biggest reasons that keep Esther going day by day is fulfilling her purpose of making people happy and adding love to the world through her services. Esther told us "there is no better feeling than having someone who came into the salon with a sorrow leave happy or relieved." As we quickly noticed, Esther's Beauty Salon is a place that people come to not only to receive a great hair services but more importantly, a place where you have a friend to talk with; that friend is Esther. 

"I’ve suffered hunger and I’ve had to scrape for money with my mother, but I see these experiences as things that add value to my life and to my character. In my opinion, my experiences have made me better equipped to be a shoulder to lean on for my community."

Esther let us know that respect, humility, professionalism, and character are big pillars in her personal and professional life. From the moment you meet Esther, you can tell she is someone who will listen to you and someone willing and able to provide you with guidance if that is something you seek. At 56 years young, the countless experiences that Esther has been through have added much wisdom to her character. Esther explained to us the value in having real conversations with her clients, conversations that build trust and unity. At Esther's Beauty Salon, financial transactions do not mean nearly as much as an exchange of friendship and affection. 

It is not easy being a business owner, taking care of one's family and taking care of a business at the same time. Esther told us that her way of keeping things balanced in her life is to always be grateful, for everything, the good and the bad. "Every morning when I wake up, I feel grateful to have been given the opportunity to see another day. From that point forward, I feel grateful for everything that goes on in my day no matter how big or small, good or bad." 

Long very long ago, Esther faced one of the most painful and devastating moments in her life. At only 16 years of age, one of Esther's sons [and one of three children] lost his life in an accident. Despite the pain, and despite this being one of the ultimate lows in Esther's life, her perspective is what kept her going. As her son was called up to fulfill a bigger purpose, Esther did not see this as her losing a son but rather getting an angel to watch over her every single day. 

"When God called on my son to become an angel, I was devastated but I knew it was for a purpose. I felt blessed to have been given a guardian angel to watch over me day by day and I think that simply made me more confident moving forward."

Esther let us know that she's never experienced such pain as she did when lost her son. "After such pain I experienced when I lost my son nothing else seemed so painful," Esther told us as she explained her new outlook on life. Esther explained that losing her son was one of the worst things to happen in her life and after conquering that pain, she felt confident in being able to move forward and be able to get up from any knockdown. 

Getting back up from being knocked down is all that Esther knows. When asked "to what do you attribute your success?" Esther responded "I don't necessarily see myself as a successful person but rather as a warrior. A warrior determined to keep pushing no matter the circumstances." Esther's phenomenal journey has everything to do with perseverance and will to never give up in the pursuit of one's dreams. 

Coming to the United States from Mexico City, Esther only had dreams, her faith, and her family. To this day, those remain as her largest sources of motivation, encouragement, and support. 

"I work hard to be seen as an example. To demonstrate that no matter how hard life may hit you, so long as you do not give up, you can accomplish great things."

Esther is highly respected and looked up to by her family, her work team, and her community. A woman with so much courage and perseverance is simply inspiring and that is exactly what Esther Santiago represents. Esther has defied many odds by betting and believing in herself. We concluded the interview with a powerful message from Esther which stated, "at the end of every day, ask yourself 'what did I accomplish today, and how did I contribute bettering the world I live in?'" Esther said, "If you cannot answer those questions with confidence, there are certain things you have to change. We are all able to make a difference in our world, no matter how big or small." 

Esther's professional journey began more than 40 years ago but her personal journey of growth, aspiration and conquering adversity has been a journey of 56 years. Esther's story is one that'll spark a fire in you by simply listening to it. Through this series of stories from entrepreneurs in our community, we strive to not only share their amazing stories but also hope to motivate and inspire whoever may come across these readings. It is never too late or too early, and there is nothing you cannot bounce back from, this is what we learned from Esther. We leave today's story with a strong quote from our dear Esther:

"El que no arriezga, no gana." (he/she who does not risk, does not win)

Be relentless in pursuit of your dreams. 

Esther's Beauty Salon Information 

  • Address: 350 Lusher Ave, Elkhart, IN 46517

  • Phone number: (574) 522-8845


The Latino Entrepreneur Story Writing Project is sponsored by the Center for Intercultural and International Education at Goshen College. 

Sergio Ortiz