Independent streak: How Martina Payne turned tenacity into a career

Martina Payne built her hairdressing business from scratch 20 years ago, making ends meet for her family and keeping one eye on the future. Photo: Eli Williams. Martina Payne built her hairdressing business from scratch 20 years ago, making ends meet for her family and keeping one eye on the future. Photo: Eli Williams.

Martina Payne admits she was a hardheaded teenager. So when her mom said “get out of my house” during a fight when she was 15, she took her at her word. She packed a bag. She walked out the door. She never went back.

Supporting herself from such a young age took its toll sometimes, Payne said, but it was a decision that put her on the path to where she is today: a 41-year-old, self-made businesswoman who’s been running her own Charlottesville hair salon for 20 years; a strong-minded single mother people turn to when they’re in need. It also allowed her to live a full life before most people even hit their stride.

It was Thanksgiving Day, 1987, when Payne left her mother’s city home. She moved into her older sister’s place nearby, but quickly decided she wanted a whole new life. Before she had even turned 16, she started working two jobs. Her employers, Morrison’s Cafeteria and Watson’s Department Store, wouldn’t give her more than about 20 hours per week each, but with the two jobs together, she was able to make enough to pay rent every month.

Then there was the little problem of the law. Payne wasn’t old enough to rent an apartment legally. But, she said, “it was a different time.”

“I lucked up,” Payne said. “I saw a ‘for rent’ sign and went to the landlord. He rented me the place and never asked my age.”

Over the course of her young life, Payne had to do a lot of things for herself. She learned to make a couple bucks in spending cash by doing the neighborhood kids’ hair when she was 11. She succeeded in high school and went to beauty school all while working 40 hours a week. She made her own prom dress.

“I was serious with my school work,” Payne said. “I didn’t want the school system to interfere. It wasn’t as bad as it seems, but I was protecting my family. The other kids thought I was mean, but I wasn’t mean. I just had to focus a little more.”

After high school, Payne got her hairdressing license and went to work as a shampoo girl for a large local salon. Within a year, she was doing hair and building clients. She then moved to a smaller salon where she could get more attention for her styling. She also had the opportunity to manage the salon and learn what it took to run a hairdressing business. All the while, her client list grew.

Payne opened her first salon in 1993 at 21 on a single $3,000 loan. She stayed in that space on Preston Avenue almost 14 years before moving to a slightly smaller shop across the street. Then, after four more years, she saw an opportunity to go to an even smaller space on Allied Lane just off McIntire, decrease her costs, and stop “killing herself” to make ends meet.

“Hair was like a hustle for me,” Payne said. “It was money, it was positive, it was something I liked, and it was legal. It was survival mode for me.”

Nowadays, the hustle is streamlined. Payne works four days a week, about 10 hours a day, and sees more than 10 heads of hair daily, mostly on top of folks she has known since she was 17. Her newest regular client started seeing her 10 years ago. She doesn’t take walk-ins. Where she was once spending about $2,000 a month on rent alone, Payne now has her monthly expenses, including rent, equipment upkeep, hair products and cable, down to about $2,400. That lets her keep her prices reasonable.

“I don’t charge what most salons do,” Payne said. “I know what the basic salary is around here, and I’m not going to try to take half that.”

The end game? Make enough to cover expenses, save to send her daughter to college and retire from doing hair in 10-15 years. Then she’ll be able to pursue her passions—decorating and cooking. “My dream is to one day open up a restaurant,” she said.

Her logic goes like this: She got in early; she should be able to get out early.

“I still don’t really know what I want to be when I grow up,” she said.

Payne’s family gives focus to the rest of her life. On a Wednesday afternoon at her salon in late June, her middle sister, Nicole Washington, sat in a chair waiting for a style, recalling how Payne was there for her son when Washington couldn’t provide for him.

“I look at her and say to myself, why can’t that have been me. She’s amazing,” Washington said. “She got what she wanted.”

Payne tries not to dwell on the negative parts of her past. She and her mother have patched things up. She regularly talks with her daughter’s dad—her high school sweetheart, whom she never married—to make the right decisions for their child. She’s on good terms with her own dad, who divorced her mother when she and her siblings were young.

“I could hold grudges, but I don’t. You are only taking away from yourself if you have a negative mind like that,” Payne said. “I have a big heart. In order for me to be the woman I am now, I had to forgive and let go.”

Once a month, Payne takes her daughter on a trip, just the two of them. She saves her tips, and they hit the road, to D.C., Richmond, wherever. They sightsee. They spend time together. Her daughter is planning to head off to college next year, but in the meantime, Payne is happy keeping her right where she is.

“I am hard on her, and we have our blow-ups,” she said. “But she better not be going near that door with a bag.”