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Sandra Atoge admits herself that, had you told her 10 years ago that she’d be where she is today, she ‘never would have believed you’.
Originally from Ghana in Africa, Sandra moved to Letterkenny in 2002, before going on to study a law degree in Ulster University, Magee.
She went on to work for the NI Civil Service and while the ‘people were lovely,’ she soon realised that office work just wasn’t for her. In the meantime, Sandra was being approached by many parents of mixed-race children and those with afro hair to ask for her help. Sandra told the ‘Journal’ how she had found it difficult to source anyone in Derry with the experience to do her hair – this experience sparked the idea for what would eventually become her salon and academy – iHobbs.
“My wee girl has afro hair like myself and I used to do her hair for her. I would put photographs online and then started getting loads and loads of other mothers asking if I could do their children’s hair. And it grew from there.”
Doing hair wasn’t an alien concept to Sandra, who had ‘grown up around it’ as her aunt had owned a salon in Ghana.
“So, from no age, I knew how to do hair, braids, extensions and stuff like that.”
After leaving her job and being at home for six months – ‘the most frustrating time,’ of her life, Sandra decided to take a leap into hairdressing, but couldn’t get a loan to enable her to set up a salon. Despite this, the formidable entrepreneur was not deterred.
“I gathered what little I could and opened a small salon on Waterloo Street. The thing with me is that when you say no and close the door in my face, I find the way to open another door.” After finding the cheapest mirrors and chairs she could find, Sandra was delighted with her ‘lovely wee salon’ and it built up slowly, but surely. She completed her formal training in providing hair extensions and from there ‘the salon has gone in the direction I never ever imagined it would.’
In growing to know her clients, Sandra began to understand that hair loss – for numerous reasons- was a real issue.
“I wasn’t planning on adding the hair loss aspect to it. Growing up in Ghana, you grow up with Barbie dolls and with the image that every white person has amazing hair. So, me going into hair loss was client-led. I had more and more people coming to me when I was doing the extensions, asking if I could help them. I would have to say no and they’d tell me I was their last hope. I felt so bad and wanted to help.”
And help she did. Sandra went on to study about hair loss. She found out that there are many reasons why it occurs, including vitamin deficiency, menopause, contraceptives and more recently, due to weight loss surgery. Sandra also creates custom-wigs for women undergoing chemotherapy or full hair loss.
“It’s a really difficult thing, as so many of us grow up thinking of our hair as our crowning glory.”
Along with the custom-made wigs, Sandra also offers a mesh integration system for clients with major hair loss and an ‘iflex’ integration system for women with thinning hair, as well as a volumizer. She outlined how, when she helps a women with her hair, it can be an emotional experience.
“The number of times I’ve finished someone’s hair and have had to excuse myself to go and wipe away tears. You just see the transformation in someone. They come in with their head low and as soon as they are done, they sit that bit straighter and feel so different. Their confidence is inside, but it’s just that little thing to bring it back and bring it out.” Sandra has clients from right across Ireland. To her, every client is ‘unique’ and she wants to ensure they have the best experience possible. Sandra’s service and experience became so renowned, she was continuously asked to teach others and this is how her academy was set up. Due to demand, Sandra undertook training to allow to her teach and she now shares her techniques with hairdressers across the world, including in Australia and America. She recalled how, in her first week of opening, not a ‘single person’ walked through her doors, until another hairdresser posted about her online. She is forever grateful for the support. Her work with afro hair also keeps her very busy and she has seen demand for this increase year-on-year.
The salon, which has won a number of awards, is not offering a men’s service at the minute, due to difficulties in sourcing a reputable UK based supplier. Sandra is modest about her success, and highlighted how helping her clients and seeing their reactions are her biggest reward.
“One of the things I do that is most rewarding to me is to be able to do the wigs for my clients going through chemo. It is something you just can’t describe. Most of my clients are there throughout their journey, before they even start the chemo. Then they’re there up to when their hair starts to grow back and you just can’t describe it – how incredible that is.” iHobbs is based on Hawkin Street and you can find them on Facebook at ihobbs salon or at www.ihobbshair.com.
Derry's Sandra Atoge is setting the bar high for hairdressing and hair-loss solutions – Derry Journal