How does a college student make hundreds of dollars a day from the fire escape of his apartment? He turns it into a barbershop.
Junior Elijah Westall’s personal studio (which doubles as his fire escape) is equipped with all the tools of his trade, a top-of-the-line barber’s chair, and an outdoor heater to combat the San Francisco breeze. His setup is certainly unconventional, but Westall is no stranger to making do with what he has.
The psychology major with medical school ambitions got his start cutting hair last year in his Toler Hall dorm room. “I would literally cut and then sleep a few feet from where the hair was, and that experience is just a one of a kind thing,” Westall said. “Knowing that I was cutting in my dorm room just pushed me to go harder. I would think every day, ‘I’m starting in my dorm room, but just watch where I go with this.’”
Westall’s determined mentality not only pushes him towards his future goals; it is also what got him started cutting hair in the first place. “I was really into basketball during high school, and I lost that. And I think it’s an obstacle that a lot of kids go through when they come to college: they lose that sport that they loved and they need to find something new to fulfill themselves, so I found barbering,” he recalled. “I kind of needed a craft, something that I could be like ‘I want to get better at this today.’ That’s what drew me into it.”
Westall not only views barbering as his craft, but also as a form of art. “You’ve got to adapt to each person, each person is unique. That’s why it’s an art form to me,” he said. “You create something that’s unique to (your client) but also that you could only create yourself, which is special, I think.”
Connecting with his clients is one of the things Westall enjoys most about being a barber. “Doing something for someone else inspires you and creates an engine in you and a motor in you that you can’t get doing something for yourself. That’s a very powerful idea,” he said. “What inspires me is putting people out into the world confidently and kind of at their best self, because I feel like when you step in my chair you have an opportunity to be at your best self […] It’s really more than a haircut, but that’s why I do it: to help people feel good about themselves.”
After a few months of generating buzz around campus for his styling abilities, Westall received his first opportunity to cut a USF athlete’s hair.
“All it took was one chance. My boy, current point guard Jamaree Bouyea, gave me one shot and I don’t know if it was the greatest cut, but all that mattered was the passion and heart I put into it,” he said. “I had been working on my skills to earn that one shot — it was over from there.”
This summer, Westall went from cutting hair for Dons basketball players to NBA players. When the NBA’s Summer League, a weeklong showcase of newly drafted NBA talent and fringe players, came to Las Vegas, Westall’s hometown, he jumped at the opportunity presented to him via a direct message on Instagram from former University of Connecticut forward Terry Larrier.
“Instagram is a huge tool for me as a barber, it’s a way for me to advertise my work, so I built a lot of my connections through Instagram,” Westall explained. “The NBA, as well as a lot of other communities, it’s really tight-knit, a lot more than we would expect. So just knowing and building that trust off of one client and just going my hardest off of one haircut allowed me to move on to the next […] Harvesting and nourishing that network is really how it went down, but also being the hungriest person out there. I remember out in Vegas, my first night, I was doing cuts until like 2 or 3 a.m., woke up the next day at 6 a.m.”
Despite the celebrity status of many of Westall’s summertime clients, he was not phased by the magnitude of the opportunity. “That first cut I was a little nervous, but at the end of the day, I’ve spent so much time in here with a clipper in a dark room, just working on my craft. The work has already been done,” Westall said. “After that first cut, I got super comfortable. I got to cut a ton of NBA guys and just being a basketball fan growing up, it was super cool, but you learn that they’re just like us at the end of the day.”
Westall’s rapid rise in the barbering world has not made him forget about the hard work it took for him to get there. “I think a lot of people want to take short cuts. To be self-made — honestly, I don’t really know anything different. The cards I’m dealt with… I just run with those, and I’m even blessed to get some cards,” he said. “I wouldn’t have it any other way though, because it’s built a grit and toughness within me that can only be learned through everything I’ve had to go through.”
Although he is grateful for where barbering has gotten him, Westall does not see being a barber as his final calling. “I don’t see myself just being a barber for 50 years; my back is already aching now. I see myself maybe educating or communicating with people — working with people, for sure, and trying to just inspire.”
You can book Elijah for a haircut on his Instagram page: @artbyewest