How one man overcame his disability and started a successful salon
If ever there was a typical path for launching a thriving business, Issam Bajalia–who owns Salon U, a premier Aveda Lifestyle salon–didn’t take it. His path began with rolling silverware at Olive Garden and ends with the successful salon he owns today.
If you ask Bajalia, however, the story goes back much further than that. It really starts, he says, when he woke up one day with a fraction of his vision.
At age 11, Bajalia was diagnosed with Stargardt, an inherited juvenile macular degenerative disease caused by the death of photoreceptive cells in the central portion of the retina. For Bajalia, this meant losing 90 percent of his vision in the span of just three days. His family was no stranger to the ruthless disease. Two of Bajalia’s brothers (he’s one of five siblings) had already fallen victim to it.
“There’s no rhyme or reason to it,” Bajalia says of the disorder. Mostly, Bajalia says, he was concerned for his mother who had to watch her three sons suffer from significant vision loss.
“You know, somewhere deep down I knew I could deal with it,” he says. “I was more upset that it was going to hurt my mom.”
That kind of selflessness and resilience stuck with Bajalia for the years to come–paving the way for his future entrepreneurial endeavors.
Despite some obvious obstacles, Bajalia studied at the University of Montevallo and Faulkner University, graduating with high honors. After, he returned to Birmingham to begin a career in business administration. What he quickly discovered, however, was that his vision impairment left many employers blind to his potential. After a number of rejections, Bajalia settled for a job rolling silverware at Olive Garden.
“I was too high risk to be put out in the kitchen, so I got to roll silverware for nine months at minimum wage,” Bajalia says. “And I thought, ‘This is what I went to school for four years for? This is outlandish.'”
It took less than a year for Bajalia to begin pursuing higher ambitions. He took a job working with retirement and disability claims. His supervisor at the time told him that since he had such significant vision loss, he should be satisfied with his career. Deep down, Bajalia says, he felt unfulfilled.
What his supervisor said was exactly what Bajalia needed to hear. He enrolled in night school and began studying counseling, specializing in depression and personality disorders. He then went on to launch a business working with adults who have severe learning deficits. The only problem, Bajalia says, was that he wanted to work with a wide range of people–even those who couldn’t pay for his services, which came at a lofty price.
“I didn’t have the heart to say no to anyone,” he says. “So, I thought maybe if I get a little side business to generate some income, I can counsel for love rather
That’s when, in a strange twist of events, Bajalia was introduced to the world of hairstyling.
“I landed somehow, ironically, on the Aveda website,” Bajalia says of his initial research. He was in the process of learning how to use a platform that allowed visually- impaired individuals to read digitally.
“I started reading about [Aveda’s] environmental friendliness and earth awareness and love for good healthy hair and skincare,” he says. “And I was like, ‘This is a cool company, this could only be in California–there’s no way we have this here in Birmingham.'”
After a few phone calls and more research, Bajalia became enthralled with Aveda’s honest approach. So much so that he began meeting with an Aveda stylist to learn the ins and outs of managing a salon, with hopes to make the trade a side hustle to support his passion for counseling.
“We started meeting every Monday and talking–[I was] trying to learn as much as I could about the business,” he recalls.
Like in any good story, however, a plot twist was due.
“After a few months of meeting with me, [the stylist] came to me and said ‘I got fired. You have exactly three weeks to open a salon, or I’ll have to go somewhere else.”
Despite initial hesitation, Bajalia met with a broker a few days later and soon found himself with a signed lease for a property in Homewood. The building was deserted–the only thing illuminated was the exit sign, Bajalia remembers.
“I was standing in the space that night by myself in a puddle of tears,” he says.
Not knowing what step to take next, the soon-to-be business owner took a deep breath and found reassurance in the unknown. That was about the time, he says, a former NASA employee drove up to the then-vacant property and asked if he could lend a hand. It’s the kind of scene you just can’t make up, Bajalia says.
“He wanted to start a new career in commercial buildouts, and he said, ‘I’ll only charge you for materials and just a little for food and gas,'” Bajalia says.
Not long after, Bajalia’s side hustle turned into a full-fledged business with two Birmingham locations. Bajalia says customers frequently ask how he can style hair with only a small sliver of vision. To that, Bajalia says, he can’t help but chuckle.
“I’ve never done hair,” Bajalia says with a smile.
The salon owner says he prefers to stick to what he knows best–building an impactful business that only hires passionate stylists. As long as he sticks with that plan, he says, Salon U will continue to thrive.
With one location in Homewood off Linden Avenue and a newer store in Birmingham’s budding midtown, Salon U has grown to become a staple among Magic City residents looking for premier salon service.
Bajalia credits his success to a stellar team of stylists and “always looking at the glass as half full rather than half empty.”
“Life is way more good than it is bad,” Bajalia says. “I really don’t have much in life to complain about.”
Salon U | 2824 Linden Avenue and 109 20th St. S. | 205.870.8708 and 205.379.0110 | Hours: Tues.-Fri. 9 a.m -6 p.m. and Sat. 9 a.m -3 p.m. | salonustyle.com
–By Sarah Cook | Photos by Graham Yelton
This article originally ran in Birmingham magazine’s January 2018 issue.