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Chatto Rising

How to Succeed in Business by Really Trying


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Chatto Wright traveled thousands of miles across continents and oceans to find a home in Chicago. Then she crossed one of the city's great divides and opened a beauty shop on Oak Street. "Sometimes we all need to know how fortunate we are," says Chatto, who's known almost exclusively by her first name. "It's also that way with me."

She was born in Ghana in 1960. Her mother was a trader who sold clothes in the marketplace. Her father was an educator whose family owned a large cocoa-bean farm. "I was raised in a rural area in the eastern region until high school, when I moved to Accra," she says. "I grew up speaking Ashanti. I learned English in school."

In 1981, shortly after her father died, she visited friends in Minnesota. "I thought, 'What is this United States? I have to learn.' Well, let me tell you, I didn't like it at first. It was too cold. So I went back to Ghana."

In 1982 there was a violent coup in Ghana, and she left her home country for good. "Everywhere was killing, everywhere was blood," she says. "I thought, 'It's never going to end.'"

She settled in Chicago, determined to make her way by cutting hair. Why Chicago? "Because my friends in Minnesota advised me that it was either here or New York City, and New York City was too rough and big for a single woman in America." Why cutting hair? "Because I was good at it, and people will always want to have their hair cut."

She enrolled at Pivot Point, a beauty school on Howard Street, and rented a room in a boardinghouse in Evanston. "I was always learning the ways of this new world, which seemed very strange to me. In Ghana we put our hands around our girlfriends and sisters. But here I did it to one of the girls at beauty school, and she said, 'What are you trying to do? Get your hands off me, girl. Are you a lesbian?' I said, 'What's a lesbian?' Back home, you walk down the streets holding hands, swinging hands.

"I had to learn so much about race. In my country there's much more integration. But in this country it's different. On the train white people sit by white people and blacks sit by blacks. In this country some of the white people are scared. They see you in the elevator and they grab for their purse. They don't even think."

In 1984 Chatto took a haircutting job at a beauty shop at 79th and Ashland. Within several months she'd saved $2,000. "People told me, 'Chatto, you need three months' deposit to open a shop,' and I looked at my $2,000 and said, 'Where am I going to get the money for the deposit and my apartment?' One day I was walking down Broadway near Irving Park and I saw this vacant shop. I started thinking, 'This is the place.' I think that in this world the brain is so powerful you can create good things when you think good things or you can create evil things when you think evil things, so I try to think nothing but

good things, even if there is so much evil in the world. And it had happened--I had been thinking about a shop, and now I found one. I called the landlord, and he said, 'The rent is $450 a month, and you need one month's deposit.' I said, 'Oh my God, all my prayers have been answered right here at Broadway and Irving Park.'"

She spent the rest of her $2,000 hooking up utilities. A neighbor who did carpentry on the side offered to help with renovations, leaving her with one big problem: "Where would I live? I had spent all of my savings on the shop. I thought, 'Chatto, either you can forget the shop or you can sleep in the shop.' I decided to sleep in the shop.

"I bought for $20 a sofa bed and a little television set for $7. I put in a small refrigerator. The sofa bed was a sitting area for people during the day. I asked one customer, this old white woman, if I could exchange showers for haircuts. She said yes. In the morning I would clean myself in my sink and iron my clothes, and once a week I went to the old lady's apartment for a shower to really clean myself. I started eating only bananas and peanuts every day. Let me tell you, any fruit gets into my stomach and I will throw up. I cannot eat fruit anymore. I ate enough back then when I wanted to save my money."

By 1986 she'd saved enough to rent an apartment. By 1988 she was married and the mother of a boy. In 1990 she took over a small grocery store in Rogers Park. "I was ambitious," she says. "It was hard. I got up at six to buy produce for the grocery store. I went to the beauty shop at 11 and worked until 11 at night--and then went back to the grocery store to close it. And you know what my biggest problem was? My fellow human beings. I laugh now, but back then it wasn't so funny. I hired every race of color on this earth, and they were all unfaithful. That's how I know we are all the same. Black, white, Asian, European, African, Hispanic--they all stole from Chatto! I had this one girl, a white girl, who stole some money and then told the police she had been mugged by two black guys. The police told me, 'Chatto, her story's not consistent.' I fired her. I had another woman, an older white woman, who was stealing my money to buy lotto tickets. I fired her too. And I learned a valuable lesson--never open a grocery store if you don't know you can be there 94 percent of the time."

In 1990 a robber came in brandishing a gun. "I was pregnant with my youngest son," she says. "I had just driven up, and I heard gunshots--pow, pow, pow. I ran to the shop and saw this guy holding this gun. I grabbed him and I held him. That was the craziest thing I ever did. He got away. No one was hurt. He was just shooting the gun, I don't know, to scare us. Why that guy didn't shoot me with my pregnant belly, I don't know. After that I gave up the grocery store. I sold all my things to this Greek guy at the Rogers Park Fruit Market. He told me, 'Chatto, in my country women don't do grocery shops--that's too much for women.'"

It was around this time that she decided to set up a new hair shop on Dempster near Dodge in Evanston. "That was a whole new world for me. In Chicago I primarily cut white hair. Here it was black hair. I kept thinking, 'Where are the white women? Why don't they come to my shop?' There are some bridges we still have not crossed. They won't come to a shop if they think it's for blacks.

"A black shop is different than a white shop. It has a different style. People come and stay and talk. It's very family. They tease me. I liked to play classical music--that's the music I love--and they'd say, 'Oh my God, I'm so bored. Can I change the music?' One guy named Claude would come into the shop and say, 'Chatto, what's happening, my lady? Can I borrow your clippers and shave my head?' He's not thinking that this is a business and I have to pay my rent. But how can I say no? So I say, 'Sure, why not?' He started coming in all the time. 'Hey, Chatto, my girl,' and he'd shave his head. Then he'd say, 'Hey, man, I owe you big time.'"

Chatto stayed on Dempster until 1994. "I thought to myself, 'How can I live in a neighborhood where I just do black hair? Why should I restrict myself to one area?' I decided the time had come to come downtown."

She wanted a shop on the Gold Coast, a land of milk and honey for hairdressers because folks there are willing to pay top dollar just because of the location. "I sent out letters to landlords and went to interviews, and I looked and looked and looked. And then one day I found a place at 102 E. Oak, where I am today," she says. "The landlord told me, 'Meet my daughter at the building. She'll show you around.' But the thing is, I needed somebody to baby-sit my kids. And guess who I got? I got Claude--the guy who always

used my clippers. I saw him on the street, and I said, 'Hey, Claude, can you do me a favor?' And he said, 'Chatto, anything.' So I drove Claude and my boys to the city, and I left them at the Burger King at Chicago and State and ran over to the shop. The landlord's daughter showed me this small, beautiful room, and I said, 'This is perfect for me.' She said she'll have to check my credit."

A week later the shop was hers. "The day she gave me those keys tears were welling in my eyes, and I broke down and cried," she says. "I cried because I had made it in America."

In the last few years her business--one of the few integrated beauty parlors in town--has steadily grown. She has her own Web testimonials from customers, white as well as black. Eventually she developed her own line of cosmetics, skin-care products, and shampoos, and sales grew so big that she had to rent another room. On October 19 she'll have a party there to celebrate the opening of her new shop. "America really is a land of opportunity," she says, "but it's not easy. I still remember living in the shop, showering at that lady's apartment, and eating bananas and peanuts."

On September 11 she was at home planning her opening when her distributor called to say the World Trade Center had been attacked. "I turned on the TV, and I could not believe it," she says. "My heart filled with sorrow. I felt for those people. I know America's vulnerable, but I know we're also strong. I've seen it all in America--the good and the bad. People come here from every country because this is the land of opportunity. But we also have our weakness. The only thing that can destroy America is segregation. When something happens, we're all together with the candles. But then one, two, three months later and, poof, everyone is on their way. White strangers still look away in fear when I enter an elevator. Black people still tell me, 'Oh Chatto, you don't understand. They only rent to you because you are a foreigner.' I tell the white people, 'Don't be afraid,' and I tell the black people, 'No, you can overcome these prejudices. There's opportunity in America for you too.'

"There are people in this country who are very good--white people and black people. The man who rents to me is very good. I love that man as a human being. He doesn't look at my color. He looks at me, the human being. One time I couldn't pay my rent. I said, 'I'll pay it when I get it.' He said, 'Chatto, it's tough sometimes, I know.' He is a white man, a Jewish guy. He is what makes this country great. I pray for him every day."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.

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