A can-‘do’ attitude made the difference for this wig and hair-loss entrepreneur

February 2, 2023 | By Vicki Hyman

Erica Gamble had a lifelong passion for wigs. Getting her head around running a wig business? That took time.

Growing up in Cleveland, she watched her mother, grandmother, and aunts don Sunday-best wigs for church. As a human resources executive, Gamble often traveled for work and found wigs a convenient way to look good on the road. And when she moved to Atlanta in 2005, her collection of wigs and mannequin heads took up so much room in her new house that she told her husband she wanted to open a wig shop. He thought she was joking.

Determined, she rented a storefront near her house with reasonable rent, but she didn’t realize the neighbors — a gas station, a paint store, a day laborer center — wouldn’t draw the kind of foot traffic she needed. Stocking the shop was another hurdle: Many wig vendors weren’t interested in the small orders Gamble was prepared to place.

But it was a customer who gave Gamble her real wake-up call. A local hospital had referred a woman to Gamble’s shop after her breast cancer diagnosis. About to start chemotherapy, the woman was all but certain to lose her hair and needed a wig.

“It was at that moment that I thought, ‘I’m not qualified to do this,’” Gamble recalls. “‘I need to find out what’s happening in this space. I need to find some resources, education, and training — and fast.’” She ended up buying a high-quality wig at a competitor’s shop at retail price and reselling it at the same price to the client: “I promised the lady I would have something for her.”

Today, Gamble is known as the Wig Dr., specializing in wigs and hairpieces for cancer patients and other people going through hair loss, with two stores in suburban Atlanta. Black women like Gamble are the new face of entrepreneurship in the U.S., more likely than white men or white women to start and run a new business, according to 2021 research by the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor.

But the research also revealed that Black women struggle to keep those businesses afloat, likely because they are usually in crowded sectors with low margins like retail and are more likely to self-fund their venture and have little collateral.

Percentage of Black women starting or running new businesses in 2021, according to the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor.

As part of its two-year-old Strivers Initiative to support Black women-owned businesses in the U.S., Mastercard partnered with Fearless Fund, a venture capital fund built by women of color for women of color. Through their Fearless Strivers grant contest, they provided Black women entrepreneurs across the U.S., including Gamble, with $10,000 grants, digital tools and mentorship through the Fearless Strivers grant contest. Mastercard this week announced it has extended its partnership with Fearless Fund and has launched the third year of the grant program.

Gamble is using the Fearless Strivers grant money for marketing and social media, including developing and sharing videos about the tools and resources she can offer women who are struggling with hair loss. “Never be afraid to show what you can do,” she says. “You never know who may need your service.”

The roots of her business

When she started her business, Gamble didn’t have the capital to build her inventory — her bank turned her down for a loan because she didn’t have a solid business plan — but she did find one vendor willing to start with a $500 order. That vendor also advised her to attend a three-day training session on the wig business, from the construction of wigs to how to work with different types to how to get to know your customer better.

“It changed my life,” she says. “It changed my entire business … When I started this journey, I thought, ‘You’ll come in, you’ll choose a wig, you’ll buy it, you’ll leave.’ But these people are coming to you because they have a problem and they’re looking for you to solve it.”

That led to more classes — Gamble even underwent training in trichology, the study of diseases related to the hair and scalp — and soon she began to build relationships with hospitals and oncology centers. Working with cancer patients, she discovered, was her calling.

“This is a business,” she says, “but this is also a ministry.”

She has clients who have called in sick to work because they’re too embarrassed about losing their hair, she says. Clients have gotten divorced because their insecurities soured their marriages.

She recalls one young girl recently diagnosed with cancer who was being bullied at school, and who feared the bullying would get worse once her hair fell out. Gamble fit her with a wig similar to her natural color and style, but Gamble went one step further — she contacted the girl’s school and held a meeting with parents to discuss how to talk to their children about classmates who may be going through similar treatment.

“The tears that are shed in here, the conversations that are had in here …,” Gamble says. “A lot of these clients and customers, they have become friends, and they have become family.”

Banner photo: Erica Gamble, right, consults with a client at her Atlanta-area wig boutique. (Photo courtesy of Erica Gamble)

Vicki Hyman, director, communications, Mastercard