By Erica Wright
The Birmingham Times
What began as a hobby has become a very rewarding career for Ebony Malkia.
“When I first started, it was just about doing my nails and my friends’ nails. … When I decided to get serious about it, I was like, ‘Oh, yeah! This is something I could really make some money doing,’ but it wasn’t about making money when I first started,” said Malkia, 42, a licensed nail technician and owner of FingerPaints Nail Studio in Five Points West.
Malkia, who has been doing nails professionally for about 14 years, specializes in acrylic and gel nail tips. She also does encapsulated nail art and any kind of nail design or art a client wants.
“I work on the things people can’t stand, like their nails popping off, chipping, and lifting,” she said. “You don’t find those things [at my salon] because I was taught very well, and I teach [nail techs who work with me] the things I’ve learned, such as which primers, products, and techniques to use with each person. Everybody is different, so you want to customize each set of nails to each client.”
Malkia has five employees: a makeup artist, two nail technicians, and two receptionists. She is currently looking for more licensed technicians as business picks up during spring and summer months. She is also big on helping others who are trying to make a living, and her current location is big enough for others to put their merchandise on display.
“On the walls, there’s artwork from Executive Art, a company run by four black guys who do T-shirts. We have their original paintings, which we put on the walls and sell,” Malkia said. “I also have accessories in the case by the door from a girl who makes jewelry. … [My salon offers] space that other people can use to sell their brands, too. I like it.”
Malkia said it’s imperative that black businesses seek partnership opportunities: “It’s the only way we’re going to be able to continue to let our black dollars circulate throughout our community without leaving it.”
“The more we’re able to identify other businesses and things going on, the more we can spend our money within our own. I do that for other people because I wish somebody had been there to do that for me and because I have a platform to do it. I want to be able to use everything I can to help whoever I can. It’s organic. You have to do it. There’s enough for everybody, and there’s no need to be greedy. We all can eat.”
Malkia, a Detroit, Mich., native, grew up in the Motor City with her mother and two older brothers.
“I was raised by a single mother who put herself through college, worked her way up to management, and has been in management for as long as I can remember,” said Malkia, whose mother started as a registered nurse then took a position in the health insurance business. “Growing up, I was an athlete, and I did every extracurricular activity known to man.”
After graduating from Detroit’s Northwestern High School, she attended Alabama State University (ASU) in Montgomery, Ala. After a year in college, she returned to Detroit, where she got married and had her son, Jasun Overton, now 23.
In the early 2000s, Malkia moved to Jackson, Miss., where her mother had taken a job. Moving from Detroit to a much-slower-paced city was a culture shock, she said.
“I had no idea what was going on, but it was starting to become really clear by the way black folks were living … that the South is slow, period. … You look at it a certain kind of way, but when you get to Mississippi, it’s like, ‘Goodness.’ There’s a lot of stuff they’re just not exposed to, so it’s definitely a different way of living.”
For example, when Malkia first moved to Magnolia State, she had blonde hair and hazel contact lenses. People were not used to seeing black people like that.
“It was just a little bit slower as far as trends and things getting there,” she said. “It was just the way of life, too. It was a small town, … and everything was kind of part of an inner circle. … They didn’t really go outside [of Mississippi] to find entertainment. They didn’t go outside of their particular little culture to look for trends.”
In Mississippi, Malkia worked as a bartender and waitress, and she did nails for friends as a hobby.
“It was just something I did because one of my best friends did hair,” she said. “I’ve always kind of been tied to the beauty industry in one way or another. … Nails were probably the closest thing I felt I had a talent to do, … and it just morphed into something I could do.”
“No Power and No Police”
Malkia left Mississippi and moved to Birmingham after Hurricane Katrina hit on Aug. 23, 2005.
“I’ll never forget that day. It started off beautiful, and then all hell broke loose,” she said. “My son was young, and it was just [the two of us] in the house. We didn’t expect to get as much damage as we did. The power went out early that day, and we had no power and no gas for a few weeks.”
In addition to having no power, there were no police.
“[I was] scared because I didn’t know who was going to come up,” Malkia said. “Nighttime made me very anxious because it was dark, and I never knew what to expect. After a while, we couldn’t take it anymore, so we moved [to Birmingham].”
Perfecting Her Craft
After moving to Birmingham, where her mother had been living and working for about a year, Malkia spent hours looking a job at a nail salon and found one at a spa on Highway 280.
“They were hiring for an apprentice,” she said. “I worked for about $7.50 an hour, … doing manicures and pedicures.”
She stayed at that location for a few months, and then she was offered an opportunity at another nail salon, Chic Nails in Hueytown, owned by Don Nguyen, who helped Malkia further hone her craft.
“I would sit next to him and learn how to do [manicures and pedicures],” she said. “When he saw I was interested, he was like, ‘OK, let me show you how.’ Once I learned, that was it. There were three other black girls working in the salon, but I was the only one who sat next to [the owner] and learned how to do nails.”
Malkia worked at Chic Nails for about a year, then she went on to work at a few other nail shops and black-owned hair salons, where she perfected her craft and sharpened her customer focus.
“I was the only nail technician, and it was my first self-employed place. … It was very eye-opening,” she said. “I asked a lot of questions, … like, ‘Am I doing this right?’ or ‘Is this how you like it?’”
Eventually, Malkia opened her first shop, Nails Unlimited in Center Point.
“That was really the first time I was like, ‘Oh, maybe I can have my own business.’ I was able to start building my business in that salon because I had my own room … and wasn’t renting a booth.”
Caring for Clients
Malkia opened her first FingerPaints Nail Studio location in Ensley in 2014, and it was the first time she hired her own employees.
“It’s been a long road,” she said. “I never expected to do all of this. I was just trying to do nails and trying to make a living. That’s all that was about. [Running my own business has been] freeing but still nerve-racking because I realized people were looking to me as a leader. Realizing that is a part of being a successful business owner, and I didn’t know that at the time. It was something I had to learn.”
Still, Malkia’s ability to understand and empathize with her nearly 300 customers has made her successful.
“[I ask] a lot of questions [to find out] what they want and what they need me to do. … I just care about what my clients want and need,” she said.
FingerPaints Nail Studio is open Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.; for more information, call 205-997-9006 or check out the shop on Facebook at FingerPaints Nail Studio.
-This article was updated on April 25, 2019 at 3:38 p.m. to correct that Malkia does not do SNS or dip powder.