Honestly, he's driven to succeed

A barber who turned his life around wants to be an example of self-reliance and vision.

Published October 4, 2006

ST. PETERSBURG - After fathering a child at 17 and then running afoul of the law, Justin Brothers had dubious prospects, but he was oblivious to it.

"I was into females and that was about it," said Brothers, now 24. "When you're young, you don't see the future, just what's in front of you."

Time in jail changed all that, Brothers said, and he's trying to make up for lost time. After earning a high school diploma, learning how to cut hair and honing his business skills, Brothers has opened Against the Grain Barbershop at 1504 16th St. S.

"I made a lot of mistakes early on," Brothers said. "Now it's time to make it happen."

Brothers grew up in the 13th Street Heights neighborhood but never dreamed he'd have a business in Midtown or anywhere. He credits his incarceration as the key to his turnaround.

"Jail is a bad place, but for me it was good," he said of his 2001 three-month stint in the Pinellas County Jail for helping a friend sell some stolen shoes and driving with a suspended license. "I had no distractions, so I could think about what I was doing."

Brothers got out and went right to work changing his life. He married and went to barber school. He worked for a year and saved his money. He bought a home, but also bought other property and flipped it for a quick profit.

He completed the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce's Entrepreneurial Academy. Then he bought into his barbershop, which was recognized by the city in a new-business celebration last month.

"I wanted to have my own business because you can't get rich working for others," Brothers said. "I also wanted to be an example to others."

Brothers is trying to arrange speaking engagements at high schools so he can share his experience with others who might have the same outlook he once did. He knows he hasn't yet made it, but feels he has the understanding and the gumption to go far.

"A lot of businesses in the black community feel they're not getting support from the community," he said. "My philosophy is that business has to be earned."

Brothers picks the brains of other business people. He coordinates with others in the 16th Street Plaza. He works his shop with two other black barbers and a beautician who cares for female clients, but he plans to hire a Hispanic barber and a white barber so he can appeal beyond the African-American community.

"It's kind of silly to open a business and hope Midtown is going to hold you," he said.

The shop is bright and clean with three chairs and a small, yellow car on a pedestal for young customers. He has a big-screen TV and invites people in after hours to watch sporting events. He has only been open a month but is happy with the traffic he has seen.

Brothers is taking the gathering-place nature of the barbershop and building on it.

In addition to welcoming people to come and talk, he encourages networking and business coordination. He plans to install a job board in the shop so people can come there to find opportunities. He said the community has to make itself successful.

"We have to do it. It's not about the mayor or City Council," said Brothers, who plans to open a string of shops in the next several years. "If this business fails, it's me, not because the man didn't do anything."

Brothers said he plans to expand this business but also to branch into real estate development and other opportunities he discusses with his friends and customers. He is eager to give back to the community and to hear of its concerns.

"If I'm going to do any good, I've got to know the problems of the community," he said. "Who knows. I may run for mayor someday."

Paul Swider can be reached at 892-2271 or pswider@sptimes.com or by participating in itsyourtimes.com.