Modern Original People: Jane Carter

Jane Carter is a force to be reckoned with. A born entrepreneur, she opened Breezin Hair Salon in Cranford, New Jersey in 1982 where she catered to a diverse clientele.
“My clients included high-lift blondes and women with locs, and they’d have conversations with each other that they never would have had anywhere else,” says Carter. “They were the kind of women who were fully conscious, who didn’t turn away when they passed you on the street. These are the people who can change the world.”

For her part, Carter has been changing the world or at least her little corner of it for decades. If she sees injustice, she sets out to rectify it. When her daughter Cali was in high school and questioned why the academic system wasn’t geared toward different learning styles, Carter, who describes her own learning style as “off-the-chart kinesthetic,” began working with at-risk kids. Some of those same kids still come to her house every Friday night for pizza.

When her youngest daughter Lexi was in high school, she spent a summer in Honduras as a volunteer with Amigos de las Americas, a nonprofit that challenges young people to become catalysts for social change. “When she came home she showed me a picture of some of the kids she worked with,” says Carter, who noticed one little boy standing off to the side. Subsequently, she learned that his name was Anthony and that he had a clubfoot, which made it impossible for him to wear shoes. Apparently in Honduras, children who couldn’t wear shoes couldn’t attend school.  That’s when Carter sprang into action, contacting someone at Doctors Without Borders and arranging for surgery. Ultimately Carter’s company assumed most of the cost, but Lexi got a summer job to make up the difference.

Then when Lexi was in college, she came home with three boys and a girl, all Haitian refugees who had been living with their grandmother. “I ended up taking them all in,” says Carter as if it was the most natural thing in the world. For the record, they still live with her.

None of this comes as a surprise if you know her history. In 1962 when she was only six years old, Carter was the first black student to enroll at the previously all-white Cook School in Plainfield, New Jersey. Let’s jus say that it did not go well. Aside from the pack of photographers snapping her picture, there were angry parents to contend with, not to mention resentful teachers and students, who she describes as “fearful of change.” At the time, however, Carter was too young to grasp the sociological implications of her situation. All she knew was that she felt excluded. “I didn’t know how to articulate what I was feeling so I internalized it.”

Years later Carter discovered the Landmark Forum, which is designed to bring about positive, permanent shifts in your quality of life in just three days. The goal is to give people an awareness of the basic structures in which they know, think and act from in their lives, allowing them to uncover and examine blind spots that limit each of us from achieving what’s possible. Carter puts it more succinctly. “Basically, you learn that who you think you are isn’t really who you are and that what you’ve decided about yourself is just a function of all your past experiences.” For Carter, those feelings of exclusion she experienced as a child surfaced right away. “I went right back to the school integration thing: I don’t belong, I’m not wanted. That’s what I’d been telling myself for years.”

Carter wanted more for her own daughters, who spent far less time than their mother wondering if they were good enough. When she was 11, Lexi spent the summer in Grenoble, France, as part of Children’s International Summer Village, while Cali went to Argentina at the same age.  “The objective was to get them to realize that we’re more alike than we are different,” says Carter, who took her parenting philosophy from Kahil Gibran, author of The Prophet. “He believed that our children come through us but they don’t belong to us; they belong to the world,” she says. Today Lexi works for The United Negro College Fund, while Cali designs jewelry for Lorraine Schwartz, whose clients include Beyonce, Blake Lively and Kim Kardashian. “I called Cali one day and she says, ‘Mom, I’m with Cardi B. I have to call you back,’” says Carter with an unmistakable note of pride.

A fierce advocate of diversity, Carter notes that in 2010 demographics had shifted enough in this country that for the first time ever, 50.5 percent of the population was non-white. For Carter, those numbers represent an opportunity, one that she recognized long before she had the statistics to support her theory that ignoring large groups of people is not only socially irresponsible but also fiscally irresponsible.

Because there was no hair care line on the market that addressed the needs of her diverse clientele, Carter joined the Society of Cosmetic Chemists and created her own. “For years my kids thought that everyone’s basement was where your mother did the laundry on one side and formulated hair care products on the other,” she laughs. Still, she had a hard time convincing other salon owners that her products worked across all demographics. She still shakes her head when recalling a sales pitch she made to a large chain of drugstores that had devoted roughly four feet of shelf space to “ethnic hair care.” “I didn’t even know what that meant, ethnic hair care,” she says. “I mean, I understood the psychology, but this was the 21stcentury and the word ethnic meant something entirely different.” Carter’s own children are bi-racial. Their father’s grandparents, she explains, were Jews who escaped the Holocaust, came to New York City and raised their family in Alphabet City.

Eventually, people came around, and by 2005 her company, Jane Carter Solutions, was so successful that Carter was able to sell her salon and devote herself fulltime to expanding her business. Never one to let the grass grow under her feet, Carter has been writing a book calledCalm Down, Gurl. She’s also set up an LLC called Distinctly Diverse and would like to open a color bar with the same name. “I’d like to be the voice of diversity in beauty,” says the woman who saw the writing on the wall long before anyone else. It’s a safe bet that if anyone can do it, Jane Carter can.