The week before Katie Steller opened her hair salon, she loaded a red stylist chair into her car and drove around Minneapolis offering free haircuts to people experiencing homelessness. After the first cut, she wanted to keep serving, and she hasn’t stopped since. Owner and founder of Steller Hair Co. in Northeast Minneapolis, Katie has embraced her career as a stylist as an opportunity to show up for others, which she does not only in her salon, but through two outside initiatives designed to help promote small acts of kindness in her community. We sat down with Katie to talk about creating inviting spaces, seeing others, and the transformative power of being kind.
May 27, 2022
Why did you become a hair stylist?
The first time I went to a hair salon was when I was 18. I had been living with an auto-immune disorder for seven years, and my sickness was the worst it had ever been. My hair and eyelashes were falling out, and I had gotten used to my identity just being “Sick Katie.” But my mom set up a professional haircut for me, and when I sat down in the chair, the stylist made me feel seen for who I really was—not just Sick Katie. She listened to me, we talked about things other than illness, which I wasn’t used to, and she cut and styled my hair in a way that made me feel confident and beautiful. I felt like a real person, not just someone defined by my circumstances, and I realized I wanted to give that feeling to others.
"If even one person feels cared about, valued, or less alone by being in my salon, then I’ve succeeded."
How has that experience inspired how you've built your business?
Since day one, I’ve set out to create spaces and experiences where people feel seen, heard, valued, and less alone. I want you to walk into my salon and immediately feel like you belong. Because no matter who you are, what you believe, what you look like, or what you’ve been through, you are welcome here. This is a place where you can be yourself.
What do you think makes your industry a good fit for that work?
As hair stylists, we have such a unique opportunity to connect with people. Outside the medical field, there aren’t many professions where you get to sit with somebody for 45 minutes to three hours on a regular basis and talk to them, touch them, change their appearance, and really listen. It’s a place where relationships are built in a very up-close way.
What do you hope those relationships lead to?
Years after that first haircut my mom scheduled for me, I met up with the stylist and told her how much that day meant to me. She responded by saying, “Katie, I didn’t treat you abnormally. I treated you like I would any client. You were in my chair. You were my focus.” When she said that, I realized that you never know how powerful an act of human kindness can be. My stylist didn’t sit me down in that chair and think, “This girl is going to go to hair school, open her own salon, and start a nonprofit because of this.” Her goal was simply to make me feel beautiful and cared about. And that one small act of kindness ignited the trajectory of my whole life. So, if even one person feels cared about, valued, or less alone by being in my salon, then I’ve succeeded. Because a small act of kindness might change someone’s life.
"People don’t need to be saved; they need to be seen."
How have you expanded that mindset outside your salon?
I started two outside projects: the Steller Kindness Project and the Red Chair Project. Steller Kindness is a collection of online stories from interviews I do with people nominated by others because of their small acts of kindness. It’s a digital space where people can see all kinds of positive things happening in their community that may otherwise go overlooked. As for the Red Chair Project, it actually started before I even opened the salon, when I first had the idea to drive around Minneapolis with one of my chairs and offer free haircuts to people experiencing homelessness. Once the salon opened in 2013, the project paused, but we revived it in 2019 to keep giving free haircuts, having conversations with people, and helping them feel seen.
Is there a particular story from those projects that stands out?
I remember a moment from a Red Chair Project event back in 2020. We were giving free haircuts at an encampment of people experiencing homelessness, and I gave a cut to this girl who was younger than me. I spent most of the haircut kneeling in front of her while she cried. She shared that, before the pandemic, she had been clean from heroin and moving forward with her life, but once COVID hit, she fell back into an unhealthy relationship, found out she had HIV, and started using heroin again. We’re sitting in public as she is unloading all of this on me, and my heart is breaking. But I really just took that opportunity to listen to her and let her know that she’s a good person. That the fact that she was clean is incredible and the fact that she got back into it is not a reflection of her weakness. We had this long conversation, and, afterwards, I told her that if she ever needed a haircut to come find me. About a year later, she reached out for another haircut because she was getting ready for a job interview. She told me she had been clean for six months, living in transitional housing, and planning to go back to school. She said our conversation inspired her to get to a place where she can give back to others. That was such a gift to me—to actually hear how somebody used a simple haircut and conversation as a catalyst. And it just showed me that people don’t need to be saved; they need to be seen.
"Even though we can’t fully fix someone’s problems, we can be present with them, even for a moment."
What are you building?
I want to help build a world where kindness is more contagious than fear. I think people sometimes minimize what an act of kindness can be, and they feel like if they can’t do some grand gesture, they might as well do nothing at all. Fear of the unknown—of not saying the right words or doing the right thing—can keep us frozen, and I want to give people confidence to overcome that fear and lead with kindness instead. I’m not saying you have to stop beside the person holding a sign on the side of the road and give them everything you have. But maybe you can smile, say hello, or even just wave. Because it’s not about what you give, it’s about the effort you put forward to see somebody as a person.
What drives you to get there?
I want people to feel less alone, like I did during the haircut my mom set up for me when I was 18. Even though we can’t fully fix someone’s problems, we can be present with them, even for a moment. That’s the root of why I started all of this, and I go back to it over and over.