North Carolina has natural hair care schools for braiders, but Kristy Béké does not need classes. She learned to braid as a child while growing up in Benin, a West African nation where the skill is embedded in the culture.
“It’s natural to us,” says Béké, the owner of Bignon Hair Studio and two other braiding salons in Charlotte. “Whenever women get together, we sit down and talk. And before you know it, someone is braiding someone else’s hair.”
Mothers, aunts, grandmothers, sisters and friends have passed on their knowledge in this manner for centuries—without needing books or formal instruction. They are self-taught masters of their craft, but their training is not good enough for the North Carolina Board of Cosmetic Art Examiners.
Regulators require braiders to complete 300 hours in a state-approved program before earning income in their chosen occupation, no matter how much skill and experience they have. Tuition often tops $3,000, but the actual costs are higher due to lost wages while not working. Béké says the education requirement keeps braiders, who are mostly women, in an impoverished state.
North Carolina did not require a license to braid hair until 2010. So Béké, like many others, could practice her craft without unnecessary regulation. Under the current state law, Béké is still free to work because of a grandfather clause. But the rules prevent her from hiring talented braiders who lack the proper license.
Some job applicants cannot afford tuition, which means they must walk away from their chosen occupation or work in the shadows. Other braiders go to school, but then find themselves teaching their classmates because nobody on the faculty can match their skills.
Béké describes the situation as frustrating. “You’re trying to make an honest living by helping people and not relying on the government,” she says. “But the state makes it hard. There’s simply no reason for us to learn what we already know how to do.”
She has a point. Imagine sending Charlotte Hornets guard LaMelo Ball to remedial basketball camp because he lacks formal schooling. The experience would be a waste of time and money for Ball and other NBA stars without diplomas. “We know how to learn,” Ball tells GQ magazine. “We don’t need school.”
Fortunately for him, professional athletes do not have a mandatory education requirement in North Carolina. Neither do chefs, mechanics, personal trainers, crane operators, city bus drivers, journalists, business managers, actors, artists or musicians. All of these workers can make money without vocational or post-secondary education. Programs are available, but enrollment is voluntary.
North Carolina needs similar rules for braiders. They could take short courses to learn health and sanitation standards—similar to food handlers—but attendance at natural hair care schools would be optional. Under the reform, North Carolina would join 24 other states that allow braiders to operate with little or no licensing.
The change makes sense. Government has an obligation to protect public health and safety, which is why North Carolina regulates the beauty industry. But unlike cosmetology, braiding does not involve harsh chemicals, heat or irreversible processes. Even in worst-case scenarios, consumer risks are low.
A better model for oversight already exists in the restaurant industry, which is more closely tied to public health and safety than braiding. Culinary schools offer training for aspiring chefs, but most states do not require culinary professionals to take tests or become licensed.
Oversight boards focus instead on facility inspections at the places where people actually prepare and serve food. The system shifts the burden onto restaurants to supervise their staff. They can hire whomever they want, but they risk closure if they fail to prevent code violations.
Beauty salons face similar inspections, but individual workers still get singled out and punished if they skip their government-mandated classes. “Beauty School Debt and Drop-Outs,” a 2021 report from the Institute for Justice, shows how the system traps cosmetology students in debt.
The burden is lower for North Carolina braiders, who must complete fewer classroom hours. But the barriers are still too high. Béké and other salon owners need state lawmakers to get regulators out of their hair, so they can focus on their craft rather than bureaucratic knots that hinder job creation.
Jessica Poitras is an attorney and Daryl James is a writer at the Institute for Justice in Arlington, Va.