Salon owners’ love story began at Sac State

Lorena Martinez ’07 (Accountancy) was a junior in high school and taking a tour of Sacramento State organized by the College Assistance Migrant Program (CAMP) when something unexpected happened that would change her life: Her tour guide, a Sac State freshman named Alfonso ’08 (Computer Engineering), asked for her phone number.

“You meet a cute kid and you think, ‘He’s never going to call,’” Martinez says. “I really didn’t think much of it.”

A week later, however, Alfonso phoned her house. Soon they were talking daily, Alfonso making regular trips to Watsonville, where Lorena lived, for supervised dates. Eventually she joined him at Sacramento State. In 2008, they were married.

Fast-forward to today and just down the street from the campus where their story began, Lorena and Alfonso Martinez own the Colour Bar hair salon on J Street near Sac State. The venture combines Lorena’s lifelong love of hairstyling with Alfonso’s passion for entrepreneurship, but the road to being small business owners has been circuitous and often difficult.

Lorena and Alfonso Martinez 2001
Lorena and Alfonso Martinez in 2001.

The Martinezes have more in common than just Sacramento State. Both were born in Mexico and, as children, immigrated to the United States with their families. Both grew up in small California towns – Alfonso in Newman, outside of Merced, Lorena in Watsonville near Santa Cruz. Both spent part of their childhood working in the fields. And both say Sacramento State’s diversity, and the support offered through the CAMP program, were a large part of why they enjoyed their time on campus.

“I came from a small town, and Sacramento was a huge city,” Alfonso says. “But even though it was a change for me, I still felt very comfortable going to Sac State. The CAMP program helped us so much with feeling at home and being around people who we have similarities to, who have similar backgrounds – immigrant parents, working in the fields.”

Sacramento State also provided a “realistic” education, Lorena says, offering flexibility for students who needed to work while attending college and providing the practical skills, through internships and other opportunities, that would become essential upon entering the workforce.

After graduation, Lorena and Alfonso began working in their degree fields. Alfonso had a series of computer engineering jobs, and Lorena began working in the auditing department of a Bay Area accounting firm. But the deadline-driven, heavy workload environment quickly began to wear on her. On Thanksgiving 2009, as she looked at her BlackBerry baffled that she was receiving so many work-related emails on a holiday, she finally reached a breaking point.

“I was so stressed, and I remember having a meltdown and crying,” she says. “I said, ‘I can’t do this anymore,’ because I just felt overwhelmed. (Alfonso) said, ‘You’ve got to do something.’ ”

That something ended up being taking a big risk: Quitting her job in the middle of a recession, moving back to Sacramento and, in a nod to her lifelong love of hairstyling, attending beauty school and, in October 2010, opening her own salon. That’s when her connections to her alma mater began paying off.

“All of my sorority sisters and my network from Sac State made my business work because they all knew me,” she says. “Once they started seeing my work, I had tons of clients from Sac State. Without Sac State and our experience and everybody there, The Colour Bar wouldn’t be where it is right now.”

Alfonso continued to work in computer engineering and on other projects, but gradually has become more and more involved in the business, including building its web and social media presence, as it has continued to grow and serves as its CEO. They expanded to a second location in Midtown Sacramento last year and also are changing how salon owners work with hairstylists. Rather than rent salon space and work as independent contractors, The Colour Bar’s stylists are employees and receive in-house training.

“We got professional development early on from mentorship groups, from CAMP, so we know how crucial it is to someone’s success,” Lorena says. “So we’re trying to change things a bit by creating a training program to grow our talent at the hair salon.”

The couple has kept its close connection to Sacramento State. Alfonso is president of the Sac State Latino Alumni Chapter. Lorena occasionally is invited by CAMP and other organizations to speak to students on topics related to careers and doing what you love.

As for advice the successful business owners have for current students? It sounds a lot like the advice they themselves have taken since graduating from Sac State.

“Figure out what makes you happy,” Alfonso says. “People should do what makes them happy and not what other people think you should do. Nothing matters if you’re not happy. Once you’ve decided on a career path, you have to work hard and always go the extra mile. Be patient with your success, it will come.”

Former CAMPers shoot for the green at charity golf tournament

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For two sons of migrant workers, the move to Sacramento for college was a night-and-day change from their small farming community homes: Sacramento State is home to more students than the combined populations of Galt and Esparto, the respective hometowns of David Garcia and Cuahutemoc Vargas, owners and co-founders of the midtown boutique Kulture.

Despite the dramatic change of scenery, Garcia and Vargas found a home away from home on campus in the College Assistance Migrant Program (CAMP), a federally funded scholarship program that helps first-year students from migrant and seasonal farmworker backgrounds transition to and succeed in college.

Years later, the former “CAMPers” are parlaying their successful business into a way to give back to the program that gave them so much.

“Sacramento for other people might not seem that big, but to me it was,” Vargas says. “So CAMP helped me a lot and made it easier. Since they did that for me, why wouldn’t I want to give back to them?”

Since 1981, CAMP has helped thousands of students from migrant families adjust to college life. Each year, the program fosters a family-like environment for a cohort of 70 students and provides assistance with everything from financial aid and housing to tutoring and counseling.

Garcia and Vargas met at Sacramento State through mutual friends at CAMP, connecting with each other and other CAMPers through shared experiences and humor. In 2013 at the urging of friends, the duo launched their own clothing line, Keepin’ It Paisa, and two years later opened Kulture at 1006 24th St.

The store celebrates the Latino migrant experience through clothing, art, home decor, and more. Their casual wear line Keepin’ It Paisa – a play on the phrase “keeping it real” – features shirts, hoodies, and hats with Spanish-language slogans and phrases that put a twist on colloquialisms and pop culture references. All the additional art, decorations, and products are hand-selected by Garcia and Vargas with a focus on bringing in local and authentic items.

“Pretty much all of the stuff that’s in here we can relate to,” Vargas says.

“People like hearing stories about, ‘Oh, where did this come from?'” Garcia says. “So they buy the story behind it, too; it’s not just an object.”

But for the two entrepreneurs, the best byproduct of their business is the ability to provide the same opportunities CAMP provided them to the next generation of CAMPers, which is what the Keepin’ It Paisa Charity Golf Tournament is all about.

Now in its third year, the tournament raises money that benefits CAMP students. The field has expanded from 80 players its first year to more than 140 in the 2016 competition, which will be held May 27 at Cherry Island Golf Course in Elverta. Proceeds go toward scholarships and an end-of-the-year mixer for CAMP students.

“In a classroom setting, some people are going to listen and focus, some people are going to tune out,” says Garcia, who met his wife through CAMP. “But in that atmosphere, it’s different if you’re out there playing volleyball or whatever, [students] come up to you and feel more comfortable.”

Few better understand the impact of CAMP than Vargas and Garcia; today, they are able to inspire a new generation of CAMPers to pursue their loftiest aspirations.

“I want to let people know that, yes, you can do it,” Vargas says. “Even if it doesn’t work out, go for it and follow your instincts. Don’t be afraid.”

Click here for more information about the Keepin It Paisa Golf Tournament and how to register.