Entrepreneurship and building community: Why Yaw Antwi-Adjei is a Black Changemaker
Yaw Antwi-Adjei may be best known as the co-owner of 1949 Barber Shop in St. John's, but he was reluctant to even join the business when he first moved to Newfoundland and Labrador to earn a master's of philosophy degree at Memorial University in 2016.
But now his involvement in business, sport and community building is why he has been named one of CBC's Black Changemakers in Atlantic Canada.
Antwi-Adjei had been a barber back home in Ghana and in Toronto, but when he moved to St. John's he wanted to focus on school.
His now business partner Gustavo was insistent that the pair joined forces, he said. So they did.
"I was a little bit skeptical because I just arrived here and I haven't even found my footing. I didn't even know if I was going to stay or not, so it was kind of a difficult decision," he said.
At the time, Antwi-Adjei says, the Mayor Avenue barber shop was known as the United Nations of barbershops, serving a city with growing diversity — evidenced by dozens of pins stuck in a map on the wall showing all the places around the world where their clients had come from.
At first the shop was more of a hangout, Antwi-Adjei said, but then he started making changes to the business to shore up its success.
Fast-forward to this year, 1949 Barber Shop now has two locations in St. John's — one on Torbay Road and one in the Village Mall — and employs about 16 people. Antwi-Adjei says he's now working to open a third location in Conception Bay South.
"I knew if we do things right, we're going to expand, and you cannot even think of business if you don't have the mindset of expansion," said Antwi-Adjei.
"So I'm not surprised we are where we are now."
He's also got another entrepreneurial venture in his sights.
"I buy cars — new, used — and ship them to Africa," he said.
He hopes to expand on that too, by soon opening a mechanic shop in St. John's, with retail and e-sports, as well.
More than a haircut
People who come to either of the 1949 Barber Shop locations are there for more than a trim, they come for connection.
"People come in to have fun and then have conversation and build a community," Antwi-Adjei said, pointing to the pool table in the middle of the shop at the Village Mall.
As a student of the humanities, Antwi-Adjei said, he believes listening to his clients while they're in the chair is key.
"We've created a space where people feel comfortable to talk about anything. We don't put censors on anything. We just let people express what they feel," he said.
Antwi-Adjei says they try to make sure the shop is also a place newcomers can come to get advice about integrating in their new home.
"It has been the first point of call when people arrive in St. John's.… We try our best to connect people to get well settled in the society" he said.
The community created inside the barbershop had extended beyond its doors and onto the soccer field.
Antwi-Adjei is involved in sponsoring three soccer teams under the 1949 banner.
Victor Abodunrin, originally from Nigeria, moved to the province in late 2019 to start his master's at Memorial University. He started going to the barbershop and found more than a hair cut.
"Yaw is the only person I allow to cut my hair," he said."If Yaw is not in the shop I'm not going there."
Abodunrin started playing soccer with the 1949 Barber Shop's intermediate team as a way to make friends.
"It really means a lot to me, 'cause by my personality I'm an introvert. I do not go out a lot, so this is one of the activities that gets me out of the house," Victor said during a late-night team practice at the Techniplex in St John's this month.
"And it also goes outside of soccer. If I need advice on anything, even when I was about to get my first car, I consulted him to [ask], 'What do you think about this? What do you think about that?' Our relationship now is more just a soccer club." said Abodunrin, who even attended Yaw's wedding.
Now Abodunrin is playing on another team Antwi-Adjei is co-sponsoring, one with the Mount Pearl Soccer Association that has a diverse range of ethnicities on the roster, with a dozen countries rrepresented.
"Seeing the diversity grow in the past 16 years has been amazing," said Sebastian Venegas, who moved to the province from Colombia as a refugee in 2007 when he was eight years old. He's been playing with the intermediate team for a few years and, like Abodunrin, joined the team through the barber shop.
"We feel sports is one of the best ways you can integrate people in a society. Sport has no barrier," said Antwi-Adjei. "We all speak the same language on the field of play."
Zach Martin of St. John's, who also plays on the team and co-sponsors it, met Antwi-Adjei at the barber shop in 2019. He says Antwi-Adjei's recognition as a Black Changemaker is well deserved.
"He's always connecting everybody," Martin said. "He's always bringing people together whether it's just friendships and camaraderie or business opportunities."
"If there's anyone more deserving of it, it's Yaw, because the work he's done in the community, even individually to the people he knows. He's a very lovely person," said Abodunrin.
Venegas is glad to see the recognition.
"He's a wonderful person very helpful with the community and he's just very giving so I'm happy that a good friend like that has got an award," added Venegas.
Antwi-Adjei says he doesn't take the nomination for granted.
"It's a stepping stone to do more," he said. "That's what I can say about being a Black Changemaker."